“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” With those words, television changed forever.
When Rod Serling’s masterpiece premiered on CBS in 1959, he couldn’t have known how much it would still be impacting film and TV six decades later. Almost exactly 60 years after that first episode aired, Jordan Peele is rebooting the series, dragging us back into the zone with original stories starring Adam Scott, Kumail Nanjiani, Greg Kinnear, Steven Yeun, and many more.
If you’ve never seen an episode of the original series before, or simply want to revisit the best ones, now’s the time — all of them are on Hulu, and all but season four are on Netflix. But with 156 episodes of the original series (and two reboots), it can be tough to know where to start. Who’s got 74 hours to watch all of them? Probably no one. Start with these great 50 chapters from one of be the best TV shows of all time.
50. “What’s in the Box?” (Season 5, Episode 24)
Rod Serling’s creation arguably became more cynical as the show progressed, and the fifth season is full of bleak examinations of the human capacity for evil. This late-series gem stars William Demarest as an average cab driver in a miserable marriage to Joan Blondell. He complains about her cooking, may be cheating on her, and calls her names. When he mocks a TV repairman (played by Sterling Holloway) for taking too long and ripping him off, the repairmen really fixes his TV. Turned to the nonexistent channel 10, the cabbie sees scenes from his past, present, and then his future. And in that last one, he’s being arrested, tried, and executed for killing his wife. The Twilight Zone often played with the concept of fate, typically coming down on the side that we can’t avoid it. This episode presents us with a man scared that he’s going to kill his wife, but we know by now that this means he probably will anyway. In the Twilight Zone, we can’t avoid our true selves.
49. “The Old Man in the Cave” (Season 5, Episode 7)
The first of many Serling-scripted episodes on this list, “The Old Man in the Cave” is based on a short story by Henry Slesar called “The Old Man,” and it’s a fascinating entry in the series history largely because of how many common elements of the show it actually subverts. It’s not only an episode that encourages faith in a higher power but one that arguably is pro-technology in its twist. That’s especially rare for a show that features about five dozen episodes about how technology will be the end of us. James Coburn stars as Major French, the leader of a group of soldiers who comes upon a town of survivors ten years after a nuclear war. These people have been kept alive by “the old man in the cave,” but French questions and confronts the guidance of their unseen leader. He learns a lesson, of course.
48. “Jess-Belle” (Season 4, Episode 7)
Season four is the toughest stretch of The Twilight Zone because CBS expanded the show to an hour, which Serling didn’t like and the writing couldn’t quite support. Almost every episode of season four, including even the ones on this list, would have been better at half the running time. And yet there are still some good ones (and three truly great ones you’ll find in the top 25), including this old-fashioned story of jealousy and witchery with some great star value. Forbidden Planet’s Anne Francis stars as Jess-Belle, who’s in love with Billy-Ben Turner, played by James Best (who would go on to play Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard). It’s a classic tale of a woman using witchcraft to get the man she wants and paying the price. Serling’s narration sells the charm: “In the telling, the story gets added to and embroidered on, so that what might have happened in the time of the Druids is told as if it took place yesterday in the Blue Ridge Mountains.”
47. “The Parallel” (Season 4, Episode 11)
Steve Forrest plays Major Robert Gaines, an astronaut orbiting Earth when he loses contact with his home planet. He wakes up in bed with no memory of how he got there or what happened between the communication loss, but everything seems fine. Of course, it’s not. The brilliance of this episode is how Serling’s script carefully teases out the sense that something is wrong in Gaines’s world. He first wonders why there’s a picket fence in front of his house, when there wasn’t one when he left. He’s confused by people calling him Colonel when he knows he’s a Major. And then Serling drops the wonderful bomb when Gaines speaks of President John F. Kennedy, a man no one around him has ever heard of. Parallel universes became such a common storytelling device in sci-fi, but this is a clever riff on the concept, and one of the few episodes of this show that has a happy ending.
46. “The Changing of the Guard” (Season 3, Episode 37)
The season finale of the third season of The Twilight Zone has echoes of It’s a Wonderful Life embedded in its surprisingly sweet story. The vast majority of Serling’s scripts could be called misanthropic, often capturing how easily people could be drawn to their worst nature, but he would occasionally reveal a tender, even sentimental side, and arguably never more so than here. The setting is the Rock Spring School for Boys, where Professor Ellis Fowler (Donald Pleasence) is being pushed into retirement after over five decades on the job. Deeply depressed by the decision, he contemplates suicide, wondering if he’s had any impact at all. In a manner that recalls both Capra and Dickens, Fowler is visited by the ghosts of students he taught, all of whom convey how much they learned from their favorite teacher. Heroes from Iwo Jima and Pearl Harbor are among the specters, and Serling captures something graceful and true about how we can have a greater impact on those we teach than we can ever imagine.
45. “Person or Persons Unknown” (Season 3, Episode 27)
The fluid nature of identity reoccurs in some of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone, including this 1962 story of a man named David Gurney (Richard Long) who wakes up to find himself erased from the life he knew. His wife doesn’t recognize him, his co-workers have never seen him before, and — in the most chilling moment — even his mother denies having a son named Richard. It’s even got a clever little twist ending in which Richard wakes up and thinks everything is back to normal, only to find out it really isn’t. Losing one’s identity has been a theme of science-fiction literature and film for years, and this is an underrated, terrifying riff on it in the world of TV. What would you do if every connection in your life was suddenly erased?
44. “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” (Season 3, Episode 30)
The comedy episodes of The Twilight Zone — and there are more of them than you probably remember — haven’t exactly held up like the scary ones. People love to talk about the twists and shocks of The Twilight Zone way more than the jokes, but this one isn’t as dated as the other funny installments because its concept is so resolutely clever: What if someone could stop an alien invasion through the sheer power of their level of annoyance? Frisby (Andy Devine) tells lie after lie to his friends — the kind of blatantly tall tales so high that you can’t see the top of them. He’s told so many lies that alien invaders become convinced that he’s the most important person on Earth, and so they reach out to him and take him to their planet. They regret it.
43. “Dust” (Season 2, Episode 12)
Rod Serling’s most popular episodes are often known for their vicious twists, from broken glasses to alien cuisine, but he could also be found rooting for the underdog and the downtrodden. And he often returned to the importance of faith in the human condition. This season-two episode is blissfully simple but powerful. In a small village in the Old West, a man is going to be hanged for accidentally causing the death of a child. A cruel man convinces the accused’s father than he can engender sympathy from the onlookers if he spreads magic dust on them, but we know it’s really just dirt. Of course, Serling has a twist, encouraging viewers to believe that faith can overcome trickery.
42. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (Season 5, Episode 22)
This arguably doesn’t qualify in that it wasn’t produced originally for The Twilight Zone, but it aired on TV under the banner of Serling’s show and he added opening and closing narration, so we’re going for it anyway. Some background info: It was originally a short film from France, and it won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. The story goes that Serling liked it so much that the show paid $25,000 to buy it and air it as one of their episodes (although he’s very up-front about that, saying in the intro, “For the first time in the five years we’ve been presenting The Twilight Zone, we’re offering a film shot in France by others.”) It’s easy to see why Serling liked the nearly dialogue-less short, the story of a man set to be hanged but the rope breaks. As his captors try to catch him, he tries to make it home to his love. Based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, the ending definitely has that Twilight Zone flavor.
41. “The Obsolete Man” (Season 2, Episode 29)
Is Burgess Meredith the MVP of The Twilight Zone? The man who would be the Penguin appeared in four episodes of the series, including “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” “Printer’s Devil,” and a famous one much higher on this list. This is his second-best outing, an angry, Serling-scripted chapter about the state of a world that increasingly valued power over art. Meredith plays a librarian named Romney Wordsworth (of course), and librarians have been deemed unnecessary in this future society. The Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) finds Romney guilty of being obsolete and sentences him to death, but the bookworm gets to choose the method of his execution and he has a trick up his sleeve. Serling’s streak of questioning authority and defending things like art and religion is strong here, and Meredith elevates the entire episode.
40. “A Penny for Your Thoughts” (Season 2, Episode 16)
Dick York of Bewitched fame stars as a bank clerk named Hector Poole in an episode that largely succeeds because one of those very Twilight Zone concepts. A man flips a coin into a newspaper box and it lands on its side, which apparently opens some sort of magical portal — this is one of those episodes that doesn’t feel a need to explain a whole lot — that allows Hector to hear other people’s thoughts. A visit to his job at the bank reveals a great number of unspoken secrets, including a mistress and a plan to embezzle money. It’s all a little goofy, but York sells it and the final scenes really work as Hector becomes a less insecure man through his adventure, learning that everyone around him has issues too.
39. “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” (Season 2, Episode 23)
Time travel is a recurring motif of The Twilight Zone, but the way it’s used here is so refreshingly simple and charming that it works better than when it becomes a heavy-handed device in other episodes. Chris Horn (Cliff Robertson, who has two episodes on this list) is the leader of a dying group of settlers trying to get from Ohio to California in 1847. He crosses a hill and he’s suddenly transported more than a century into the future, where he receives the medication to save his boy’s life and the directions to his destination that saves his people back in the 19th century. There are fewer “messages” in this episode than others, but it’s clever in its simplicity, and Robertson does a good job conveying the confusion and wonder of a man who literally walks over a rim into the future.
38. “The Encounter” (Season 5, Episode 31)
The last great episode of The Twilight Zone is also one of its most politically fascinating. Serling’s show often worked most effectively as a two-hander, but rarely did it explore national issues like race and divisiveness as explicitly as it did here. The plot is wonderfully simple — an American WWII vet (Neville Brand) and a Japanese-American (George Takei) end up in an attic together, an old samurai sword serving as the Chekhov’s gun of the setup. The vet is a little racist, and the Japanese-American looks at the sword and vows to kill the man who took it from his culture. Is the sword itself bringing out buried animosities in both men? Dialogue-heavy in a way this show often wasn’t, this is a daring episode of TV, challenging preconceptions of veterans and opening wounds of a people who were, relative to the airing of this show, considered the enemy and interned. Fenton expresses regret over his actions in World War II, something else that seems shocking for national television in 1964, and the episode ends with what some deemed culturally insensitive violence. It typically wasn’t included in rerun packages, only airing on TV as a part of SyFy’s annual marathon on New Year’s Eve, but it feels like an essential episode now, a chapter that interrogates the violence and hatred simmering in attics across the country.
37. “A Nice Place to Visit” (Season 1, Episode 28)
Like The Good Place? You should check out this show that feels like it probably inspired it at least a little. “Rocky” Valentine (Larry Blyden) is a petty criminal who is shot after trying to rob a police officer. He wakes up in the company of a man named Pip (Sebastian Cabot), who tells Rocky that he’s now his guide, and can give him whatever he wants. He takes him to a luxurious apartment, and lavishes food, women, and even luck in a casino upon him. When Rocky tries to shoot Pip and it doesn’t work, he assumes that this magic man is his guardian angel and he’s in heaven. If you’ve seen the NBC hit, you can see the twist here coming, but it’s still effective and fun to watch it play out. After all, what’s more hellish than the predictability of always having everything you want and knowing how everything is going to turn out?
36. “The Howling Man” (Season 2, Episode 5)
A rough start to season two turns around with this creepy period piece starring H.M. Wynant and John Carradine. A man in the 1920s gets lost and finds his way to a European castle that houses a religious order known as the Brothers. As a storm rages, the man seeks shelter but is turned away. He pleads for help and hears a howl emanating from somewhere in the ancient structure. The traveler collapses, and the Brothers show mercy and take him in, but he hears the howling again. He investigates and finds a prisoner who has been mistreated and abused by the Brothers. That’s when a man named Brother Jerome tells the wanderer the truth: This is no ordinary man, it’s the Devil himself. The idea that Satan is being kept from destroying the world by a religious group in a creepy castle somewhere in Europe is a great concept for fiction, and this one is well-executed and honestly eerie.
35. “A Quality of Mercy” (Season 3, Episode 15)
You always know that Serling is getting serious when he quotes Shakespeare (and Serling does credit the Bard’s The Merchant of Venice for the title in his closing narration.) The Twilight Zone often stumbled when it tackled history — some of those episodes have not aged well — but this journey into the closing days of World War II still has power. The great Dean Stockwell stars as Lieutenant Katell, a soldier who basically wants to fight until he can fight no more. It may be August 1945 and the war may be ending, but he still orders his men to attack a group of infirm Japanese soldiers seeking shelter in a cave. As they try to talk him out of it, Katell is suddenly transformed into Lieutenant Yamuri in the Imperial Japanese Army, three years earlier in the war. The orders are the same — massacre a group of people who pose no real threat — but now the officer is on the other side. Serling was arguing that we are more like our enemies than not, less than two decades after the end of World War II, and it’s a message that’s still powerful today.
34. “Little Girl Lost” (Season 3, Episode 26)
Some episodes of The Twilight Zone are deeply philosophical or socially relevant; some are just creepy mindf**ks. This chapter by the great Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, The Shrinking Man) from his own short story falls into the latter category. Imagine being able to hear your child but not find her. This is what happens to Ruth (Sarah Marshall) and Chris Miller (Robert Sampson) when their daughter Bettina simply disappears. They can hear Bettina crying, but they can’t get to her as she appears to have basically fallen into a parallel dimension. It’s reportedly based on a real incident in which Matheson’s daughter fell off her bed and rolled underneath it, leading to confusion about where she could be. A clear inspiration for Poltergeist (as well as a great Simpsons “Treehouse of Horror” episode), “Little Girl Lost” is simple but effective.
33. “Twenty Two” (Season 2, Episode 17)
Who doesn’t love a good prophetic vision? A likely inspiration for Final Destination, “Twenty Two” stars Barbara Nichols as Liz Powell, a dancer who has been hospitalized for exhaustion. While in her hospital bed, she keeps having a nightmare with the same beats. It always ends with Powell following a nurse to the basement of the hospital and the morgue, which is in room 22. It’s a vivid, terrifying dream, made all the stranger by the fact that Liz’s doctors can’t figure out how she knows that the morgue is in room 22. In the brilliant final scenes, Powell has finally been released but elements of the dream start to resurface at the airport as she boards a plane; of course, Flight 22. Effectively creepy, this might not be one to watch on your next long-distance flight. (There are several episodes of this show probably banned from in-flight entertainment.)
32. “A Stop at Willoughby” (Season 1, Episode 30)
Nostalgia was a common theme of The Twilight Zone, often presented in a manner that encouraged people to stop living in the past. After all, you really can never go home again. And yet that doesn’t stop people from trying. Take the story of Gart Williams (James Daly), a miserable New York ad executive who works too hard and hates his modern life. He falls asleep on the commuter train he takes to and from work, dreaming of a stop on the route that doesn’t exist anymore, the peaceful town of Willoughby back in July 1888. Every time he falls asleep he returns to this idyllic place, tempted more and more to get off the train of modern life and stay in the past he has so thoroughly idealized. In the end, he does get off the train at Willoughby, and we learn that he jumped off the rails in 1960 and died instantly. The funeral home that takes him away? Willoughby & Son.
31. “Nothing in the Dark” (Season 3, Episode 16)
Will we know when death is at our door? Wanda Dunn (silent film star Gladys Cooper) is convinced that she will. And she has basically staved off death by becoming an agoraphobe, refusing to go outside or even answer the occasional knock. After all, that could be the grim reaper rapping. When a young police officer, played with a perfect blend of mystery and kindness by Robert Redford, comes to her door and asks for help, she breaks her own rule and lets him in. As she tends to the injured officer, she tells him of her fear that death is stalking her doorstep. Of course, she’s not wrong. Death was and still is such a terrifying concept for people, but this episode finds a way to present it with nuance and grace.
30. “Nick of Time” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Everyone talks about the episode in which William Shatner had the worst flight in TV history, but it wasn’t his only great episode of The Twilight Zone. He actually made his first appearance on the show three seasons earlier in this clever mind game. Some of the best episodes work beautifully because they offer little explanation — something that could be learned by the way too many over-explaining shows and films influenced by Serling. Could a fortune-teller machine on a diner table in Ohio actually be able to tell the future? Why not? Shatner’s newlywed and his bride find that machine on a random stop, but they learn that knowing all the answers can be a curse as much as a blessing.
29. “The Last Flight” (Season 1, Episode 18)
Richard Matheson adapts his own short story in this clever time-travel narrative that uses the classic sci-fi structure for a commentary on heroism. Terry Decker (Kenneth Haigh) has never considered himself a hero, especially as he flies away from an aerial dogfight in 1917. He pilots his plane through a strange cloud and lands at an American airbase in France, totally confused about where he is … and when. It turns out that it’s 1959, but that’s not the biggest twist. One of the soldiers he left behind in 1917, Alexander Mackaye, is scheduled to visit the base that day. Mackaye is world famous for having saved hundreds of lives in World War II, which seems impossible to Decker given how he left his fellow soldier. Realizing the importance that Mackaye will have to history, Decker decides to find his courage. It’s a clever, moving commentary on how saving one life can impact hundreds more.
28. “Long Distance Call” (Season 2, Episode 22)
To save money in season two when the show’s budget started to balloon, CBS ordered that six episodes be produced and shot on videotape instead of film. They have not aged well visually, looking stale and flat compared to the underrated visual brilliance of the show overall. The one episode that stands out is this March 1961 entry about a 5-year-old boy with a connection to his grandmother that’s so close, they can communicate after she passes away. A child who might be talking to his dead relative on a toy phone is creepy enough, but this one takes it a step further by insinuating that grandma might be trying to talk her grandson into joining her in the great beyond. It’s hard not to think that hit films about kids venturing to the other side like Insidious and Poltergeist were at least a little influenced by “Long Distance Call.”
27. “People Are Alike All Over” (Season 1, Episode 25)
What would we do if we ever met an alien species? Would we trust them or fight them? It’s a theme of science fiction since it began, and one that worked its way into The Twilight Zone a few times — arguably never better than in this season-one episode about two Mars-destined astronauts who disagree about their approach. Warren Marcusson (Paul Comi) believes that needs are common, even across planets. Sam Conrad (Roddy McDowall) disagrees. They crash onto the red planet and Marcusson is injured, dying before he can even see the crimson ground. Conrad exits and finds Martians who look like humans and can read his mind. They reassure him, and he becomes convinced that he can trust them. Of course, he can’t, but the twist actually does confirm Marcusson’s stance too if you think about it; as Conrad expresses in his final words: Every species tries to find a way to dominate the others.
26. “One for the Angels” (Season 1, Episode 2)
One of the masterstrokes of The Twilight Zone was how well the producers and Serling knew how to use their guest stars, writing roles for them that instantly felt like they couldn’t have been filled by anyone else. The show’s second episode starts this trend with a part that fits the wonderful Ed Wynn to a T. The great actor leans into his charming desperation as Lou Bookman, a sidewalk salesman who thinks he has a gift for gab. On a relatively average day, he discovers that his newest mark is Death himself, and Lou convinces the Grim Reaper to make a deal: Let him live until he has made the greatest sales pitch of his life. Death goes along with it, and then Lou retires, announcing he will sell no more, but Death has a trick too, revealing that he’ll have to take a neighborhood girl in his place. Lou will have to sell once more. It’s not as famous as some of the other early episodes because it’s less reliant on a twist, but it’s a great episode in terms of the humanity of this show — one that could be deeply cynical about human nature but often took a chance to see its willingness to sacrifice as well.
25. “The Grave” (Season 3, Episode 7)
There’s a reason that the bare bones of this story have been passed down around campfires and in ghost-story anthologies for generations: It just works. The basic story is always the same: A boy or man is pressured into facing his fears and visiting a graveyard at night, from which he never returns, often being revealed as having scared himself to death. Writer/director Montgomery Pittman takes the classic story to the Old West, turning it into a commentary on masculinity, with a town of men pressuring a tracker named Sykes into visiting the grave of the outlaw he was supposed to catch. With a great cast that includes Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef, and Strother Martin, “The Grave” often doesn’t make lists like this because it’s such a known story (and thus less surprising in its twist), but one shouldn’t ignore how incredibly well-made this episode is. Visually, it’s one of the strongest, full of shadows and light and the wind blowing through the trees.
24. “The Thirty-Fathom Grave” (Season 4, Episode 2)
If this episode had been in any other season of the show, it would have been a top-ten classic. It’s got such a great setup and payoff, but it suffers only because it had to be dragged out to an hour as a part of the fourth season. It’s essentially a riff on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” with the beating of a human heart replaced by the banging of a hammer in the middle of the ocean. A Navy destroyer comes upon that inexplicable sound and tracks it to a sunken submarine on the ocean floor. Presuming someone needs their help, they send a crew down to find out who’s banging that hammer, only to discover the hull of a sub sunk two decades earlier. There was only one survivor, and that survivor just happens to be on the destroyer, and it was his error that caused the sub to sink. Have his fellow shipmates come to take him to the watery grave he deserves? It’s the creepiest episode of season four.
23. “Miniature” (Season 4, Episode 8)
The Twilight Zone is widely regarded as the Rosetta Stone of films and TV that hinge on twists, but that has left it to be underrated in several other departments, especially performance. One of the best in the history of the show comes in this season-four chapter that stars a young Robert Duvall, already displaying the acting skills that would make him an Oscar-winning, all-time great. Duvall plays Charley Parkes, an average man who becomes obsessed with a dollhouse in a museum, convinced that the dolls within it are alive. He returns to the dollhouse regularly to see what’s happening with its residents, even as the guard tries to convince him that they couldn’t possibly be moving. Is Charley witnessing a supernatural phenomenon or is he just going crazy? Duvall is fantastic at playing that gray area of a man who may be the only one who knows the truth or may have just completely lost his mind.
22. “The Dummy” (Season 3, Episode 33)
Ventriloquist dummies are creepy. There’s just no way around it. The idea of a man-controlled object suddenly becoming sentient is inherently terrifying. “The Dummy” stars Cliff Robertson as a ventriloquist who becomes convinced that his stage partner is more than just a hunk of wood. No one believes him, even after Willie the dummy bites his master’s hand. Most of “The Dummy” consists of our hapless hero trying to convince people in his life that he’s in danger, and the whole episode is amplified by the chill-inducing sound of Willie’s laugh.
21. “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (Season 3, Episode 14)
From here on out, we’re pretty much getting to the A-rated, four-star classic episodes of television. This one is a fan favorite largely because of the gorgeous simplicity of its setup and twist. A clown, a hobo, a ballet dancer, a bagpipe, and an army major find themselves in a windowless, doorless room. Winner of multiple Emmy Awards, director Lamont Johnson paces this one perfectly, especially when one considers how little he has to work with, just bouncing five confused souls off one another until the classic twist of the truth of their predicament is revealed.
20. “Third From the Sun” (Season 1, Episode 14)
Richard Matheson, who would become one of the best writers of The Twilight Zone, wrote the source material for this classic but not the actual episode script. Serling scripted this chapter, which is a perfect distillation of his show’s interest in space exploration, commentary on the state of the human race, and brilliance, with a twist. Aired in an era in which children were being told to hide under their desks in nuclear bomb drills, the story of a scientist who becomes convinced that his planet is literally on the eve of nuclear war must have been all the more harrowing. The scientist gets his co-worker and their families and decides it’s time to leave before there’s nothing left to escape from. They supply and basically steal a spaceship, heading off into the reaches of space in search of a planet they’ve heard of that will be more peaceful and safer. Of course, the twist is that the planet they’re heading to is Earth, having left one that looked like our home but secretly was not. The twist allows Serling to confront the prospect of nuclear annihilation and ask viewers if they’re willing to change or be forced to leave altogether.
19. “Living Doll” (Season 5, Episode 6)
“I’m Talky Tina and I’m going to kill you.” The ancestor of Chucky, Talky Tina was one of this show’s most terrifying creations, a child’s toy turned murderous. Voiced by the great June Foray (of Rocky & Bullwinkle and Looney Tunes fame), Tina finds her way into the home of the brutish Erich Streator, played by the-man-who-would-be-Kojak Telly Savalas. Erich is a jerk, the mean stepfather to his new wife’s daughter Christie. He openly resents his stepdaughter and derides his wife Annabelle, in part because they are incapable of having a child of his own. In other words, one of the greatest twists of this episode is that there’s a small part of us that starts to root for Talky Tina. Think about how differently this plays if Erich is just an ordinary guy beset upon by a homicidal doll as opposed to an irredeemable jerk who arguably gets what he deserves … in the Twilight Zone.
18. “The Masks” (Season 5, Episode 25)
The brilliant Ida Lupino directs what is Serling’s last great script, a late series masterpiece that feels more like a piece of theater than television. It certainly borrows from Shakespeare in its deeply dysfunctional family dynamics and a patriarch seeking his revenge before shuffling off this mortal coil. The episode takes place during Mardi Gras, as a wealthy old man faces impending death. Ostensibly to say goodbye, the old codger brings everyone who hopes to get a part of his fortune to his mansion, including his daughter, son-in-law, grandson, and granddaughter. They’re all awful people, and if they want a dime from the old man then they’re going to have to externalize their worst internal traits. Forced to wear hideous masks until midnight to get their inheritance, the family starts to crack, and eventually learns that when one reveals their true self, they can no longer hide it.
17. “Eye of the Beholder” (Season 2, Episode 6)
If this list was purely about the best twists in the history of The Twilight Zone, this would be even higher. It’s one of the most famous in the history of television, often pointed to as an example of how to use a twist not just to shock but as a form of commentary. A woman is terrified that she’ll never look “normal,” having eleven (the max legally allowed) treatments to fix her face. As doctors and nurses lament the fate of their poor patient, she wonders if this will finally be the day she assimilates to perceptions of normalcy. Of course, the fact that we never see the faces of anyone until the twist kind of telegraphs it, especially for modern audiences, but there’s still power in the idea that words like “normal” and “beautiful” aren’t the same for everyone.
16. “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” (Season 2, Episode 28)
Agatha Christie probably loved this episode. It feels like a setup pulled straight from the Queen of Suspense in the way it locks a finite number of people in a room and accuses one of them of not being completely honest. Two state troopers investigate a report of a UFO and find evidence of a crash, following footprints from the scene to a diner called the Hi-Way in the middle of nowhere. A bus has stopped there, its travelers taking a break for a meal. The driver doesn’t have a manifest and didn’t get a good look at his passengers on this snowy night, but says he counted six of them. There are seven in the diner. Which one is the interstellar traveler? Like so many great episodes of this show, the brilliant setup is half the battle, and this is one of the best. It’s a fun episode that gets at the show’s recurring theme of paranoia as even the couples among the passengers start to question one another.
15. “Where Is Everybody?” (Season 1, Episode 1)
There have been dozens of lists of the best pilots of all time, but the series premiere of The Twilight Zone is too often missing from those lists. Earl Holliman became the first confused resident of the Twilight Zone, an Air Force pilot who finds himself alone on a dirt road with no memory of how he got there or where exactly there even is. He walks to a nearby town and finds it empty, populated by mannequins instead of people, even though there are signs of recent inhabitance, like coffee at the diner and a still-burning cigarette. Did something happen to the man or to everyone else? Immediately, Serling was playing games with perception and revelation, keeping viewers off-kilter and uncertain of even the basic elements of storytelling like who and where. It was brilliant right from the very beginning.
14. “To Serve Man” (Season 3, Episode 24)
Rod Serling loved to play with language, and this adaptation of the Damon Knight short story may be his most famous case of doing so. It’s arguably the best twist in the history of TV, becoming a part of pop culture that can still be referenced over half a century later. The only reason it’s not higher on this list is because it’s so reliant on its twist — it’s really kind of a mediocre episode until then — even if it’s an unforgettable one. An alien race has landed on Earth, bringing with them a book with a title that is translated as “To Serve Man.” While this translation seems to allay human fears, the closing scenes reveal its true, dark, culinary meaning. It’s a phenomenal twist that’s also a nice bit of commentary on human nature if you think about it — perhaps if our species questioned why another race would volunteer to be its servants they’d be less likely to be turned into their dinner.
13. “And When the Sky Was Opened” (Season 1, Episode 11)
Once again, we have an episode in which Serling adapted a short story by Matheson, and the result is one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone. This one has so many of the show’s best themes — space travel, paranoia, government conspiracies, the one man who knows the truth — and incorporates them into what becomes an increasingly terrifying narrative. Three Air Force pilots return from a test flight of an experimental spaceplane. Or do they? When one of the men, Forbes, goes to visit his co-pilot Gart in the hospital, Forbes insists that there was a third man named Harrington, even if no one seems to remember he exists. He’s been erased from headlines and Gart’s memory. Was he never supposed to return? Is some higher power trying to correct the oversight? And how can Forbes convince the world that his friend of 15 years ever existed?
12. “Perchance to Dream” (Season 1, Episode 9)
Based on a Charles Beaumont short story, this is one of the most visually striking episodes of The Twilight Zone, and a possible inspiration for Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s something so relatably terrifying about turning the safe haven of sleep into a place of danger, and that’s what this episode does to Edward Hall (Richard Conte), a man who is convinced that if he sleeps, he will dream, and if he dreams, he will die. A heart condition means if he stays awake much longer, he’ll die anyway, but he tells his doctor that his dreams have become a consistent series of serial chapters involving a fun house and a carnival dancer whom he’s convinced is going to kill him. It’s one of the most visually hypnotic, almost Lynchian episodes of the show, and it contains one of Serling’s best closing narrations: “They say a dream takes only a second or so, and yet in that second a man can live a lifetime. He can suffer and die. And who’s to say which is the greater reality: the one we know or the one in dreams, between heaven, the sky, the earth — in the Twilight Zone.”
11. “The After Hours” (Season 1, Episode 34)
It’s impossible to look at old-fashioned mannequins in department stores and not think of this chilling episode of television from nearly six decades ago. Anne Francis plays Marsha White, an average shopper looking for a gold thimble in a department store. She takes the elevator to the ninth floor, finding nothing there at first. After the doors close, a saleswoman takes her to the item for which she’s been searching, although she learns on the way down that the thimble is damaged. When she goes to the complaints department, they tell her what viewers already suspected: There is no ninth floor. The payoff/twist of “The After Hours” isn’t one of the show’s best, but the eerie atmosphere that leads up to it is palpable. What if you were told you went somewhere that didn’t exist? Would you think you were going crazy? Or would you know you were in the Twilight Zone?
10. “On Thursday We Leave for Home” (Season 4, Episode 16)
This was reportedly Rod Serling’s favorite episode from the maligned fourth season, and the reasons are clear. It’s the smartest, and arguably the only, one that justifies that season’s hour-long structure in terms of running time. James Whitmore stars as Captain William Benteen, the leader of a group of survivors on a distant planet with two suns. It is never night and it is never cool, but Benteen keeps his colony as happy as possible, telling them stories of the Earth. For three decades, they’ve relatively thrived, turning into a community of settlers on this desert planet. And then travelers come to take them home, but Benteen isn’t sure he wants to give up the power he’s created for himself. A razor-sharp dissection of how hard it can be to give up control, anchored by a great performance from Whitmore, this is probably the best episode that’s not widely known, chiefly because it doesn’t have an unforgettable twist.
9. “The Invaders” (Season 2, Episode 15)
A masterpiece of nearly silent television, this classic episode stars Agnes Moorehead as a cabin-bound woman who has the most unforgettable night of her life. A spaceship lands on her roof, and what look like tiny robots emerge, attacking the woman in confusing, terrifying ways. Not only was it daring for the show to produce an episode that is mostly just silent grunts, but this one has one of the show’s best surprises, revealing that the woman is not the victim we presumed her to be for the entire episode. The Twilight Zone was the best when it came to playing with perception and assumption. Serling knew how to subvert what people thought they were seeing and reveal a greater, more challenging truth in the end.
8. “Mirror Image” (Season 1, Episode 21)
Everyone is talking about Jordan Peele’s Us before the reboot of his The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. This episode is the most essential to connecting the two. Peele has come out and said that it was one of his favorite episodes as a kid and influenced the creation of Us. The concept is beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. A woman at an isolated bus station waits for a late bus, which seems to never arrive. She asks the attendant for an update, only to be told that she’s already asked three times. She knows she hasn’t. And then just after a cleaning lady tells her she was just in the bathroom, she spies something terrifying in the mirror: herself. Sitting in the station is her doppelganger. Brilliantly, it’s an easily identifiable fear that allows for audience participation. What would you do if you spotted someone who looked exactly like you? This classic episode — not to mention Peele’s Us — offers some hints.
7. “The Hitch-Hiker” (Season 1, Episode 16)
Based on a 1941 radio play by Louise Fletcher, this season-one chiller is again an episode that works because we can relate. If you’ve been on a cross-country trip, and ever felt something unsettling about being alone in the vast expanse of the middle of America, you’ll recognize this episode’s mood. On a trip from New York to Los Angeles, a woman named Nan Adams keeps seeing the same mysterious man thumbing for a ride. Is she going crazy? She first presumes, as everyone would, that she’s just happening upon the same lonely traveler, but then he starts bending space and time, appearing in locations he couldn’t possibly get to that quickly. It’s a truly scary episode that recalls one of the best indie horror films of all time, which would come out two years later, Carnival of Souls. In fact, watch ‘em both.
6. “It’s a Good Life” (Season 3, Episode 8)
You may know the version of this episode remade for Twilight Zone: The Movie, but there’s something more sinister and scarier about the 1961 original. Perhaps it’s because this version of the 6-year-old with godlike powers feels more vengeful and creepier in black and white as he punishes those who even think negative thoughts about him. And God help anyone who dares to sing. Any parent can tell you that we’re often at the whims of our tantrum-prone children, but the idea that a kid could turn the mood swings inherent to childhood into destructive power makes for riveting fiction. It’s such a great episode that it speaks for itself; as Serling says at the start of his closing narration: “No comment here, no comment at all.” He’s too scared to do so.
5. “Time Enough at Last” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Fiction has a long history of stories that could fall under the banner of “be careful what you wish for.” This episode is one of the most famous of that subcategory, a brutally cynical tale of a man getting the solitude he so desires, and then basically being punished by bad luck in the end. Based on a short story by Lynn Venable, it stars Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, a man who only wants time to read his beloved books. It’s no wonder he retreats to the comfort of literature: He hates his marriage and his job at a bank. His awful spouse even tricks him by inking over the pages of a book she asks him to read. As a result, Henry likes to read in the bank vault, the only place he can find solitude — and that’s where he’s at when a nuclear bomb goes off, leaving him as the last man on Earth. As despair leads him to contemplate suicide, he notices that a library’s worth of books is intact. Misery turns to glee, but not for long. The final lines are iconic: “That’s not fair. That’s fair at all. There was time now. There was — was all the time I needed! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” Nope, Henry, it’s definitely not. Such is life in the Twilight Zone.
4. “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (Season 5, Episode 3)
One of the most famous episodes of all time has been remade twice — first, relatively faithfully in the movie (starring John Lithgow), and now twisted into something gloriously new in the upcoming reboot (this time with Adam Scott). And yet it will always be hard to top the original, a master class in suspense and action, something that the relatively talky Twilight Zone isn’t exactly known for if you think about it. The major beats of this William Shatner masterpiece have become a part of pop-culture history, but there are other elements of “Nightmare” that don’t get enough credit, particularly how deftly the episode plays with trauma and the relatable fear of flying. Shatner is one of the show’s best surrogates, someone into whose terrified shoes we can easily step. Who after watching this hasn’t been on a plane on a stormy night, looking carefully at the wing, just waiting to see a gremlin playing with the wires?
3. “A Game of Pool” (Season 3, Episode 5)
Two phenomenal performances elevate one of the best episodes of television history in this examination of what it means to be the best at something — both how we seek it and feel forced to defend it. Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman) is one of the best pool players in the world, but he feels the only thing holding him back from the title of being the best of all time is the legendary status of the now-deceased “Fats” Brown (Jonathan Winters). As if he’s answering the challenge, Fats comes down from heaven and plays a game with the heir to his throne. Smart, funny, and so insightful about the idea of being a legend, this is fantastic TV that hasn’t aged in the slightest.
2. “Walking Distance” (Season 1, Episode 5)
The concept that the Twilight Zone is a physical place, maybe a universe parallel to our own, where a lesson is waiting to be learned, is never better captured than in this perfect episode of television. Martin Sloan (Gig Young) stops to get his car looked at and realizes he’s close enough to walk into his hometown. As he does so, he discovers he’s walked directly into the past, even seeing himself as a young boy. He’s not exactly welcome, scaring the young version of himself and confusing his parents. It’s a mesmerizing episode technically, with gorgeous canted angles of a carousel and a beautiful original score by Bernard Herrmann.
It’s also clearly very personal, a piece that feels like it was reflecting Serling’s inability to “go home again” as much as anything else. You can hear that in what’s arguably his most poetic and beautiful closing narration: “And also like all men, perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope, and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and the places of his past. And perhaps across his mind there’ll flit a little errant wish, that a man might not have to become old, never outgrow the parks and the merry-go-rounds of his youth. And he’ll smile then too because he’ll know it is just an errant wish, some wisp of memory not too important really, some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are a part of the Twilight Zone.”
1. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (Season 1, Episode 22)
A lot of us grew up on a Maple Street. It could be anywhere. And the parable that Rod Serling unfolded on Maple Street in 1960 has just as much resonance today as it did then. It’s a masterful examination of how easily we will turn on our neighbors to protect ourselves, and how paranoia can destroy us. Our greatest threat is not from a foreign invader but from the fear and divisiveness created from within. That matters just as much today as it did then. At 6:43 p.m., the lights went out on Maple Street. Just before then, some residents thought they saw a meteor on the horizon, which leads a boy to suggest that this could be like something he recently read in one of his storybooks: an alien invasion. And guess what? In that story, the aliens sent down a scout in the form of a human. Before long, the residents of Maple Street have turned on each other, pointing fingers and accusing people they’ve known for years of being traitors. You can read into it dozens of parallels to the real world — especially the Red Scare — but it’s also just a taut, brilliant, thrilling episode of television that remains, almost sadly, timeless.