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 and 34 of the DVD collection.

The Long Morrow (Season Five, 1964)
Douglas Stansfield is an astronaut on a mission to a distant planet. The trip will take decades, but Stansfield is in suspended animation and will only age a short time, although by the time he gets back to Earth, forty years will have passed for everyone else. The idea of suspended animation must have been novel on television at the time, because this episode really belabors the concept. Anyway, Stansfield’s dreams and thoughts are filled with Sandra Horn, a young woman he met and fell in love with only days before his rocket took off. He’s haunted by the idea that she will be an old lady when he returns to Earth, while he’ll still be a young man, and he’ll have missed his chance at true love. But there’s nothing he can do about that…is there?
Concept/Plot/Characters—Fairly slow–there’s lots of narration over pictures of Stansfield lying motionless in his suspended animation chamber on board the ship–but Robert Hartley (Douglas) and Mariette Lansing (Sandra) really do a really credible job in showing the two characters falling in love in just a few scenes. Serling’s script also does a good job actually making them both well-rounded characters and not just cut-outs. (2.5 points)
Successfully pulls out the bittersweet emotions of Stansfield making a huge scientific advance yet sacrificing everything to do it. (1 point)
The Twist–
One of the great Twilight Zone twists. I don’t want to say more than that. (2 points)
All Alone
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

My daughter and I agreed this one was Pretty Good. A somewhat slow script rescued by a perfectly executed twist, and by the actors’ ability to sell a somewhat unlikely love story.

Twenty-Two (Season Two, 1961)
This one’s of special interest to me because I saw it when I was eight years old and my family had just moved to a new house. It may even have been the first Twilight Zone episode I ever saw. It scared me a lot at the time! Let’s see if it’s still scary.

LIz Powell is an exotic dancer who’s been hospitalized for exhaustion. Every night in the hospital, she has a dream that mysterious footsteps walk by outside her door. When she investigates, she sees a nurse going down the elevator to the basement. She follows, gets out at the basement, and sees the door to the morgue closing. As she approaches the morgue, the door opens and the nurse steps out saying, “Room for one more, honey.” At this point Liz wakes up with a scream. When she’s finally better and ready to leave the hospital, the nightmares should stop…shouldn’t they?

Now for a little interpretation. I think Liz’s exhaustion is a symptom of masculine oppression, and her nightmares are her unconscious mind telling her she needs to find a profession where she doesn’t rely on displaying her body to men. The episode makes a point that Liz is an exotic dancer. When her agent comes to visit her in the hospital, he brings flowers and acts sympathetic, but he refers to her as “kid” and seems mostly interested in when she can get on stage again and whether her hospital stay has detracted from her beauty. The doctor, too, leers at Liz and makes subtle digs at her, while affecting to be worried about her health. It seems she’s surrounded by men interested only in exploiting her body for their own purposes, and not in her personality or her soul. If she keeps on, she’ll lose herself and end up in a metaphoric morgue. In my opinion, the episode’s twist only strengthens this theory.
Concept/Plot/Characters—Apparently the premise is based on a story in a book called Famous Ghost Stories, but the script is pure Rod Serling, and one of his best. The dialogue is sharp, Liz and the other characters are well-delineated in a short period of time, and the pacing is excellent. (3.5 points)
The dread and claustrophobia of a woman in a vulnerable position and reliant on the men around her, who seem to have less than her best interests at heart, really comes through. (1 point)
The Twist–
A superb and perfectly-executed twist. (2 points)
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

Not only does this hold up, but it’s a much deeper and more sophisticated episode than I could possibly have realized at age eight.

A Stop at Willoughby (Season One, 1960)
Gart Williams works in a high-powered advertising office in New York, and his tense job has given him ulcers. It makes his stomach hurt to hear his boss, Mr. Misrell, yell “Push, push, push!” at him at meetings or over the phone, and the endless demands of clients and colleagues wear him out. At home, his social climbing wife insults him for not being the ambitious man she thought she was marrying, and stress keeps him from sleeping at night. His only few moments of relief the whole day are during the ride home on the commuter train, when he falls asleep and dreams that the train stops at a place called “Willougby,” a small town in the 1880s where a brass band plays on a bandstand and kids walk back from the lake with fishing poles.

One particularly bad day, Gart leaves work early and falls asleep on the train, as usual. This time, the train conductor at the Willoughby stop asks him if he wouldn’t like to get off and visit the town. He’s tempted to take him up on the offer, but can he really do it…just walk out of his regular life and into this more idyllic existence?
The dialogue is sharp, the acting is on point, the premise makes sense. It’s just…there’s not a lot to this episode? I mean, it takes the usual twenty-four minutes, and it doesn’t feel padded or anything. I know a lot of people like this episode, and there’s nothing exactly wrong with it. Yet, to me at least, you get to the end, and it seems like there should have been more. (3.0 points)
Really nails the pressure of a man in a high-stress corporate job and his feeling of being trapped. (1 point)
The Twist–
Fairly predictable twist, though done well. (1 point)
Total=5.0 points (Watchable)

A fan favorite that doesn’t have anything specifically wrong with it, but leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

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