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 Volume 26 of the DVD collection.

Showdown with Rance McGrew (Season Three, 1962)
Rance McGrew is the star of a western TV show in which he plays a U.S. Marshall of the same name. Rance is spoiled and entitled, lording it over the crew and rewriting scripts on the fly to make his character look better, no matter how ridiculous the plot turns out. In the latest episode he’s filming, he takes on Jesse James. Only, it seems the real Jesse James is watching from heaven, and doesn’t like how his memory is being handled. Jesse decides to pay a visit to Rance to give him a lesson in the real Old West.
Concept/Plot/Characters—The concept is half-baked and humor is not Rod Serling’s strong suit, to say the least. The script just isn’t sharp. There is one fairly funny part where the physically inept Rance breaks a mirror when something slips out of his hand. It works so well that Rod repeats it a couple more times, thus erasing the humor of the first occurrence retroactively. (1 point)
I suppose this is supposed to have a zany atmosphere, but so many of the jokes fall flat that it just doesn’t work. (1/2 point)
The Twist–
The twist is pretty much what you’d expect. (1/2 point)
Total=2 points (So-So)

Reminds me a bit of Season One’s “A World of Difference,” in that the real world intrudes into TV land. Like that one, this episode doesn’t do anything very interesting with the concept. This one scores even lower, at the very bottom of the So-So category. It rises above the Avoid level solely on the basis of a certain zany, good-humored energy.

Night Call (Season Five, 1964)
Elva Keene is an elderly woman in a Maine cottage who never married. A housekeeper, Margaret, comes during the day to take care of her and do chores around the house, but the nights are tough, when Elva’s alone. One night, she receives a strange phone call around two in the morning. No one answers on the other end. This repeats itself nightly. After a few nights, a strange voice starts repeating, “Hello? Hello?” A few nights after that, the voice starts saying, “I want to talk to you.”

Elva tries to get the operator to trace the source of these frightening calls, but the phone company can’t figure out where it’s coming from. Nor is Margaret any help, telling Elva just to leave the receiver off the hook. But Elva can’t do that, because there’s something about that ghostly voice that’s compelling.

Finally, she gets a call from the operator that the source of the calls is a downed line on the edge of town causing random rings. That doesn’t make much sense to Elva as there’s an actual voice on the line, so she has Margaret drive her out to the spot. They find the fallen line and see that it’s dropped into a cemetery. It just so happens it’s the cemetery where Brian Douglas, Elva’s fiancee who died in a car crash days before their wedding was to take place, is buried. And the line seems to have fallen right in front of his tombstone. But that’s not the final twist in this episode….
Concept/Plot/Characters—Richard Matheson’s script is well done and Dame Gladys Cooper, an English actress here in one of her final roles in a long and distinguished career (her first movie credit is from 1911), is quite good as Elva. Still, Elva comes across more as petulant and unlikable than lonely, and I’m not sure that’s what the episode needs. (3.0 points)
I think we’re going for an old woman’s loneliness and her need to be comforted… but she has a housekeeper come and spend all day, everyday with her? Sort of undermines the loneliness, and indeed, her somewhat dismissive attitude to Margaret robs us of much sympathy for her. (.5 points)
The Twist–
Just when you think, “eh, I saw that coming,” a double twist provides a real Twilight Zone surprise ending. (2 points)
Total=5.5 points (Pretty Good)

This one reminds me a lot of Season 3’s “Nothing in the Dark,” although it goes in a different direction at the end. A fine script and acting and a truly surprising twist could have made for an Excellent episode, but an unlikable rather than sympathetic main character instead results in one that’s just Pretty Good.

A Piano in the House (Season Three, 1962)
So my daughter and I have seen about half the TZ episodes at this point in our project, and it’s nice that we can still come across hidden gems like this one, an episode I’d never even heard of but that struck both of us as quite good.

Fitzgerald Fortune is an arrogant, snide theater critic. He’s searching in an antique store for a gift for the birthday of his wife, Esther. She’s recently mentioned she wants to learn to play the piano, so Fitzgerald decides to purchase an old player piano as he’s sure his wife has no musical talent. Since it will play itself, that will be a perfect way to really twist the knife in Esther’s ego. Oddly, when the antique store owner plays a sentimental old song as a demonstration, he seems to fall under a kind of hypnosis and offers Fitzgerald a real deal on the instrument.

At home before the party, playing an old happy tune on the player piano causes Fitzgerald’s normally morose butler to break out in smiles, only to return to his normal mood when the song is over. Fitzgerald makes the connection and realizes he can have a fun evening of cruelly manipulating his guests, choosing songs designed to elicit vulnerability from each guest according to his or her weakness. It’s probably no surprise that eventually the guests tire of Fitzgerald’s game and decide to turn the piano on Fitzgerald himself….
A creative and intriguing premise, a well thought-out script and fleshed-out characters from Earl Hamner Jr. (who wrote only a handful of other, pretty weak, TZ episodes), and strong acting make this a superior episode. (3.5 points)
Perfectly captures the sort of brittle cynicism of an obnoxious man and the unhappy household he’s created. (1 point)
The Twist–
Not completely unexpected but follows naturally from what’s come before in the episode, and with a strong sense of poetic justice. (1.5 point)
Machines & Devices
Total=6.0 points (Pretty Good)

A hidden Twilight Zone gem and just short of Excellent. Clearly the highlight of Earl Hamner Jr.’s scripts for the show.

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