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The Twilight Zone, Season 2

Episode 1: King Nine Will Not Return. Aired September 30, 1960.

A bomber pilot (Bob Cummings) finds himself alone next to his crashed bomber. He can’t find his crew, and some fighter jets fly overhead, even though combat jets didn’t exist yet.

Go with what works! If your first season began with an amnesiac military man, start your second season with the same plot! I am not a fan of this episode, not just because it’s a retread of themes that got a lot of exercise in the first season, but because it’s another one where a lone character has to say everything he’s thinking out loud so the audience can follow along.

I had gotten so used to the first season’s Bernard Hermann theme that Marius Constant’s much more famous guitar and bongos theme was a shock. In a good way. Fun fact! The episode was based on the 1958 discovery of a B24 bomber that had crashed on its first mission in 1943 in the Libyan desert. And William Shatner starred in a 1970 TV movie about the real mission, causing yet another connection between Twilight Zone and Star Trek.

Episode 2: The Man in the Bottle. Aired October 7, 1960.

The proprietors (Luther Adler and Vivi Janiss) of a rundown antique shop are a tad surprised when a dapper genie (Joseph Ruskin) emerges from a recent acquisition. He offers them four wishes, but warns them that all wishes have consequences.

This is a perfect episode. I wouldn’t change a frame of it. From the dowdy opening to the gonzo climax, the tension and black comedy increase in perfectly timed bursts, with delightful little touches sprinkled liberally throughout: the steadily louder ticking of clocks in the shop, the perplexed taxman peeping back through the window after giving them the bad news, Adler’s astounded recitation of where we find him after the third wish. I can’t remember the last time I’ve laughed out loud twice while watching a TV show or movie by myself.

There are behind-the-scenes things I could tell you about, but it would give away the best part.

Episode 3: Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room. Aired October 14, 1960.

Jackie (Joe Mantell), the titular nervous man, argues with his conscience after being told by his mobster boss (William D. Gordon) to kill a bar owner. All action takes place in the titular four dollar room.

CBS told Serling to economize by writing scripts that used as few actors as possible. Despite that, and despite Mantell’s efforts to cope with the limited sets and one-man show by overplaying his toadyishness, it’s not bad for a “guy talks out loud so the audience can follow along” episode, especially once his conscience appears in the mirror and lectures him. But I worry that there will be more of this economizing going on as the series progresses.

Episode 4: A Thing about Machines. Aired October 28, 1960.

A rich misanthrope (Richard Haydn) has a problem with machines: they want to drive him crazy and/or kill him.

I like the steady darkening of the tone, from the light comedy of the opening scenes when we’re introduced to Finchley, through the dark comedy of the middle scene when his appliances start to harass him, to the outright horror of the closing scenes. I’m guessing Stephen King is a big fan of this one. I just mentioned him to increase traffic.

Episode 5: The Howling Man. Aired November 4, 1960.

Lost in a storm, an American comes upon a hermitage inhabited by the reclusive monks of the Order of Truth. They don’t welcome visitors, mostly because they’re convinced they have the Devil himself locked in a cell.

This is an old-school gonzo Universal Horror style episode, adapted by Charles Beaumont from his own story, and I cannot be happier about this. It even has Universal vet John Carradine as the possibly insane cult leader. Cinematographer George Clemens has his mobile camera set on crazy, with liberal use of Dutch angles (a way of tilting the camera so everything onscreen looks canted and unnatural). The Gothic scenery, designed by 13-time Oscar nominated set designer Henry Grace, is torn asunder and consumed with relish by all involved. As it should be.

Episode 6: The Eye of the Beholder. Aired November 11, 1960.

A woman waits anxiously until the day the bandages covering her face are removed, revealing whether the latest medical techniques have managed to fix her horrific visage.

Yes, this show is almost 60 years old, and it may seem a little silly to worry about spoilers in something that old. But so many of these episodes include an important twist, and it seems like giving away that twist isn’t very nice. Like with this episode: I’m sure I’d never seen it before watching it last night. I made the mistake of googling the title, and the twist was ruined immediately. So if you haven’t seen this episode, don’t google the title before you see it. It’s very good, and technically proficient given the limited budget. It’s one of the best episodes so far.

Episode 7: Nick of Time. Aired November 18, 1960.

A couple on their honeymoon (William Shatner and Patricia Breslin) stop at a diner to wait for their car to be fixed. In the booth is a “Mystic Seer” fortune telling machine (think magic 8-ball with an evil clown face) that will answer your question for a penny. Shatner has a lot of pennies.

It’s William Shatner! In a Twilight Zone episode! I’m so happy. He’s six years younger and handsomer than he was in Star Trek, which is a bonus. He’s great in this episode, too, as is Breslin. The story, an original teleplay by Richard Matheson, starts out rather silly, and I found myself making rude comments about Shatner’s gullibility out loud, because I was alone in my house. But it’s by design, and I’m not sure of the exact moment when it really grabbed me, when it got scary. There’s a shot in the double ending that ranks among my favorite moments in the series thus far.

Episode 8: The Lateness of the Hour. Aired December 2, 1960.

A young woman chafes at being cooped up in the house with her elderly parents and their gaggle of servants. It was bound to happen: kids are practically programmed to be rebellious.

This was one of six episodes that were filmed on video in an attempt to cut down on costs. That video was then filmed on 16mm, creating what’s known as a kinescope. It looks like shit. The original video quality was poor enough, and the additional step just degraded things even more. It looks like a bad video of a stage play, since the bulky video cameras didn’t allow for the dynamic camera movements that usually characterize the show. The story is a good one, and I wish it hadn’t been ruined by bean-counters. And it didn’t even save any money, so they went back to film.

Episode 9: The Trouble with Templeton. Aired December 9, 1960.

An aging Broadway actor wallows in nostalgia for the good old days on the morning he’s supposed to start rehearsal for a new play directed by a brash young director. He discovers that the good old days weren’t as great as he remembers when he’s transported back to 1927, like something in a Twilight Zone episode.

This was fun! It started out in a familiar fashion but took a bit of a turn once Templeton arrived back in his past, then managed to surprise me with its resolution of that plot. In a show that racks up a timeless image about every other episode, the fadeout at the speakeasy has to be in the top ten.

The screenwriter, E. Jack Neuman, is a new name to me, but he was a prodigious TV writer and producer who wrote for dozens of TV shows and created the mammoth miniseries “Inside the Third Reich” which I remember my parents not allowing me to watch when I was a kid. And a very young Sydney Pollack is in the cast! He plays the brash new director of the play Templeton is supposed to star in. Finally, Brian Aherne was a matinee idol who aged gracefully into a respected character actor, and he was once married to Joan Fontaine. He also wrote a truly great biography of George Sanders, “A Dreadful Man.” I love it when this show manages to bridge different eras of pop culture.

Episode 10: A Most Unusual Camera. Aired December 10, 1960.

A pair of crooks (Fred Clark and Jean Carson) rob an antique store and end up with a camera that takes photos of five minutes in the future. Armed with the camera and Carson’s witless brother (Adam Williams), they use it to get rich at the racetrack, but as they say, there is no honor among thieves, nor among helpful French waiters.

I’ve complained in the past about silly episodes, but I’m nothing if not inconsistent, and I liked this one quite a bit. The trio of dimwits operate as a savvy parody of hardboiled crooks, and the casting is brilliant. Wikipedia tells me that Serling wrote Jean Carson’s part with her in mind, and she’s a perfect blend of hardboiled dame and dumb blonde; her excellent comic timing provides the episode’s biggest payoff. Fred Clark, too, had a career that was equal parts hardboiled and comedic, while Williams’s roles were almost all tough guys and crooks.

Episode 11: The Night of the Meek. Aired December 23, 1960.

A wino (Art Carney) whose only job is playing Santa Clause at a department store gets a dose of the Christmas spirit when he finds a magical bag that allows him to give people in need the gifts they most desire.

OK, if you’re going to be mawkish and sentimental, and you’re going to have a 25-minute Christmas episode containing not one, not two, but three speeches about the true meaning of Christmas, you might as well do it like this. It won me over with a bit of comedy: the officious department store manager (John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet), having been summoned to the police station to identify the obviously stolen goods in Carney’s sack, reaches in and pulls out a yowling alley cat. And it kept me with a bit of sentiment: when that same officious department store manager asks for what he most desires, Carney pulls out a bottle of cherry brandy.

This is one of the six episodes the penny-pinchers at the studio insisted be filmed on video and then kinoscoped, and the result again looks like an old home video of a stage play. There’s a bit more camera movement in this one than in the last one, but you could only lug those enormous things around so much. You can tell they were trying to save money in other ways, too: we see only four, not the usual eight, of Santa’s reindeer in the final scene.

Episode 12: Dust. Aired January 6, 1961.

A sleazy peddler (Thomas Gomez), not satisfied with having sold the sheriff (John Larch) a new rope to hang a drunken wagon driver (John Alonzo) who killed a child, or having taunted the condemned man, or having crowed about the upcoming hanging in front of the grieving parents of the child he ran down, sells magic dust to the man’s father (Vladimir Sokoloff) to prevent the hanging.

This episode is as somber as they come. Even the dimestore sets, and the fact that you can see the seams in the painted backdrops, add to an atmosphere that’s not doom so much as people waiting for the wind to finish drying them up and blowing them away.

Thomas Gomez is back! Yay! If you love film noir, you should watch him in Ride the Pink Horse. And John Alonzo, as an actor! He was one of the great unrecognized geniuses of cinematography (Chinatown, Scarface, Harold and Maude, Vanishing Point). And Vladimir Sokoloff, the Russian who quite possibly played characters of every single ethnicity that Hollywood attempted to depict. It was a different time.

Episode 13: Back There. Aired January 13, 1961.

The Professor from Gilligan’s Island gets transported back in time from the early 1960s to the eve of Abe Lincoln’s assassination, along the way meeting John Wilkes Booth and proving Fritz Leiber’s Law of Conservation of Reality.

I’m a sucker for time travel stories, and when you throw in Abe Lincoln and the Professor from Gilligan’s Island, well, you have my attention. I like how matter-of-fact this one is about how it works: Corrigan and his rich buddies are conversing about whether it would be possible to change the past, and voila, he’s in the past after a lap dissolve. The episode doesn’t pretend to be logical about anything, including why nobody will listen to him when he shouts about someone trying to assassinate Lincoln, or why the cops would just turn him over to some rando with a business card, or, well, anything. But that doesn’t matter. If I wanted everything to make sense I’d be watching a different show.

Episode 14: The Whole Truth. Aired January 20, 1961.

A used car huckster (Jack Carson) gets taken when he buys a magical beater that forces him to tell the truth until he manages to sell it.

This might be my least favorite episode so far. There are a couple of moments where it works, like when Carson realizes that he’s no longer able to lie, which takes away about three-quarters of his operational language. But it’s the third of the kinoscoped episodes in this season–recorded on enormous video cameras and then filmed off a screen on 16mm–so the mobile camera and depth of field we’re used to are absent, replaced by a lurching sort of crane shot at the beginning and the feeling of watching an old videotape throughout. The broad comedy, too, especially the then-topical political joke that closes the episode, mostly falls flat. Perhaps Carson should have instead sold the magical car to JFK, who was inaugurated on the day this episode aired.

Episode 15: The Invaders. Aired January 27, 1961.

Small humanoid aliens besiege a woman in her primitive cabin.

That’s more like it! This is one of the best in the series so far, and it uses everything that makes this show so great. There’s a fantastic guest performance by four-time Oscar nominee (and Endora from Bewitched) Agnes Moorehead, who never utters a word (just cries of pain and gasps) as she battles the invaders, pantomiming like a silent movie queen (I mean that as a compliment). There’s the kickass score by Jerry Goldsmith, which ramps up the tension with this weird discordant violin sound that I can’t explain because I don’t know shit about how music works. It looks stupendous: cinematographer George Clemens roams around the claustrophobic set finding increasingly amazing shots and angles; the editing is beat-perfect; and director Douglas Heyes ties everything together into a perfect tapestry of tension. The invaders themselves are classic Twilight Zone, as they appear like silly toys at first, gradually becoming more and more ominous. And Richard Matheson’s script delivers an all-time great twist. More like this, please.

Episode 16: A Penny for Your Thoughts. Aired February 3, 1961.

The first Darrin from Bewitched is a meek bank clerk whose lucky coin flip allows him to read people’s thoughts for a while.

Dick York follows his future TV mother-in-law Agnes Moorehead into the Twilight Zone in a mild comedy of redemption. I like York, so the episode can coast a bit on his charm; and I like the unexpected resolution of the inside job subplot. It’s not a bad entry, just a bit forgettable, and I don’t have a lot to say about it.

Episode 17: Twenty Two. Aired February 10, 1961.

A hospitalized dancer (Barbara Nichols) has a recurring nightmare that ends in the morgue. Room for one more, honey.

This is a great episode, with a little asterisk next to “great.” It’s one of the six episodes from season 2 that were shot on video and then kinoscoped on 16mm, making them look like home videos of stage plays. And it kind of works here. I hated it in the others that I’ve seen from this season, but there was something eerie about the flattening effect that worked, especially during the nightmare scenes, where Nichols seemed to be buried in the background of the shots even when she was the subject.

It helps that it’s such a fantastic story. It’s Serling’s adaptation of Bennett Cerf’s 1944 adaptation of E.F. Benson’s 1906 story “The Bus-Conductor,” but it probably goes back well before Benson’s version as a scary story to tell in the dark. It’s had a long life: Benson’s version was adapted for the kickass 1944 horror anthology film “Dead of Night,” which you must go watch if you like scary things and also living ventriloquists’ dummies. And it even made its way onto a Queensryche album, so you know it’s good.

Episode 18: The Odyssey of Flight 33. Aired February 24, 1961.

The flight crew of a New York bound jet realizes that the plane is flying at an impossible speed in an update of the Flying Dutchman myth. Weird shit ensues.

This is a perfect episode. Most of the action takes place in the cramped cockpit of a Boeing 707, where the four sweaty men of the flight crew, and sometimes the head flight attendant, struggle to figure out what’s happening. Far from being a limitation, the tiny set (a life-size model of the 707 created for training purposes) is an asset, as the camera seems to creep in on the actors, and we can almost smell the sour sweat of their panic. And although I hate to obsess about spoilers in a TV show that’s almost 60 years old, all I will say about the ending is that it’s unimprovable, a mix of fatalism with a dash of hope that lingers.

Episode 19: Mr. Dingle, the Strong. Aired March 3, 1961.

A hapless vacuum cleaner salesman (Burgess Meredith) goes from punching bag to superhero when a two-headed alien from Mars chooses him for an experiment in increased strength. But nothing works out for Mr. Dingle for very long.

I’ve complained before about comedic episodes, but I realize that they had to keep everyone in the audience happy, and so there were going to be comedic episodes. At least this one starred the great Burgess Meredith as Dingle in a wonderful performance. His pantomimes when he prepared to impress his audience with feats of strength (usually involving breaking something) were priceless. The supporting cast, peopled with “hey I recognize that guy” types, mugs appropriately, and Don Rickles, oddly but perfectly cast as a bully, is a nice counterpoint to Meredith. But this one lives and dies on Meredith’s performance.

Nothing much of interest going on behind the scenes except the sure hand of John Brahm, director of two unheralded masterpieces of suspense–The Lodger and Hangover Square–finishing off his career in TV.

Episode 20: Static. Aired March 10, 1961.

Ed Lindsay (Dean Jagger), a grumpy bachelor in a boardinghouse, escapes from the drudgery of his life and the blaring of the communal television through an old radio that seems to be playing 20-year-old broadcasts, but only he can hear them. His fellow boarders, including former fiancee Vinnie (Carmen Matthews), think he might be losing his mind.

This is a surprisingly moving and tender episode about regret–both Ed’s and Vinnie’s, and the centerpiece of the episode is her monologue about their failed relationship. I wanted to be annoyed by the exposition, but it moved me. It’s also an unsubtle jab at the state of television in 1960, when the airwaves were filled with cookie-cutter westerns and variety shows.

This is one of the six episodes that the studio had shot on video in a failed effort to save money. It must not have looked this bad when it aired–tape degrades over time, so a lot of what I hate about the look of these episodes comes from tape degradation. But it also weirdly adds to the nostalgia factor, as the format aged so poorly that it all feels like it’s from a different time. Speaking of from a different time, Bob Crane from Hogan’s Heroes had his first screen role as the disc jockey we hear on Ed’s haunted radio.

Episode 21: The Prime Mover. Aired March 24, 1961.

When a gambling addict named Ace (Dane Clark) learns that his friend Jimbo (Buddy Ebsen from the Beverly Hillbillies) has telekinesis, he drags him to Vegas, hoping to win enough money to fill the hole where his heart should be.

As if to thumb its nose at the stagebound, mostly stationary video camera of the previous episode, George Clemens’s camera swoops and dives, showing off the expressive camera work that defines many of these episodes. Director Richard L. Bare, who directed 166 episodes of Green Acres, handles the episode’s seriocomic tone beautifully, and Charles Beaumont’s screenplay squeezes in a feature film’s worth of plot twists without seeming rushed. It’s weird that this isn’t mentioned as one of the great episodes; I guess it’s just a reflection of how consistently good the show was. This kind of perfection was the baseline.

Episode 22: Long Distance Call. Aired March 21, 1961.

Little Billy (Billy Muny) gives his parents fits, constantly talking to his dead grandmother on the toy phone she gave him just before she died.

Despite being one of the six videotaped episodes, this was excellent. It seems to be the best preserved of them: everyone looks eerily lifelike, and they manage some intricate camera work on a variety of sets. Little kids are inherently creepy (I should know, I have one), and Muny’s blankness is used as an asset here. He was Will Robinson on Lost in Space! Muny has had a hell of a sci-fi career: he was also Lennier on Babylon 5, he appeared in the 2002 Twilight Zone reboot, in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in Twilight Zone: The Movie, and in two more episodes of The Twilight Zone. That’s quite a pedigree.

Episode 23: A Hundred Yards Over the Rim. Aired April 7, 1961.

Lost in the desert in 1847, the leader (Cliff Robertson) of a party of settlers makes one last desperate search for water. He finds the 20th century.

This episode has a great cast led by Robertson, seven years before he won Best Actor for “Charly” (the movie based on Flowers for Algernon), and John Astin, aka Gomez from the Addams Family and Samwise Gamgee’s stepdad. Robertson’s performance smooths over the unavoidable issues with a time travel storyline, such as the inevitable litany of “wow things sure are different now” observations.

Episode 24: The Rip Van Winkle Caper. Aired April 21, 1961.

Four crooks steal a million bucks in gold from a train and then hide out in the best hideout ever devised: the future.

That’s two time travel stories in a row, both of which appear to have been filmed in the same stretch of desert. I love this episode from the amazing cast to the twist at the end. I love that the crooks can’t stop being devious fucks for even a second, even when they have millions of dollars in gold in their grubby mitts, even when they wake up a hundred years in the future. I love the glee with which tough guy Simon Oakland torments scientist Oscar Beregi when he realizes that he has an upper hand; I can imagine him tormenting his own mother with the same kind of self-satisfied gusto for being on top. I love that the time travel is more or less incidental: we don’t really know how the suspended animation gadgets work, and we don’t care (and neither do the characters). I love the twist, even if it does get a little over-elaborated.

Episode 25: The Silence. Aired April 28, 1961.

An old curmudgeon (former matinee idol Franchot Tone) bets a young motormouth (Liam Sullivan) $500,000 that the younger man can’t keep quiet for a year. Some people will do anything to win a bet.

A loose adaptation of the Anton Chekhov story “The Bet” with a Twilight Zone twist, this episode lives and dies by its twist ending (there are technically two twists, but the first is obvious almost immediately). It’s a great ending, but it’s a lesser episode because it’s too much setup, not enough payoff. 

Director Boris Sagal died during the filming of the 1982 miniseries “World War III” when he was nearly decapitated by a helicopter rotor. Franchot Tone was a matinee idol who is best known for playing Midshipman Byam opposite Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh in the 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty. He’s nearly unrecognizable here, but excellent.

Episode 26: Shadow Play. Aired May 5, 1961.

A condemned man (Dennis Weaver) can’t convince anyone that they’re actually stuck in his recurring nightmare.

Here’s an episode full of people who are characters in Adam’s dreams, in a show about people who aren’t real doing things that never happened, but dear lord is it suspenseful, and it works both sides so well: we want everyone to realize that Adam is telling the truth, but the consequences of that realization for them are apocalyptic, and we care about them too. That’s the magic of fiction in a nutshell, I guess, and when it’s on, the Twilight Zone does that as well as anything.

Charles Beaumont wrote it, loosely adapting his own story “Traumerei,” and I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that he was the best writer the show had outside of Serling himself. Equal credit goes to the brilliant director John Brahm.

Notes: The title is a reference to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The judge says DES-picable. The story was filmed again for the 1985 reboot, probably not as well.

Episode 27: The Mind and the Matter. Aired May 12, 1961.

A misanthrope (Shelly Berman) learns how to use the power of his mind to get rid of annoying people, but there’s one annoying person he can’t get rid of.

This is essentially a whimsical, higher budgeted version of “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” There’s not much to comment on, as this is a disappointingly pedestrian episode. There are some nice camera tricks when small versions of Beechcroft appear in his mirror to harangue him; later, there’s a surreal sequence when he decides to populate the world with versions of himself. And that’s it. It might have worked had Beechcroft been nastier, or more imaginative, or more given to apocalypse.

Episode 28: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? Aired May 26, 1961.

Two cops follow footprints from a UFO crash site to a diner where a bus driver and six passengers are holed up in a storm. No, wait: seven passengers.

This is a perfect episode, a kind of sci-fi version of a detective gathering all the suspects together and getting the guilty party to incriminate himself. The diner is full of amazing character actors including John Hoyt, Barney Phillips, and especially Jack Elam, who uses his deranged appearance well (he had a very lazy eye and a face seemingly made of rubber). The addition of an otherworldly creature in the list of suspects allows for fun moments like the jukebox playing on its own and sugar bowls exploding spontaneously. The whole episode operates as both suspenseful and humorous, doing that balancing act that the show was so good at. There’s a twist, of course (although the presence of twists is somewhat exaggerated in most accounts of this show), and it’s a doozy.

Episode 29: The Obsolete Man. Aired June 2, 1961.

A librarian (Burgess Meredith) is condemned to death for being obsolete, books having been eliminated. He gets to choose the method of his execution, to be broadcast on national television, and he invites the judge (Fritz Weaver) along as a witness.

This is a minimalist experimental theater piece about dictatorship: there are only a few speaking parts; the action takes place on stark sets filtered down from Brecht (squint and you can see him); and there’s a lot of declaiming. It’s too bad the story is a semi-cooked 1984 knockoff where the very casting gives away the moral: this is Burgess Meredith, the vessel of everything that is good and just in society (from his character in “Time Enough at Last” to ringside in the first Rocky movie), and goodness and justice will never be obsolete.

Of course it’s good to see cast members from two of the best episodes (Weaver starred in Third from the Sun), but it’s all so blaring and obvious. If things weren’t obvious enough, Serling comes back on camera—only the second time he’s delivered his closing narration on camera—and spells it all out again: freedom is good, totalitarianism is bad. We get it.