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Ranking the Twilight Zone

I’m engaged in a noble project with my twelve-year old daughter: watching every single Twilight Zone episode and ranking them. We watch and run them through a rubric to give them a score from 0 to 7. The episodes are graded in three categories: Concept/Plot/Characters (4 points), Tone (1 point), and The Twist (2 points).

The episodes this time were from Volume 9 of the DVD collection.

It’s a Good Life (Season Three, 1961)
One of the best known episodes, and for good reason. It’s a Good Life is about Anthony, a six-year old boy who can wish for anything, and it happens. A great deal for Anthony, but not so great for his family and the people in the small town of Peaksville, which has been cut off from the rest of the universe, presumably due to Anthony. Everybody and everything in the town revolves around Anthony’s whims. When he wants to watch TV, everybody watches, and it’s always shows about dinosaurs fighting each other. If a dog barks at him, he closes his eyes and wishes it away into “the cornfield,” where he’s apparently also wished away many of the town’s inhabitants who displeased him one way or another. And since he can read thoughts, the people who are left go around smiling all the time, saying what a good thing it is that whatever Anthony just wished for has happened, no matter how terrible it actually is. But what happens when one of the men in town gets the idea that he might be able to kill Anthony and end their nightmare?
Concept/Plot/Characters—A really fascinating concept that gets at something primal. I remember being a little kid and getting so frustrated because things couldn’t be just the way I wanted them. It takes years to break that juvenile psychological attitude. But what if a kid really could make things just the way he wanted, no matter who else it hurt? Great idea, great script, perfectly plotted and perfectly played by the actors, including the very creepy child actor Billy Mumy. (4 points)
Tone–
Really captures the isolation of Peaksville and the nightmarish anxiety of the town’s populace in catering to Anthony. (1 point)
The Twist–
A perfect, and really grotesque, twist. (2 points)
Theme–
Mind Powers, Creepy Kids
Total=7.0 points (Excellent)

Our first perfect score for an episode!

The Prime Mover (Season Two, 1961)
Here’s an episode with a silly plot that still manages to get a lot of mileage out of its charismatic actors and the general good nature of the characters. The main character is Ace, who runs a diner in a rural area. His cook and best friend, Jimbo (played by Buddy Ebsen), wonders why he doesn’t propose to the pretty waitress Kitty, who obviously likes him. But Ace thinks Kitty deserves a man with more money than he has. Well, maybe he’d have more if he didn’t squander all his money on that slot machine he allowed to be installed in the diner?

One night, a car crashes outside the diner, and a downed power line prevent Ace and Jimbo from getting close enough to help the passengers. Jimbo closes his eyes and levitates the car away from the danger. Later, Ace confronts him, and Jimbo confesses he’s always been able to move things with his mind, only he doesn’t usually do it because it causes horrible headaches. Ace asks Jimbo if he can, say, manipulate coins and dice, and Jimbo can do it easily. So, they take Kitty and set off for Vegas, where Ace plans to use Jimbo to win at craps and roulette. At first, the plan works and they rake in the money at casino after casino. Only, things start to go wrong when Ace becomes obsessed with winning….
Concept/Plot/Characters—At least based on our two Las Vegas episodes so far, the Twilight Zone really doesn’t like gambling! The plot’s a bit silly, but the characters are all so good-hearted you really root for them. Even Ace, the big-talking gambler who falls prey to the temptation of greed, has the motivation that he wants to provide a nice life for Kitty when he marries her. He’s a big talker, but a big dreamer too, and you can see that he’s not really a bad person, but just gets too caught up in the excitement of winning at the tables. (2.5 points)
Tone–
Ace is a big personality who wants more than what his little diner can provide, and the Vegas trip he takes with Jimbo and Kitty really feels like a rollicking adventure. (1 point)
The Twist–
Not all that surprising, but completely fits and is just a nice way to wrap everything up. (1.5 points)
Theme–
Mind Powers, Gambling
Total=5 points (Pretty Good)

A mostly silly episode that overachieves with characters who have a lot of heart and skilled actors who bring them to life.

The Mind and the Matter (Season Two, 1961)
Archibald Beechcroft is a misanthrope who works at a big insurance firm in New York City, and finds all the people around him a bother and a nuisance. He’s subjected to their jostling on the subway, their smells and rudeness on the elevator, and their idiocy in the office. After spilling coffee on him, Henry, the office errand boy, loans him a book to make up for it, a book on concentration his friend said was really interesting, but that Henry hasn’t read yet. Archibald accepts the book and after reading it at home that night is able to control reality with his mind. He wishes away all the people in the city, leaving him in blessed peace. But is the world really better without all those people?
Concept/Plot/Characters—Perhaps a bit of a dry run for Season Three’s “It’s a Good Life,” with Archibald being the adult version of Anthony. Where Anthony is truly menacing though, Archibald comes across as a whiner, and where “It’s a Good Life” is really frightening, this one is just sort of light-weight. I wish Archibald had gotten his mind powers in a different way too–by getting them from a book, it just brings up the question of where the book came from, and why did Henry the office boy have it? Actually, maybe investigating those questions would have been more interesting than seeing Archibald’s boring asocial idea of the ideal life. The acting and script are done well enough, I suppose. (1.5 points)
Tone–
Tries to show the pressure of modern life, with all its crowding and inconveniences. I thought the NYC presented here looked kind of exciting myself, while Archibald just comes across as a crank rather than a man really under pressure. (0 points)
The Twist–
I guess Archibald learns his lesson, but the twist just really sets things back the way they were at the beginning, making it feel sort of pointless. Within five minutes after watching it, my daughter ended up suggesting two twists that would have been more interesting. (0 points)
Theme–
Mind Powers, All Alone
Total=1.5 points (Skip)

An unlikable main character, a pointless twist, and a plot that doesn’t follow the interesting path leaves us with an episode that’s not quite as bad as Fever, our lowest rated episode so far, but is still one to skip.


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