Ranking the Twilight Zone

I’m engaged in a project with my twelve-year old daughter to watch every single Twilight Zone episode and rank 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 23 of the DVD collection.

Dead Man’s Shoes (Season Three, 1962)
A car full of mobsters dumps a dead body in an alleyway and then speeds off. A homeless man, Nathan, notices the flamboyant, immaculately polished two-tone loafers the dead man is wearing, glances at his own worn-out shoes, and makes an easy decision: switching footwear with the dead man. He also searches the dead man’s pockets and retrieves a key.

Nathan heads off in search of booze but soon he feels dizzy, and during a conversation with two other homeless men he knows, he suddenly begins acting aggressively towards them, to their surprise. He quickly leaves, as if on a mission, and ends up in a swanky apartment, where a mob moll is waiting for her gangster boyfriend, Dane, to get home. When Nathan enters the apartment, she demands to know how the rumpled bum acquired her man’s shoes, which he’s famous for. He ignores her questions and acts like he owns the place, fixing himself a drink and changing clothes. In a sense, he does own the place, for as you’ve probably guessed, the dead mobster has taken over Nathan’s mind. And he has a perfect chance to get his revenge on the other mobsters who killed him, now that he has a face nobody will recognize….
Concept/Plot/Characters—A pretty clever idea and a fast-paced plot (I was surprised when the credits rolled that it was already over) made for a really interesting episode. Great acting from Wallace Stevens as both the homeless man Nathan and the gangster Dane. He flawlessly manages to show through body language, expression, and tone of voice when one or the other is in control of his body. Unfortunately, Dane is a thoroughly nasty person, treating others violently, including his girlfriend, yet we’re expected to sympathize with him against the other mobsters. Not every protagonist needs to be a flawless hero, but this guy was really difficult to root for. (3 points)
Music, script (written by Charles Beaumont), and acting do a great job of turning the Twilight Zone into a 1960s gangster show for an evening. (1 point)
The Twist-
The twist here, really a double twist, was unexpected, even shocking, but appropriate to what came before. Yet I had a problem with it. I won’t say too much so as not to give it away, but the twist suffered from the same problem as the rest of the episode–the ironic justice landed on the mobsters who killed Dane, while Dane himself, a nasty piece of work, came off as a hero. (1.5 points)
Cheating Death, Gangsters
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

My daughter and I agreed this one was Pretty Good. It certainly holds the viewer’s interest! But unlike so many of Rod Serling’s episodes where the moral point is hammered home, this script by Charles Beaumont suffers from the opposite: trying to make the viewer identify with an amoral gangster who has been wronged, but is also himself a callous and unsympathetic character.

Long Live Walter Jameson (Season One, 1960)
Walter Jameson is a popular history professor at a university. His students like him because his lectures make it sound like he was really there for the events he’s discussing. His engaged to a young doctoral student, Susan, whose father is also a professor at the university. After doing some research, Susan’s father has become convinced that Dr. Jameson lectures so well because he really was there. And he has proof–a Civil War-era photograph with a man who looks just like Dr. Jameson (standing next to General Sherman, no less)–at a battle that is Dr. Jameson’s research specialty. The older professor invites Susan and Dr. Jameson over for dinner, where he intends to confront Walter Jameson with his discovery.

This is an episode from Season One, though it reminds me a lot of one we’ve seen from Season Five, “Queen of the Nile.” While that was an entertaining enough episode, it was not quite as sharp as this one. Both were written by Charles Beaumont. Come to think of it, Beaumont also wrote the third season episode with a similar premise, “Dead Man’s Shoes,” which I review just above. I guess the idea of a person somehow able to escape death and still living among us mortals appealed to him.
Concept/Plot/Characters—Great dialogue, a premise so good Beaumont recycled it later, and the characters all believable and sympathetic. Actually, in only a short time, the episode portrays Walter Jameson as a very complicated man. You come away not knowing whether to admire him, hate him, or feel sorry for him. (3.5 points)
Convincingly captures the tired pathos of a man who’s lived too long, but doesn’t know what else to do but keep on living. (1 point)
The Twist–
A truly surprising and shocking twist, yet one that makes perfect sense in the context of the episode. (2 points)
Cheating Death
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

An episode that I had never seen before or even heard of turns out to be one for the Excellent file. My daughter liked it as well.

You Drive (Season Five, 1964)
Oliver Pope is driving home from a bad day at the office, upset over a colleague he believes is trying to take his job. Distracted, he doesn’t see when a boy on a bike rides out in front of him. He hits the boy, stops the car, and runs out to check on the boy. When he realizes the boy is dead, he checks to see if anybody saw him, then gets back in the car and abandons the scene.

He thinks he’s gotten away with it, but there were at least two witnesses–a woman down the street–and his car! When he gets home, the car starts flashing its lights in the garage. He goes out to check, turning the lights off. But throughout the night and the next day, the car turns on its radio, honks its horn, and otherwise makes itself a nuisance.

The woman who witnessed the accident misidentifies the driver to the police, and the person she identifies is Oliver’s office rival. Reading about it in the newspaper, Oliver thinks he’s off the hook. But his car has other ideas….
The Twilight Zone sure has a lot of episodes about people whose cars and machines turn on them. Reminds me of both A Thing About Machines and Fever, although this is more tightly written than either of those. I wonder if writer Earl Hamner Jr. based this on a real hit-and-run incident? It feels like wish fulfillment, trying to imagine a way someone like Oliver Pope could be brought to justice. It starts off as a character portrait of a coward, but devolves into unintentional farce as Oliver runs away from his angry car in the final scenes, eyes bugging from fear. Just run behind a tree in somebody’s yard, Oliver–the car won’t be able to follow you! (3.0 points)
Unintentionally ridiculous in the final scenes. (.5 points)
The Twist–
Not really much of a twist, and quite predictable from what’s come before. I bet you can guess the twist just from my description above. (.5 points)
Machines & Devices
Total=4.0 points (Watchable)

Quite watchable, but too predictable and in the end too ridiculous to be one of the better episodes. This is one where my daughter and I diverge, as she though it was pretty good, but then she liked Fever, too.

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