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Twilight Zone debtors recall favorite episodes

Posted: January 2, 2014 at 3:05 a.m.

Rod Serling, seen here during the filming of The Twilight Zone, was an Emmy-winning writer and producer who wrote almost 100 episodes of the series. It was canceled after six years, but is still being run in syndication.

Rod Serling, seen here during the filming of The Twilight Zone, was an Emmy-winning writer and producer who wrote almost 100 episodes of the series. It was canceled after six years, but is still being run in syndication.

When a strange little TV show called The Twilight Zone was first broadcast in 1959, executives at CBS probably had no idea the show was a game changer. The anthology of dark morality tales - with an occasional detour into brainy comedy - did well in the ratings, but was canceled after six seasons. Not until the series started running in syndication at night and on weekends did its popularity soar. Recent TV shows like The Walking Dead and American Horror Story owe their popularity to the sharply written blend of horror, science fiction and thriller pioneered in The Twilight Zone.

“The reason it endures so well is because it had such an emphasis on good storytelling,” said Paul Gallagher, editor of Shadow & Substance, a blog about the works of the show’s creator, Rod Serling, who wrote nearly 100 episodes and served as the face of Twilight, introducing it on camera each week. “It wasn’t just the fact that these were imaginative stories,” Gallagher said. “The show’s commentary on aspects of the human condition never goes out of style.”

CBS and Image Entertainment have released a new, no-extras DVD boxed set of all 156 episodes (1959-65) for $170, a considerable savings from past sets, which went for as much as $300.

What’s behind the show’s enduring appeal? Several artists whose work has Twilight Zone contours were asked about their favorite episodes of the show. Following are some excerpts from their interviews and emails.

Kirk Hammett, guitarist, Metallica

My very favorite episode is “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (about an airline passenger who claims to see a monster on the wing of the plane). It was great because it was very claustrophobic. As a child, I remember seeing that ghoulish face at that window and thinking, “How did they get an actor to act on the wing of a plane?” As a musician, I’m constantly exploring things outside the box and trying to break out of any sort of set modes and trying to go where music hasn’t gone before. When I’m searching for a creative idea or inspiration, I go to my own little Twilight Zone space in my head.

Rob Zombie, musician and filmmaker

I’m always drawn to the episodes which take place in one location and are claustrophobic. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (about an odd assortment of people trapped in a small, metal enclosure) almost looks like a Fellini movie. As you watch it, it’s like: How are they going to resolve this in half an hour? I find it amazing that they get you so involved like in a feature film. I like that for 29 minutes and 59 seconds of the episode, the audience has no idea what’s going on. The vibe of it is so unlike the way TV is now.

John 5, guitarist

“The Hunt” is about this old man who goes hunting with his dog, and they both die. And he doesn’t realize he’s dead. But then he finally figures it out when he reaches the gates of heaven. It’s such a weird episode, but it was comforting in a sense. What if it was really like that, if it was that simple? It inspired me so much that there’s a line from the episode in my song “Fiddler’s.”

Aimee Bender, author

“Stopover in a Quiet Town” is an episode where there are miniature people and there’s a giant, and then you realize the people are from earth and the giant is from space. It has the most direct, obvious connection to my work in my story “End of the Line,” about a big man and a little man. I think there’s something about the visual of seeing a giant person and then little people inside a house structure. There’s something about the power dynamics and how humans relate to each other.

Junot Diaz, author

I grew up in the shadow of a dictatorship and, even more immediately, with an older brother who was everyone’s favorite, who could get away with almost anything, and so the episode that rocked me was “It’s a Good Life” (based on the Jerome Bixby short story about a 3-year-old boy who’s really a monster controlling his small town). Bixby was a genius, and he dramatized the “banality of evil” with such sinister effortlessness.

Anne Serling, author and daughter of Rod Serling

I’m drawn to nostalgic things. “In Praise of Pip,” with Jack Klugman, is about a gambler whose wounded son comes back from Vietnam as a little boy, and they return to an amusement park. It’s complete magic, and it’s a lovely story. It is sad, but he gets another chance with his son, and they have the best times of their lives together. I love writing about the themes of family and the parent-child connection.

Samuel D. Hunter, playwright

“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” taught me the value of a good, old-fashioned reversal. The obvious commentary on McCarthyism was completely lost on me as a kid, but what stuck with me so much was Serling’s ability to write a reversal so strong that it felt like the entire world was shifting beneath the characters’ feet. We buy into the panic along with the characters, so when the camera zooms out and the residents of Maple Street are revealed to be the true monsters, we’re revealed to be monsters, as well. It taught me that a good reversal sort of bounces the story right back into the audience’s lap.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer and performer

Pretty much anything William Shatner is in is great. He’s great at playing that “I’m the only one sane in the world” character. What The Twilight Zone did was show we all have a great capacity for good and evil. In the best works of fiction, there’s no mustache-twirling villain. I try to write shows where even the bad guy’s got his reasons.

Weekend, Pages 22 on 01/02/2014

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