“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension.” So begins one of the all-time classic TV shows, a sci-fi and fantasy anthology series called The Twilight Zone. From 1959 through 1964 it created a lasting impression with its unforgettable theme song, clever stories and twist endings. Here are synopses of 3 classic episodes (get ready for spoilers):
- It’s A Good Life
In this story, there’s a surprising contrast between the villain’s appearance and his character. On the outside, Anthony Fremont is a cute little 6-year-old. On the inside, he’s a moody tyrant with amazing mental powers. He can control the weather, read minds, “hear” distant conversations and force adults into terrified subservience. It’s strange to watch a kid in charge. If Anthony wants it to snow, it snows. If Anthony wants to give a gopher 3 heads and then kill it he does so casually, to the stifled horror of Bill, an adult nearby. The grownups’ motto seems to be, “It’s Anthony’s world; we just live in it.”
In fact, their lives depend on the boy. They’re allowed to live only as long as they please him. When challenged he can impose a strange, terrible fate on anyone. Through dialogue it’s revealed that he once set a man on fire. He also likes “wishing people away into the cornfield.” The slightest offense sets him off, and he brutally punishes anyone who so much as thinks negatively about him.
The Fremonts celebrate the birthday of Dan Hollis, a neighbor. After drinking too much, Dan confronts the boy who turns him into a jack-in-the-box. One of the most bizarre and effective shots in the whole series is the bouncing jack-in-the-box head, shown in silhouette on the wall.
The acting in this episode is pitch perfect. The adults try to cover internal dread and panic with outer pleasantness. They struggle to hide anxiety in their voices in lines like, “You’re a good boy, Anthony. We all love you.” They better love him…or else.
- The Dummy
The beginning and middle of this episode are so-so, telling the story of a ventriloquist who’s slowly losing his mind. His act is unsuccessful and he drinks too much. Maybe because of the growing stress, he begins to suspect that the dummy is alive−and evil. What really makes this one stand out is the end, with the kind of shocking twist The Twilight Zone made famous. In the final scene, Jerry and Willy are performing at a nightclub. The viewer hears them before seeing them. The camera pans around slowly as the audience laughs at their corny banter. But when the two are shown, Willy is now the human and Jerry is the dummy. Decades later, the scene is just as chilling as ever.
- Eye of the Beholder
No list of classic Twilight Zones is complete without “Eye of the Beholder.” This one is so well known it’s been referred to in pop culture and spoofed in cartoons. But even though we know the twist, the episode still packs a good punch. The story takes place in a dystopian future, an unnamed totalitarian state. Janet is recovering in a hospital after her eleventh surgery. The previous 10 were failed attempts to correct her disfigured face. Doctors and nurses discuss her case. She pleads with the surgeon and the time comes for him to remove the bandages. They recoil in shock: this operation has failed as well. Janet looks exactly the same! When the lights come on, we finally see everyone involved: Janet is beautiful, while the hospital workers all have hideous pig faces.
After this climactic scene, the focus turns to the state-controlled society which they inhabit and fully accept. Through a broadcast of their leader’s speech, we learn that here conformity is prized above all else. Those who are different become outcasts; in fact, Janet herself will join a human enclave to live among “her own kind.” The episode subtly questions what “normal” means and who defines it.
Most TV shows from the 1960s have faded into obscurity. But The Twilight Zone inspired a movie, graphic novels and new versions of the series. It continues to entertain us and offer social commentary, often through metaphor and fantasy elements. It deserves its cult status and remains a true classic.