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 Volumes 7 and 21 of the DVD collection.

Ninety Years Without Slumbering (Season Five, 1963)
Sam Forstmann is a retired clock repairman who lives with his pregnant granddaughter and her husband. He spends much of his time fiddling with an old grandfather clock in his room. In fact, his granddaughter and her husband feel he’s obsessed with it, and make an appointment for him to see a psychiatrist. At the psychiatrist’s office, Sam reveals that he received the clock as a gift on the day he was born, and that he believes if the grandfather clock stops ticking, he will die.

Concluding that Sam should rid himself of this ridiculous belief, the psychiatrist advises the family to sell the clock, which they do, to a neighbor. Sam goes over every afternoon to make the clock is wound. But when the neighbors go on vacation (without telling Sam ahead of time), he becomes agitated. He won’t really die if the clock winds down, will he?
Concept/Plot/Characters—The characters are fine, and Sam Forstmann in particular is quite likeable (played by Ed Wynn, a well-known character actor who appeared in many Disney movies in the 1950s and 60s). But what I don’t get is why everyone cares so much about Sam’s interest in the grandfather clock. At the beginning, his grandson-in-law asks him what he was doing in his room in the middle of the night with the lights on, and Sam replies that he’s always suffered from insomnia and likes to fiddle with the clock until he gets sleepy. Sounds reasonable to me. Why take the man to a psychiatrist?

For that matter, why should the psychiatrist care if Sam believes he’ll die if the clock winds downs? It’s an old man’s harmless delusion. After he’s made his point about it being a silly belief, it seems downright cruel for the psychiatrist to recommend the family sell the clock. Sam’s retired, it’s not as if he’s neglecting his responsibilities with his clock tinkering. Let the old man have a hobby!

Maybe the problem is that Ed Wynn comes across too kindly in his portrayal of Sam. He seems eminently sane and balanced, while his family comes across as bizarrely concerned with how he passes his time. Maybe a different actor would have shown us a Sam Forstmann really suffering from obsession. Or perhaps the script needed another editing pass. In any case, this episode never quite coheres. (2 points)
This one is tough to judge. Sam is cheerful, but there’s a lot of sadness underneath the surface in this one, and that’s done well. Unfortunately, to me, the tone is undermined by the cruel or misguided family weirdly insisting their grandfather rid himself of a beloved heirloom, which should be the real emphasis of the story. I’ll give it half points. (.5 points)
The Twist-
A pretty mild twist, not especially shocking but adequately tying things up. (1 point)
Machines (a clock is a machine, right?)
Total=3.5 points (Okay)

My daughter and I diverged on this one. She felt it was pretty good while I thought it was so-so. The characters are likeable enough and it’s based on a decent idea, but the script is poorly thought out, with the family making a mountain out of on old man’s molehill of a problem. If Sam had been portrayed as truly obsessed with the clock, truly suffering and disrupting the family’s lives, maybe it would make more sense. Compare this, for example, to the similar (but much better) Nothing in the Dark episode, where the old lady who fears death hasn’t left her apartment for decades. Now that’s obsession! As it is, this one comes across as being about a family unfairly meddling in their grandfather’s affairs. Running it through the rubric, it comes out to just Okay.

Shadow Play (Season Two, 1961)
Adam Grant is at a trial where he’s being sentenced for murder. The jury foreman announces that the jury finds him guilty, and the judge sentences him to die by electrocution. The execution is to take place that day at midnight. But Adam seems distracted, refusing to rise for the proceedings. Suddenly, he rushes towards the judge, yelling about how it’s all a dream that he can’t wake up from. The guards grab him and take him to his cell.

Later, the newspaper editor who had been observing the trial stops at the district attorney’s house. The editor is roaring drunk, and tells the DA he’s been talking to Adam, and wonders if there’s something to his idea that it’s all a dream. Not that the editor believes it, of course, but it seems like Adam believes it. Maybe he’s not really sane? In which case, it would be a travesty of justice to put him to death. The DA decides to visit the prison to decide for himself if Adam is insane or faking it.

In the cellblock, Adam explains to the other prisoners how the trial and execution are just part of a recurring nightmare he can’t wake up from. They laugh at him, but he does have an uncanny way of roughly predicting what will happen next–for instance, he knows the DA is about to walk through the door, and he does. Adam can’t be telling the truth–can he?
Concept/Plot/Characters—I remember seeing this one as a kid and finding the concept of a repeating nightmare you can’t wake up to be super creepy but fascinating. It still is! And this episode has a way of getting under your skin, with all the little predictions and lapses in logic Adam makes. But the predictions don’t happen in exactly the way he predicts them. So you’re wondering along with the characters, are they really predictions, or just good guesses that could apply to anyone, like a horoscope? I don’t find anything to fault here. (4 points)
Certain episodes do a great job of building a sort of sweaty sense of desperation, and this is one of them. (1 points)
The Twist-
Not totally unexpected, but after a great build up, what happens is shocking when it actually takes place. (1.5 points)
Dreams, Execution
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

What do you know, an episode involving capital punishment that’s fun to watch! I note this one was written by Charles Beaumont rather than Serling, which may be why the topic doesn’t get treated with its usual TZ preachiness. Anyway, this one is Excellent.

Perchance to Dream (Season One, 1959)
Edward Hall arrives at a psychiatrist’s office in New York, convinced that if he falls asleep he will die. The psychiatrist begins questioning him. It turns out that Hall has a weak heart, and could die if exposed to a serious shock that causes his heartbeat to rise. For years, he’s lived a calm life, avoiding anything shocking. Only recently, when he sleeps, he’s begun dreaming about an attractive woman who dances in a sideshow at a carnival, Maya the Cat Girl. Maya shows up whenever he closes his eyes, ready to take Hall onto a rollercoaster, into a hall of horrors, or simply to seduce him backstage at her sideshow. Knowing Maya is waiting for him, Hall has been awake for nearly four days, and must constantly smoke, walk, anything to keep from falling asleep.
Concept/Plot/Characters—A great concept from this first episode of the Twilight Zone not written by Rod Serling (it was a script by Charles Beaumont taken from his own short story of the same name). Unfortunately, it’s really talky at the beginning and takes seemingly half the episode to get to the point, while Hall and the psychiatrist dance around the issue of what Hall’s problem is. Once it gets going and we start seeing Hall’s carnival dreams, it picks up. (3 points)
Supposed to be a pot-boiler, but the desperate, paranoid tone doesn’t develop until the episode is well under way, with the first half mostly being a couple men smoking in an office. (.5 points)
The Twist–
A powerful, even shocking, double twist ending. (2 points)
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

A slow start redeemed by an exciting second half and one of the best twists of the series.

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