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 2, 10, and 15 of the DVD collection.

Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room (Season Two, 1960)
I’d seen this one before and didn’t remember it as being too entertaining. It’s a bottle episode, meaning the whole episode is filmed on only one set, in this case a cheap hotel room. Let’s see what my daughter and I thought of it this time…

Jackie Rhodes is a small-time gangster who lives in a cheap room in a run-down hotel. He normally does shake-downs or other small time crimes, but this evening, his boss, George, wants him to pull a bigger job: killing a bar owner who refuses to pay his protection money. Jackie tries to weasel out of it, but George insists. If the bar owner isn’t dead by 2AM, Jackie’s in for it.

Terrified that he might get caught and have to do real jail time, but just as frightened to disobey George, Jackie starts talking to his reflection in the mirror. To his surprise, the reflection talks back. The reflection is a different aspect of Jackie’s personality, a more self-assured and ambitious one that he’s repressed for years because he was always too scared not to go along with the crowd. And frankly, the reflection doesn’t think the dominant part of Jackie’s personality has been doing a good job of living their life.
Concept/Plot/Characters—An interesting concept, a straightforward conflict, and a weak-willed character who faces a real dilemma. These simple elements add up to a pretty decent episode, and one that manages to keep the viewer absorbed despite never shifting from the single set of a hotel room. (2.5 points)
Successfully maintains the tone of seedy compromise that defines Jackie’s life. (1 point)
The Twist-
Not entirely surprising, but satisfying. (1.5 points)
Total=5 points (Watchable)

Definitely turned out better than I remembered it, and entertaining enough to slip in at the bottom end of the Pretty Good category.

Once Upon a Time (Season Three, 1961)
A clever and charming episode, starring an elderly Buster Keaton (!), who plays Woodrow Mulligan. Mulligan lives in 1890 in a small town and is dissatisfied with the busy world he lives in, with its increasing prices, speeding bicycles, and the noise from horses and brass bands. This era is shown silent-film style, with jerky film, a barroom piano soundtrack, and dialogue provided on interstitial cards. After nearly getting hit by a penny-farthing bicycle and falling in a water trough, Mulligan goes to his workplace and removes his pants to dry. He works as a janitor in an inventor’s laboratory, and as he’s hanging his pants in the storage room, he overhears his employer describing a new invention: a time helmet that can take its wearer into the future.

Mulligan thinks this invention sounds like a great idea–imagine being able to travel to a future world where they’ve solved the noise problem and all is peaceful and quiet. He sets the helmet for 1960 and finds himself transported (still sans pants) to a busy intersection with honking cars, jackhammering construction workers, and everything moving at speeds he’s never seen before. A boy on roller skates steals his helmet and Mulligan chases after him (with no pants), eventually running into Rollo, a scientist. The helmet has been broken so he and Rollo go to a mechanical repair shop and try to get the proprietor to fix the helmet. Rollo thinks traveling back to the idyllic world of 1890 sounds wonderful, and wants to try the helmet himself once it’s fixed.
Buster Keaton plays a variation on the cantankerous and pratfall-prone characters familiar from his silent films in the 1920s. The conceit of the 1890 scenes being a silent film is clever and convincingly done. The plot is just silly fun, and wholly appropriate to the whole atmosphere. (3.5 points)
Keeps up a zany, slapstick pace not only during the “silent era” in 1890 but also in the “present-day” era of 1960. (1 point)
The Twist–
Not a real surprising twist. Basically if you conceive of the whole episode as a joke, the twist operates as the punchline, but in this case the humor was in the joke’s telling. (1 point)
Time Travel
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

This is one where my daughter and I disagreed. She found Buster Keaton’s character to be complaining and disagreeable, whereas I found him to be curmudgeonly but basically sympathetic. A clever, fun episode, in my opinion. Not one of the really great episodes, but a solid Pretty Good and worth your time. I believe my daughter would put it as So-So.

Nightmare at 20,000 Feet (Season Five, 1963)
Possibly the most famous Twilight Zone episode, it almost feels silly to describe it. Still, some may not have seen it. Robert Wilson (played by William Shatner, pre-Captain Kirk), has just been released from a stay in a sanitarium. He had a mental breakdown six months previously, also on an airplane, but his doctor believes him recovered. His wife has come to escort him back to their home. Robert is nervous, but eager to resume his normal life.

It’s a rainy night and about an hour into the flight, Robert looks out the window and sees some sort of creature on the wing of the plane. He alerts the stewardess but when she looks out the window, nothing is there. Robert’s wife is sympathetic but Robert can tell she doesn’t believe him. Still, every time he looks out the window, the gremlin (as he calls it) is there, now pulling wires from underneath an engine panel. Of course, as soon as he tries to show anyone else, the creature has disappeared. Robert knows his wife and the other passengers believe he’s suffering a recurrence of the delusions from his previous breakdown, but if he doesn’t do something to stop the creature, the plane could crash….
A simple concept that Richard Matheson’s taut script builds up to a masterful crescendo: Shatner’s final, desperate attempt to stop the gremlin. Christine White is superb as Robert’s loving but worried wife. The characters feel real and fleshed out even after only a few minutes. (4 points)
Deftly balances the dual possibility that Robert Wilson is paranoiacally hallucinating and that there might actually be a gremlin damaging the plane engine. (1 point)
The Twist–
Not a total surprise but very effective. (1.5 points)
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

A classic episode that fully lives up to its Excellent reputation.

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