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You know how badass The Twilight Zone is? So badass that some of its episodes are retroactively rated TV-14. And this is from a show back in the 1960s! Granted, many of these new ratings are for Rod Serling smoking during the intros, but some are given that TV-14 rating for its themes and even violence. In that way, The Twilight Zone has always been a show distinctly adult in nature, and many of its best episodes challenged ideas like fascism, collectivism, racism…You know. All the major “ism’s.”
But not all of its episodes are heady, thought experiments. Some are just thoroughly engaging stories, many of which have little twists at the end that I’m sure inspired M. Night Shyamalan a great deal. Rod Serling did, after all, help write the screenplay for the original Planet of the Apes, which arguably has one of the greatest endings in the history of cinema. So, while some of these episodes below don’t tackle any of the important “isms,” they’re still the greatest and most memorable episodes in the entire series. And with a total of 156 episodes, that’s really saying something.
10. A Game of Pool, Season 3, Episode 5
A pool junkie named Jesse (played by Jack Klugman) has beaten every living player, but feels incomplete since he never got to play the legendary “Fats” Brown (played by Jonathan Winters). He’d give anything to play “Fats,” but there’s just one big problem—“Fats” is dead. But luckily (or unluckily since this is The Twilight Zone) “Fats” gets a call from Heaven, and he goes down to Earth to challenge Jesse. But there’s a catch, of course. Because again, this is The Twilight Zone.
A great majority of this episode is just two people playing exquisite pool, but the tension is sky high for both players. The ironic thing, though, is that we as an audience know that it would be better for Jesse if he loses, since it could only mean bad news for him if he wins. It’s the conclusion that ultimately sells this story, though. A great episode, and a simple one.
9. The Midnight Sun, Season 3, Episode 10
The earth is slowly, but surely, moving closer to the sun, creating an unbearably hot planet Earth. Norma (Lois Nettleton) and Mrs. Bronson (Betty Garde) are the last people to stay in an apartment complex, but they slowly go insane from the excessive heat. Especially Mrs. Bronson, who just wants Norma to stop painting the sun and to start painting something cool for a change!
This episode is especially great since it was so ahead of its time. I mean, hello. Climate change! How many other shows in the ‘60s were tackling that topic? But the interaction between the two characters (well, three, but I won’t spoil the episode), is great as well. It all feels just way too claustrophobic and uncomfortable, which it’s supposed to. And that image of the dripping paint at the end coupled with the music always gives me the chills. Unfortunately, there’s a twist at the end that kind of spoils the rest of the episode, but overall, it’s one of the best in the series.
8. To Serve Man, Season 3, Episode 24
Some big-headed aliens come down to Earth saying that they want to be friendly and “serve” us. We’re skeptical at first, but they eventually win us over. That’s a big mistake on our part, though, since the word “serve” can have multiple meanings.
I mean, come on. You don’t have to have even watched The Twilight Zone to know that famous—“It’s a cookbook!”—line. It’s like “Soylent Green is people!" Or, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” You know, lines so popular that they’ve kind of seeped into the pop culture subconscious and settled there. This episode’s great and all, but it would be a little higher if it didn’t completely need to rely on that twist ending to be effective.
7. The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, Season 1, Episode 22
A shadow with lights and sounds appears over a quaint suburb called Maple Street. Nobody really thinks much of it until one of the neighborhood boys suggests that it might be a UFO. Things quickly go downhill when strange occurrences start happening in the neighborhood. And if anything, this episode is a testament to just how little would take to drive people to violence.
This is one of those thoughtful, “ism” episodes that I mentioned earlier. This episode is fantastic because it gets right to the heart of the matter—people are naturally distrustful of one another, and if they seem like they’re “different,” then they’re probably dangerous. It doesn’t have any people of color, but it definitely touches on the concept of racism (us against them) and herd mentality. A fine and terrifying episode.
6. Nick of Time, Season 2, Episode 7
William Shatner plays a newlywed who stops into a diner after his car breaks down. He and his new bride sit at a table with a little devil fortune telling device that appears to really tell the future. But when he continues to use it, he finds that it has a hold over him. And it won't let him go.
A lot of Twilight Zone episodes have what I’ll call cheap twist endings, but this one is so effective that it elevates it above a lot of the other great episodes on this list. Plus, Shatner is just fantastic as a man who has stumbled into an addiction mounted by fear.
5. Time Enough at Last, Season 1, Episode 8
Burgess Meredith, who once played The Penguin in the old Batman series, plays a googly-eyed man who has terrible eyesight, but loves reading. Everybody hates him for his intellectualism, but he keeps reading because that’s what he loves to do. But when a giant bomb goes off while he’s in a safe, he finds that he’s probably the last living man on Earth. Loneliness sucks, but at least he has his books. As long as his glasses don’t break, he should be fine for the rest of his life…
Another “ism” episode—this one anti-intellectualism—the twist of the ending is more effective than “To Serve Man’s,” which is more of a pun than anything else. This twist though really stings, making it probably the most memorable twist in the entire show’s history. A fan-favorite, to be sure.
4. Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Season 5, Episode 3
Everybody’s seen this one. William Shatner (again) is sitting on a plane after coming out of a mental institution, and he sees a gremlin on the wing that nobody else can see. Scares (and funny faces!) ensue.
Probably the most famous episode, William Shatner is hilarious in this one. He’s not supposed to be, but this is peak Shatner. And while the “gremlin” looks ridiculous (kind of like that bear creature in The Shining giving a BJ) the mere concept of a monster on the wing of a airplane is still terrifying.
3. He's Alive, Season 4, Episode 4
A Neo Nazi (seriously) played by Dennis Hopper gets disrespected by pretty much everybody because he’s a loser. But when he has a chance encounter with a shadowy figure who sounds a lot like Hitler (Hint: It is Hitler), the Neo Nazi has a rise, and fall, after hurting somebody very close to him.
The most important episode in the entire series, “He’s Alive” was one of the hour-long episodes that people rarely get to see since it was in Season 4. That’s a shame, since it’s extremely potent and probably speaks more to today’s fractured America than any other episode in the series.
2. Shadow Play, Season 2, Episode 26
A man who is set to be executed claims that everything that is about to happen is all part of one of his dreams. He also says that he refuses to die again. He proclaims that everybody in the courtroom is just a figment of his imagination, and he tries to convince them that “dying” in his dreams every single night is torture, but nobody believes him.
My all-time favorite episode, “Shadow Play” haunts me to this day. It’s deep in a way that other episodes don’t even touch upon, and it takes its concepts gravely seriously. How hellish would it be to “die” every single night? This episode asks that terrible question and answers it, too.
1. It's a Good Life, Season 3, Episode 8
A little boy (played by Billy Mumy) has godlike powers, and can basically kill you by just thinking about it. He’s telepathic, so nobody in town can even think negative thoughts about him, because he’ll know. And then he’ll turn them into a jack-in-the-box before he sends them to the cornfield.
By far the scariest, most hair-raising episode in the entire series. “It’s a Good Life” is the only episode that has ever actually given me a nightmare. The concept is mind-blowing, and the performances of everybody cringing their way through their entire lives so as not to upset a little boy is the most effective the show has ever been. This episode’s not really trying to make any grand point, but from a storytelling perspective, there’s nothing better.
And that’s the list. Opinions are purely subjective, but I think most people would agree with many of the picks on this list. I also made an obscure Twilight Zone list, so your favorite might have ended up on there. But if it didn’t, what’s your favorite episode of the show? Sound off in the comments section below.