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 17 and 26 of the DVD collection.

The Old Man in the Cave (Season Five, 1963)
It’s been ten years since the nuclear war, and only a few hundred people are left alive “between Buffalo and Atlanta.” A couple dozen of those people are in a small, unnamed town, led by a Mr. Goldsmith (played by John Anderson, in his fourth Twilight Zone episode). Mr. Goldsmith goes up from time to time to receive written notes from the old man in the cave, whom he’s never seen. The old man gives instructions on where to plant the crops and when to go inside because the rain coming from the northwest will be radioactive. On this particular day, he’s instructed the townspeople not to eat the cache of canned goods they just discovered.

But now a squad of military men drive into town on a jeep, led by Major French (played by James Coburn). Major French represents a new organizing force and he wants the town to take orders from him from now on. Mr. Goldsmith believes Major French and his soldiers are just after the town’s food and wants them to move along. Major French insists on staying. When he hears about the old man in the cave that no one’s ever seen and who’s allegedly kept the people alive, he mocks their superstitious belief.

Major French believes Mr. Goldsmith has invented the old man in the cave to maintain his rule over the town. He convinces the townspeople to go ahead and eat the canned goods they’d found, and even eats some himself to prove it’s safe. Then he demands that Mr. Goldsmith take him up to the old man so he can prove to everybody there’s no one there. Surely he’ll find that the cave is empty…right?
Concept/Plot/Characters—Great acting by James Coburn, John Anderson, and the others. The script, which Rod Serling adapted from a short story, is well-written and well-paced enough. It does feel like it stitches together parts from several previous TZ episodes, however. A bit from Time Enough at Last here, a piece from On Thursday We Leave For Home there, maybe a dash of Dust, and pretty soon you have a new episode. (3 points)
Spot on in capturing the clash of the arrogant outsider who doesn’t understand the local customs and the longtime leader resentful of the intruder. (1 point)
The Twist–
The twist is somehow simultaneously both unexpected but unsurprising. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s just such a “Twilight Zone-y” twist that you murmur “of course” when you see it. (1 point)
Machines & Devices, Nuclear War
Total=5 points (Watchable)

I wrote in reference to the Mirror Image episode that if you held a gun to somebody’s head and told them to write a Twilight Zone, you’d probably get something like the script for that episode. I felt the same way about The Old Man in the Cave. Not a bad episode by any means, but it just hits so many of the usual themes, it’s almost like a TZ mix-and-match. It even has John Anderson, who’s appeared in three previous episodes, to reinforce the deja vu.

What You Need (Season One, 1959)
Pedott is a peddler who sells matches, thread, and other odds and ends from a suitcase. He visits the bar every night where the bartender dislikes him, but tolerates him because he always seems to have just what certain customers need. Tonight he sells a cleaning solution to a lady in a booth (“This is what you need, ma’am.”) and, of all things, gives a bus ticket to Scranton to an ex-baseball player at the bar. The bar phone rings–it’s the manager for a minor-league team in Scranton who’s looking for a new pitching coach and has been trying to find the ex-ballplayer for weeks. The ballplayer jumps at the opportunity, but his coat is stained–he’ll make a poor impression. The lady in the booth tries the cleaning fluid and it works like a charm, plus she and the ballplayer instantly hit it off.

A brooding figure at the far end of the bar, Fred Renard, watches all this happen. When Pedott leaves, Renard follows him and catches him on a lonely street, demanding Pedott give him what he needs. Pedott produces a pair of scissors from his suitcase. Later, Renard’s scarf gets caught in an elevator door, strangling him, but he’s able to use the pair of scissors to cut himself free.

Now Renard is really interested in Pedott. He shows up at Pedott’s apartment, threatening Pedott unless they become “partners,” meaning Pedott will give him what Renard needs whenever he wants. In desperation, Pedott gives him a leaky fountain pen, and the ink leaks onto the listing of horses at the track that day. The horse the ink blots turns out to be the winner, and Renard makes a huge payoff. He shows up again the next night. Is Pedott fated to forever supply the malevolent Renard with what he needs?
Concept/Plot/Characters—This was one of the earliest episodes of the new show and the script is fresh and lively (if a bit overwritten in the Serling way), the acting superb, the premise intriguing and well-executed. (3.5 points)
Perfectly captures the vulnerability of an elderly man caught in the thuggish clutches of a bully. (1 point)
The Twist–
A perfect Twilight Zone twist, unexpected but completely fitting. (2 points)
Total=6.5 points (Excellent)

My daughter and I agreed this one was Excellent. It was an episode I had never previously watched or even heard of. Nice to know that even halfway through our project, we are still coming across hidden gems.

Big Tall Wish (Season One, 1960)
This was a pioneering episode, as it was the first episode of an American TV program to star a cast of mostly black actors. Bolie Jackson is once-promising but now over-the-hill boxer who has one last big fight that everyone assumes he’ll lose. But his neighbor’s son, Henry, idolizes Bolie and believes he’ll win. Before the fight, Henry tells Bolie he’s going to make a “big tall wish” that Bolie will win.

Before the fight, Bolie gets in an argument with his manager and throws a punch at him, only to accidentally hit the wall and break the fingers on his right hand. He goes out to box anyway, but with one hand injured, of course he does poorly and is soon knocked out. Back at home, Henry is watching on TV and closes his eyes, making the big tall wish. All of a sudden, Bolie finds himself back on his feet and with his opponent on the ground instead of him. After the fight, Bolie learns his fingers weren’t broken after all, but only bruised.

Bolie goes home and talks to Henry, who turns out to be the only other person who remembers that it was originally Bolie on the ground about to lose the match. Henry reveals he wished for Bolie to win. Bolie insists that there’s no such thing as magic. Henry insists there is, but it works only if you believe in it. Will Bolie be able to accept that sometimes magic can make good things happen?
A pretty decent premise and great acting. Characters are utterly believable and the script’s dialogue is some of Serling’s best work. Unfortunately, the ending is somewhat muddled, as I discuss in The Twist section, below. (3.5 points)
Convincingly depicts the life of a man who once had big dreams but has seen nothing but disappointment in his life. (1 point)
The Twist–
(Spoilers!) Somehow the twist gets muddled. Bolie and Henry are talking, and Bolie discovers that the only reason he won was because Henry can wish for things and they happen. (Henry’s sort of a good version of the kid in It’s A Good Life.) But it seems Bolie is just too beaten down to believe in magic, so the wish doesn’t work, and he’s back in the ring being counted out. Then, in the following scene, he visits Henry again, and now it seems the reason is because he didn’t want to win from a wish, he wanted to win due to his own effort. Well, these are not the same thing–one is a really depressing reason, the other a heroic sacrifice on Bolie’s part. It can’t be both, and the script trying to have it both ways only confuses things. (1 point)
Mind Powers, Sports
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

What could have been an Excellent episode snatches defeat from the jaws of victory at the end (just like Bolie!) with a confusing, contradictory explanation for the twist.

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