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Seitz Asks: What’s the Most Underrated Show of the Eighties?

Seitz Asks is a weekly feature in which our critic proposes a question about the medium, gives his own answer, then engages with readers about their responses.

The key word here is underrated. I loved Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Moonlighting, and a lot of other eighties series, but I wouldn't call any of them underrated, because they were inescapable and widely praised. My vote would go to the CBS reboot of The Twilight Zone (1985–89), which draws blank stares from pretty much anyone I mention it to. And that's sad, because the more I revisit bits and pieces of this program on YouTube, the more impressive it seems. It wasn't just a rip-off of a brand-name classic; during its best weeks, it was as good as, and often superior to, its parent.

In contrast to writer-producer-narrator Rod Serling's mostly half-hour original, which aired on CBS from 1959–64, this version ran in a one-hour time slot, which let the producers give individual stories whatever weight they thought was necessary — anywhere from twelve minutes to a full hour, minus ads. (The ill-fated 2002 version hosted by Forest Whitaker had this format, too.) Some episodes were remakes of tales from the earlier incarnation, but most were original. Sci-fi master and legendary shit-stirrer Harlan Ellison served as the show's "creative consultant," wrote some of the best episodes, quit over a dispute with the network's standards and practices department, then returned again for season three. (Details here.) George R.R. Martin, Rockne S. O'Bannon, Robert M. McCammon, and other notable writers penned episodes.

Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead recorded an ominously electric version of Bernard Herrmann's original theme. The roster of directors was as impressive as the one that Steven Spielberg, who executive produced a failed 1983 feature film version of The Twilight Zone, put together over on NBC for his own anthology program Amazing Stories (a show that had its moments, but that just ultimately wasn't as visually and tonally varied as the eighties Zone); William Friedkin, John Milius, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Peter Medak, Martha Coolidge, Atom Egoyan, Jim McBride, and other notable filmmakers all stepped behind the camera at various points. I'd rank quite a few of the eighties Zone episodes alongside the best installments of Serling's original. Even the worst had its own look, feel, and pace, which means that the overall effect was a bit like watching a weekly short-film festival.

Here are my top five episodes:

1. "Nightcrawlers," script by Philip DeGuere, directed by William Friedkin, about a Vietnam veteran being pursued by the specters of men he betrayed during the war. Scored by Merle Saunders and the Grateful Dead, with Huey Lewis on harmonica (and totally killing it). Spare, relentless, utterly terrifying stuff. (Watch here.)

2. "Wordplay," written by Rockne S. O'Bannon and directed by Wes Craven, starring Robert Klein as a man who wakes up one morning to discover that ordinary words now have different meanings. The punch line is one of the greatest in the franchise's very long history. (Watch here.)

3. "Gramma," adapted by Harlan Ellison from Stephen King's short story and directed (chillingly) by Bradford May. Don't let little kids anywhere near this one. (Watch here.)

4. "Shatterday," written by Harlan Ellison and directed by Wes Craven. This debut segment starred an appallingly young, baby-faced Bruce Willis as a man doing battle with a double who might be his alter ego. (Watch here.)

5. "Opening Day," written by Gerritt Graham and Chris Hubbell and directed by John Milius; a creepy, arty, film-noir-ish riff on "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" about a married woman and her lover plotting to kill the woman's husband during a hunting trip and make it look like an accident. Although the performances are iffy (except for the great Jeffrey Jones as the cuckold), this is my pick for the most daringly directed of all the eighties Zone episodes. The bracketing scenes on the lake at dawn are filmed on soundstages with obvious forced perspective, painted backgrounds (shades of A Place in the Sun and Sunrise); the second half is filled with roiling clouds of dry ice that clearly signal "this is a dream" and are somehow more eerie as a result. (Watch here.)

The eighties Twilight Zone debuted to strong ratings then saw its audience erode. It limped through three seasons, shrunk to a half-hour and then expanded to an hour again, and was chopped up and repackaged as a half-hour series for syndication, which destroyed the pacing of many installments. The series came out on DVD, but the visual quality was weak because although the episodes were shot on 35mm film, the special effects and editing were done on videotape, and the masters were poorly preserved. Still, a degraded record of this consistently strong and often masterful program is better than none at all.

Okay, readers, your turn. What’s your pick for the most underrated series of the eighties?