The 50 Best Episodes of 'The Twilight Zone'
Fueling an entire career with twist endings is hard to sustain -- just ask M. Night Shyamalan. But Rod Serling did it, with the 156 episodes of the ground-breaking anthology series The Twilight Zone, thanks to his commitment to enhancing the twists by showing humanity in both its angelic and monstrous forms.
Thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, where all but the fourth season's 18 episodes are streaming (Hulu and CBS All Access subscribers get all five seasons), you can revisit Serling's lasting achievement -- one that's still prescient nearly 60 years after it debuted and that CBS All Access has rebooted with Jordan Peele as host (debuts April 1). But where to start? Here are 50 essential Twilight Zone episodes that you need to see (minor spoilers to follow).
50. "The Hunt"
Season 3, Episode 19
In this super cute, mostly silly episode, Hyder Simpson (Arthur Hunnicutt) is an old fool with an old hound named Rip. When they both die while hunting racoons, Hyder has a chance to enter heaven. The bad news? They won’t take Rip. He refuses the offer, stuck outside the pearly gates, but his loyalty (and the loyalty of everyone who loves doggos) is rewarded. A great spiritual battle that’s summed up by, "They’re good dogs, Brent."
49. "The Night of the Meek"
Season 2, Episode 11
One way to become Santa is for Santa to fall off your roof. The other way is to be drunk and find a magic bag in an alleyway. That’s what happens to Henry (Art Carney), a besotted wretch in a ratty Santa Claus costume, who proceeds to bring the exact desired gift to homeless men and a mission full of children. He’s arrested, naturally, and skirts jail with some high-cost brandy, but after all the presents are doled out, what could the generous Henry gift to himself?
48. "Stopover in a Quiet Town"
Season 5, Episode 30
The best PSA about drunk driving of all time. A husband and wife wake up in a strange house after a night of boozing. The only thing they can remember is driving home fuzzy and seeing a giant shadow over their car. They frantically search a home filled with plastic food and painted-on appliances, briefly seeing hope when they find a working train, but their fate was sealed when they drove drunk; the Twilight Zone had a cruel life planned for them. Serling left behind the usual poetry of his closing monologue for a clear message against getting behind the wheel after having even a drink or two.
47. "A Penny For Your Thoughts"
Season 2, Episode 16
In a premise that seems directly translated from the old adage, a schlub named Hector B. Poole (Bewitched’s Dick York) gains the ability of reading thoughts after flipping a penny that lands on its side. What results is a kooky puzzle of using others’ secret sins and intentions against them to get justice for the regular joes. York’s proto-Jim Carrey gawkiness makes the goofy tale even goofier.
46. "Living Doll"
Season 5, Episode 6
Before Chucky, there was Talky Tina. For those who are terrified by the uncanny valley of humanity trapped inside dolls (i.e. all children and parents who grew up around dolls), this paranoid episode does for toys what Jaws did for the deep end of the pool. Telly Savalas sweats through this story about a gruff father whose daughter’s wind-up doll says hateful things to him before escalating to threats of bodily harm. It’s tough to know who the villain is, though, because Tina may just be the ultimate protector of the child who owns her.
45. "A Kind of Stopwatch"
Season 5, Episode 4
Patrick McNulty (Richard Erdman) has trouble connecting with people. He’s a blowhard with a hot take on everything, but after his boorish behavior loses him his job and gets him tossed from a bar, a scuzzy drunk gives him a watch the can stop time. This story echoes the far superior "Time Enough at Last," and the hell McNulty experiences is less than half of what he deserves, but it’s a clever angle on a fantasy everyone has squandered by a total idiot. If a dude at the bottom of the barrel gives you an incredibly powerful object, maybe think twice before using it.
44. "The After Hours"
Season 1, Episode 34
Anne Francis (from Forbidden Planet) is golden in this episode. She plays a woman who buys a thimble on the ninth floor of a department store that doesn’t have a ninth floor. The unraveling plot is a layer cake of satisfying twists with a wholly unexpected ending that seems to wryly comment on the typical structure of a Twilight Zone episode. Winking at the formula (at the end of the first season no less), it’s neither cruel nor too kind.
43. "The Last Flight"
Season 1, Episode 18
One of the many, many episodes dealing with the military, this redemptive tale chronicles how a cowardly lieutenant steers his plane away from the fight only to time travel from WWI to 1959. The more unbelievable thing is that the fellow pilot he left to certain death is still alive. With some sharp writing from Richard Matheson (in his first script for the show), a paradox is turned into something rare in The Twilight Zone: a second chance.
42. "And When the Sky Was Opened"
Season 1, Episode 11
Another military yarn, another Matheson story (this time adapted from his short story "Disappearing Act" by Serling), there’s a sense of dread to "And When the Sky Was Opened" that Serling and company do not want to soothe for the viewer. The episode involves a trio of pilots on an experimental journey outside the earth’s atmosphere. During the trip they all black out, and the plane goes off radar, but it crashes in the desert and the men are recovered. That is until people stop recognizing them, and the signs of their existence start slipping away like images on Marty McFly’s newspaper.
41. "Nightmare as a Child"
Season 1, Episode 29
Helen Foley (Janice Rule) meets two people on the same day that change her life forever. The first is a young, severe girl named Markie (Elizabeth Burnham), who tells her she’s there to force Helen to remember her mother’s murder. The second is Peter Selden (Shepperd Strudwick), who confesses to the killing. The episode confronts memory and PTSD in a fascinating way, and replaces the usual slow burn of horrifying realization with tense, immediate danger.
40. "Kick the Can"
Season 3, Episode 21
What if believing you’re young can make you young? Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex) thinks it does, even if it lands him in hot water at his retirement home. To rebel, he organizes a big game of kick the can (youthful for 1898!) that his pal Ben (Russell Collins) refuses to participate in at his own peril. Depending on which side of the hill you’re on, this is either a joyous reminder not to take life so seriously all the time or a worrying reminder that even wizened adults are as scared of the real world as the young.
39. "The Odyssey of Flight 33"
Season 2, Episode 18
You want twists? Too bad. Uncertainty, despair, and a steady loss of jet fuel hallmark this episode that focuses on a passenger plane flying from London to New York City. Close to landing at Idlewild Airport (aka Kennedy Airport as of 1963), the plane time travels from 1961 back to the Cretaceous Period (clever girl) which rightly freaks everyone out. Channeling the Flying Dutchman of myth, the plane attempts to recreate the time vortex, and succeeds, but undershoots their present to land in 1939. They decide to make one more attempt, because one more attempt may be all their remaining fuel will allow.
Season 3, Episode 1
A ethereal poem of an episode, the raw emptiness is noteworthy as Charles Bronson and Elizabeth Montgomery play two opposing soldiers in a long war who find themselves warily learning to trust each other in an evacuated city. It’s a long road toward peace, marked by engaging, romantic, and violent performances. The dove as a symbol is on the nose, but their slow stripping off of uniforms for different clothes is subtle and sweet.
37. "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim"
Season 2, Episode 23
The show primarily hung around the 1960s, but it also loved to dip into the far future and the Old West. This episode chooses all the above with a pioneer leading his family out west. When his son falls ill, he goes over a hill crest to find food and water but discovers he’s traveled to 1961 where he finds more than he bargained for. This episode uses an inverted Grandfather Paradox to create a kind story about survival, faith, and brand new antiques.
36. "I Am the Night -- Color Me Black"
Season 5, Episode 26
Other than perhaps the most hamfisted ending of the entire series, this tale of an execution that could have been stayed puts both The Twilight Zone’s towering trust in the goodness of humankind and its Mariana Trench-deep resignation to our evil. Hatred and bigotry are on center stage as a small-town sheriff wrings his hands about whether to hang an innocent man. On the morning he’s to be executed, the sun doesn’t rise. Recognizing it as a cosmic sign, the townspeople express grace and release the man. Just kidding. They live in the Twilight Zone, which is scarily like our own. The episode aired months after JFK’s assassination, and, in the end, the dark sky phenomenon appears in dozens of hate-filled places around the globe, including a street in Dallas.
35. "A Nice Place to Visit"
Season 1, Episode 28
Kitschy and over-the-top, this episode luxuriates in the cheapness of its main character, a smash-and-grab robber named Rocky (Larry Blyden) who’s shot by the police and wakes up to find himself in a confusing version of heaven where all his earthly desires are catered to. The haughty Pip (Sebastian Cabot) plays his guardian angel, who gives him an endless stream of cash, a plush apartment, and attractive women who ask what they can do for him. So, what’s the catch? A clever twist on reward and torture that grins wide as it shoves the knife in.
34. "Deaths-Head Revisited"
Season 3, Episode 9
This Dachau-set episode aired after the Adolf Eichmann trial started and months before the guilty verdict was delivered, proclaiming that the SS leaders wasn’t merely "just following orders." Serling’s searing, topical story focuses on a former SS captain who visits Dachau in 1961 only to find one of his victims is now caretaker of the prison camp. Realizing he’d murdered the man years before, the Nazi loses his mind in series of delusions wherein he’s placed on trial and deemed guilty. Serling closes the episode proclaiming that Dachau and other concentration camps must stay standing as monuments to horror so that it may never happen again.
33. "A Stop at Willoughby"
Season 1, Episode 30
Gart Williams (James Daly) hates his modern job, his demanding boss, and his craven wife, and longs for a calmer, simpler time. The universe gifts him Willoughby, a town that isn’t actually on his commuter train line because it exists in idyllic 1888. Williams ping pongs between the restful strolls through Willoughby and his increasingly grinding life until he decides to get off the train at Willoughby and stay. If you think he found the peace he was looking for, the subtext is optimistic, but the underlying lesson of the episode is troubling if you consider the implications of escaping this world, no matter how appealing another world seems. It’s also a dire warning about the dangers of succumbing to nostalgia.
32. "Where is Everybody?"
Season 1, Episode 1
The very first episode of The Twilight Zone set a standard for themes and elements that would crop up regularly over five seasons: a mysteriously empty city, an isolated man, the military, paranoia, and the hopes and fears of 1960s America. The story follows Mike Ferris (Earl Holliman) as he more and more frantically explores the diners, streets, and movie theaters of a town where there are tons of signs of human life, but no people. It’s as if he’s always just a few seconds from catching someone before they’ve left a room, and he hypothesizes he may be the sole survivor of a nuclear war. The Twilight Zone, naturally, has another explanation.
31. "Shadow Play"
Season 2, Episode 26
A dearly inventive episode, this tale sees Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver) found guilty of murder and set for execution. Instead of being upset, he’s bothered that it’s already happened. A lot. Every night in fact. Grant is convinced that he’s inside a dream (like Inception, but with the electric chair), which is a reasonable rationalization for someone facing a prospect as heavy as imminent death. The thing is, he makes a lot of good points about the irrationality of the world and the people in it. Is he right? Or is he a terrified man deluding himself in his last hours? Which is worse?
30. "People Are Alike All Over"
Season 1, Episode 25
Gleefully wrenching a phrase meant to be sunny, Serling delivers an episode about two astronauts who see things differently. Marcusson (Paul Comi) is optimistic, avowing that they shouldn’t worry about going to Mars because people are alike all over. That should go for aliens, too. Conrad (a brilliant Roddy McDowall) is deeply pessimistic and cynical. Marcusson is killed when they land, so Conrad must interact with the Martians, who surprise him with hospitality and interest. Don’t hold your breath for the happy ending, though. In a twist that inspired several Star Trek entries, Conrad learns, to his horror, that his colleague was right: people are just as bad wherever you go.
29. "The Midnight Sun"
Season 3, Episode 10
Perhaps the most visceral episode, it’s a good thing that Syfy's annual marathon is on New Year’s Day because you really shouldn’t watch this between May and September. You can feel the heat coming off the screen as Norma (Lois Nettleton) and her landlady Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde) broil inside their New York City apartments, mercury threatening to bust the thermometer glass, the entire earth falling out of orbit and into the sun. Norma’s oil paintings are dripping and blistering, and the weatherman goes bonkers on air. The twist isn’t totally necessary, but it drives home what’s still, somehow, a radical warning about taking care of the planet more than half a century later. It’s a warning you’ll want sunscreen and a down jacket to hear.
28. "The Shelter"
Season 3, Episode 3
The end of the world fueled The Twilight Zone. Serling was never happier than when he displayed our frailty in the face of doom, especially when the doom dissipated to leave his subjects awkwardly naked in their humiliated safety. One key example? This story of a group of neighbors who harangue their friend Dr. Bill Stockton (Larry Gates) for building a bomb shelter in basement only to find themselves desperate for a ticket inside. When a civil defense alarm warns of an incoming nuclear strike, the friendliness of the suburbs erodes into simmering anger, racism, anti-immigrant tirades, and weeping terror that threatens the safety of the only person who thought to build shelter. The crazy and the sane trade places as quickly as you can press a launch button.
27. "The Lonely"
Season 1, Episode 7
A stirring portrait of two impossible choices, where most of us use the prospect of a desert island as an excuse to dream up our top five albums or make friends with a volleyball, James Corry (Jack Warden) is castaway on an asteroid for doing wrong. This is 2046’s version of solitary confinement for murderers, and while he’s all alone out there in the universe, he gets supply drops four times a year by a crew that, through an act of judicial mercy, brings him a female robot companion. This episode is ultimately a love story embedded in a Turing test, and it turns out that curing James’s loneliness might have been the cruelest thing to do.
26. "Nick of Time"
Season 2, Episode 7
Another Richard Matheson morality play, this time starring William Shatner and Patricia Breslin as honeymooners Don and Pat, whose car breaks down in a small town and needs repairs. It’s a classic set up, but instead of hurling the usual horrors at the pair, the villain is an unassuming, tabletop fortune-telling machine that keeps giving Don prescient answers (about when the car will be done; about a promotion he’s up for at work). Don is hooked, but Pat just wants to leave, and it becomes her burden either to convince her new husband that life can’t be lived by the directions of a penny-eating toy or to find a permanent home in this literal tourist trap.
25. "Nothing in the Dark"
Season 3, Episode 16
This humanely sweet episode tells the story of an old woman who is so afraid of the Grim Reaper that she becomes agoraphobic. The bad news: a demolition team is set to tear down her house in the morning. Enter Robert Redford as a handsome policeman lying outside her door in the snow having been shot, begging this strange woman to save him. Uncharacteristically straightforward, the meat of "Nothing in the Dark" is a frank, delicate conversation about how something we all must face isn’t something to be feared at all.
24. "The Thirty-Fathom Grave"
Season 4, Episode 2
CBS canceled The Twilight Zone after Season 3, only to beg Serling for more, as a mid-season replacement for a failed drama. The real life twist: the 22-minute format would be stretched to an hour. The new format was rough, resulting in a lot of duds (though the miraculous fifth season would tout some of the best episodes ever). One of the gems is "The Thirty-Fathom Grave," which sees a sailor stricken with crazed fits and delusions after hearing what appears to be the clang of a hammer coming from a long-drowned submarine. It’s a startling portrayal of unease, featuring zombie sailors essentially chanting "come play with us." The ending challenges the viewer to decide whether the hero was driven insane by reality or his own mind.
23. "Third From the Sun"
Season 1, Episode 14
In a stellar Cold War thriller, a group of scientists plan to hijack a rocket in order to escape a world on the cusp of H-bomb-induced doom. When their boss finds out their plan, the timeline gets bumped up and the sweat starts to pour. The centerpiece of the episode is a game night gathering that turns into the basement bar scene from Inglourious Basterds before all the shooting. Our pacifist heroes breathlessly make their escape, but the show has one more twist up its sleeve for us.
22. "It’s a Good Life"
Season 3, Episode 8
One of Twilight Zone's more incensed episodes focuses on a small town in Ohio plagued by a vicious monster who can read people’s thoughts and kill them with a roll of its eyes. The beast is a six-year-old boy who hates singing and dogs, but loves people walking on eggshells who fear being banished "to the cornfield." It may seem silly by today’s standards, but the episode reaches a grotesque climax when the capricious little snot transforms a man who stands up to him into a jack-in-the-box topped by his old human head. The episode ends soon after with Serling admitting there was no point to it. He just wanted to tell us about this horrifying fucking kid.
21. "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air"
Season 1, Episode 15
Continuing Twilight Zone's mean streak, this early episode sees four astronauts survive a crash-landing into a desolate landscape after blasting off from earth. When resources run low, human nature rears its ugly head until all but one -- the one willing to murder -- are dead. The stunner that they were always a mountain ridge away from signs for Reno (having never even left Earth’s orbit) leaves the man who killed in vain weeping, and us a little more sour on our fellow man.
20. "The Long Morrow"
Season 5, Episode 15
Like a space age Gift of the Magi, astronaut Doug Stansfield (Robert Lansing) enlists for a one-man, 40-year trip to a distant star system, only to confront a harrowing truth: the love of his life (Mariette Hartley) will be an elderly woman when he returns from the voyage. What follows is a fantastic, life-affirming, melancholy display of the power of love that also proves the necessity of communication.
19. "The Silence"
Season 2, Episode 25
Serling takes aim at false bravado and men who pretend to be more wealthy and important than they really are in this inventive episode. A particularly pompous member of a private club bets an annoying fellow member $500,000 that he can’t remain silent for a full year. What’s shocking isn’t that he pulls it off, or even how he pulls it off, but that he’s punished for assuming that the man putting up the money was good for it.
18. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Season 5, Episode 22
Kind? Cruel? Both? "Owl Creek Bridge," based on Ambrose Bierce's popular short story and acquired by Rod Serling for $25,000 after winning a short film Oscar, is an ethereally realized story of a Civil War prisoner about to be hanged by Union Troops, whose rope snaps, allowing him to escape down the river and onto his homestead. Surreal imagery and poetic focus on the condemned man’s surroundings (all the way down to the bugs on the ground) provide a jarring serenity after the near-hanging. But this is still The Twilight Zone, where a man isn’t simply allowed to rush into his wife’s awaiting arms after escaping the gallows.
Season 2, Episode 17
The Twilight Zone is filled with people who suffer nervous breakdowns. Liz Powell (Barbara Nichols), an overworked dancer recuperating in the hospital, suffers from a recurring nightmare where she races from an unseen danger. One night she reaches "Room 22," the hospital morgue, where a robotic-seeming woman eerily suggests, "Room for one more, honey." Eesh. This is about as skin-crawling as episodes get, and also one of the most clever at hiding its twist behind a series of red herrings.
16. "Walking Distance"
Season 1, Episode 5
Waiting for mechanics to fix his car during an impromptu road trip, Martin Sloan (Gig Young) walks a mile and a half to the literal hometown of his youth, where he reminisces about 10-cent chocolate sodas and blissful afternoons on a merry-go-round before coming face-to-face with his 11-year-old self. Martin is the original manchild: so desperate to stay in the past that he's willing to derail his future. Turns out that’s fairly easy to do when you’re within striking distance of your pre-pubescent self. "Walking Distance" is notoriously aggravating for its airy ending. There is no great twist or sense of closure, but a haunting question about the value of our memories versus our will to make the future brighter.
15. "In Praise of Pip"
Season 5, Episode 1
In another episode about going into the past to understand the future, Jack Klugman plays a bookie who’s informed that his son Pip has been killed in action in South Vietnam and regrets not being a better father. Rattled, the man accidentally murders his gangster boss before stumbling into an empty amusement park, where he hallucinates a ten-year-old version of his boy. He spends his desired lost time with Pip, teaching him how to shoot before bargaining with God to trade his life for his son’s. It’s a bittersweet portrayal of sad-sack remorse and absentee father. Klugman's character pays with his life for a brief moment of bonding. Either his life wasn’t worth much, or that afternoon with his son was worth the world.
14. "Ring-a-Ding Girl"
Season 5, Episode 13
In this story of a Hollywood starlet returning home, the famous Bunny Blake (Maggie McNamara) is portrayed as often selfish and spotlight-sucking -- a characterization that throws us off the scent of what’s really going on. Before boarding her plane to shoot a new movie in Rome, Bunny receives a ring that shows her visions -- of a nebulous future, or not -- which prompts her to stop first in her old stomping grounds on the day of their annual fair. It’s a startling episode that proves a villainous cliché, who would have 3 million Instagram followers in 2016, can be a hero.
13. "The Eye of the Beholder"
Season 2, Episode 6
In what’s become one of the most iconic twists of the series, a facial reconstruction patient removes her bandages to reveal a gorgeous woman surrounded by snout-faced horrors. See, she’s the disgusting one. What, you didn’t notice they didn’t show the doctors’ and nurses’ faces for 20 minutes? More surprising than the twist in "The Eye of the Beholder" is the happy ending it offers. It’s easy to miss while nodding in dumbfounded shock, but the "beautiful" people are ruled over by a despot, and our ugly duckling is exiled with another model-ugly specimen, effectively saved from the horrors of strict conformity solely because they can’t be made pretty.
12. "The Encounter"
Season 5, Episode 31
Star Trek's George Takei stars in this gripping episode where a racist WWII veteran named Fenton (Neville Brand) and a scarred Japanese-American man are locked in room with their regrets, hatred, and an old samurai sword that might as well be a ticking time-bomb. "The Encounter" was banned from television for years because of racist language, but the aggression and insult also stands out as some of the best dialogue of the series. It’s a rare moment where the show tackled real-world travesty head-on, without UFO distractions or Satan cameos.
11. "The Obsolete Man"
Season 2, Episode 29
Serling had his knives out for totalitarianism in this episode about a God-fearing librarian (Burgess Meredith) sentenced after his Orwellian government deemed him useless to the state. Invited to pick the method of murder, the librarian elects for televised assassinated, with the state's Chancellor present. The lesson: never give airtime to a clever man. As the librarian faces death with faith and solemnity, the Chancellor freaks out, begging to be released in the name of God -- a move that proves that the state is made up of all-too-human humans, and that signs of weakness will be punished regardless of how necessary you thought you once were.
10. "Number 12 Looks Just Like You"
Season 5, Episode 17
In this episode's dystopian future, all men and women must undergo beautification surgery at the age of 18, physical ugliness being one of the main causes of hate in the world. Having seen a loss of identity drive her father crazy, fresh-faced adult Marilyn resists treatment, only to cave when the prospect of being ostracized sounds even more terrifying. It’s the kind of episode worth screaming at your television in frustration, made wholly alienating with two actors playing almost all the roles.
9. "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"
Season 2, Episode 28
One of the most fun episodes in an agonizing series, this is an Agatha Christie novella with a sci-fi twist -- and we’re invited to play along. The set up is simple: a group of people are snowed-in at a roadside diner, and one of them isn’t from this world. Even though the ending involves a deadly bridge collapse and the impending colonization of Earth, the tone stays playfully tongue-in-cheek as Serling instructs us to check the color of all three eyes on the person next to us.
8. "A Game of Pool"
Season 3, Episode 5
A tour-de-force of acting prowess, comedian Jonathan Winters spreads his dramatic chops alongside Jack Klugman in an episode that both rewards and questions dedicating your life to perfectionism. Klugman plays a pool shark who spends his nights alone, practicing his game and bitterly complaining that he’d be recognized as the best ever if not for a legendary cue-man who’s been dead for years. Winters plays the deceased, who returns to the world of the living for one more game.
7. "The Masks"
Season 5 Episode 25
An episode that could have easily appeared on Tales From the Crypt, "The Masks" is a voodoo tale about terrible people getting their just deserts. Jason Foster is the wealthy patriarch to a whining daughter, her greedy businessman husband, and his bullying children. Foster invites them to a Mardi Gras party to inform them that, in order to get a massive inheritance, they have to participate in a custom of wearing grotesque masks until the stroke of midnight. What happens next is a beautifully mean-spirited parable.
6. "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"
Season 5, Episode 3
The Twilight Zone often featured characters believed crazy by the rest of the world. No one played that role with more manic glee than William Shatner, whose Bob Wilson spots a gremlin ripping up one of the wings during his plane ride back from a mental hospital. Driven mad by collective disbelief, Bob agonizes the way only Shatner can before stealing a sleeping cop’s gun -- welcome to 1963! -- and killing the gremlin. It’s a simple tale of a man doing what’s right despite looking bonkers for it, but the joy is in watching Shatner be Shatner.
5. "The Invaders"
Season 2, Episode 15
Absolutely gorgeous in every aspect, this episode is a near-wordless masterwork of fear about tiny intruders who terrorize an elderly wife (Agnes Moorehead). Despite being the size of mice, they torment and injure her until she fights back, killing one and following the other to the flying saucer that landed on her roof. Since we never hear her speak, it's a shock when we hear the tiny alien -- twist! -- radio back to NASA to warn the other humans not to visit this giant-inhabited planet.
4. "To Serve Man"
Season 3, Episode 24
This is the best example of a strong half hour being completely overshadowed by a twist. Before discovering that the alien Kanamit book "To Serve Man" should have "with Hollandaise Sauce" after it, the episode questions whether an outside force -- alien or human -- can be trusted to have pure motivations. The ending, where our hero sits on a spaceship, resigned to his fate as a future main course, is bleak, but what’s most insane about the episode is that the codebreakers who initially translate the title of the alien’s book are too credulous to decode what's beneath the cover.
3. "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"
Season 3, Episode 14
A soldier, a ballerina, a bagpiper, a clown, and a hobo wake up inside a rounded metal pit and no memory of who they are. No, this is not the beginning of a bad joke, but a riff on Sartre, a puzzle of identity and purpose. A syrupy ending (this was the Christmas episode, after all), it takes nothing away from the episode's absurd terror, which also pokes meta-fun at the series: the possible explanations for the trap (a dream, a dream within a dream, hell, aliens) all recall twists from other episodes.
2. "Time Enough at Last"
Season 1, Episode 8
One the darkest episode of an often pitch black series, "Time Enough at Last" follows Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) as a book addict . All he wants to do is read, ruining his career as a bank teller and royally pissing off his wife, who blacks out every line in every page of his personal library (imagine how long it took her!). Bemis lucks out when all other humans are killed in an atomic blast. Unfortunately, this is The Twilight Zone, and "Time Enough at Last" quickly becomes a lesson in packing an extra pair of eyeglasses.
1. "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"
Season 1 Episode 22
The Twilight Zone's quintessential episode depicts a shadowy "monster," a cloud of suspicion, falling upon a neighborhood of friends. As if The Thing looked like The Andy Griffith Show, the possibility of an alien attack spurs residents to point fingers, place blame, and attack each other -- a moral object lesson that plays as freshly today as it did during its post-McCarthy Era debut. The "twist" that aliens have been lazily tinkering with the lights and cars, and that they’ve concluded that the easiest way to destroy mankind is to let us destroy ourselves, isn’t so much shocking as it is depressingly familiar. Enjoy the rest of the election season!
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