The impending revival of the sci-fi anthology series The Twilight Zone has generated a lot of excitement among fans of the acclaimed show, which inspired generations of storytellers and filmmakers over the years and is widely regarded as one of the greatest TV programs ever produced.
Created by Rod Serling, the series explored issues of morality, the human experience, and even the nature of reality with thought-provoking, stand-alone stories featuring some of Hollywood’s best and brightest actors, writers, and directors. The Twilight Zone also has one of the largest libraries of stories of any anthology series, encompassing more than 250 episodes spanning eight seasons and two prior revivals (as well as a 1983 movie).
Given that massive vault of time-tested tales, it’s no surprise that lists of the series’ best episodes often vary widely. However, there are a few tried-and-true favorites among the show’s most popular stories. In anticipation of the 2019 revival series produced and hosted by Get Out director Jordan Peele, we ventured into a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind, in order to bring you our list of the 10 best episodes of … The Twilight Zone.
‘Eye of the Beholder’ (1960)
The sixth episode from season 2 of the original series, Eye of the Beholder chronicles the aftermath of an operation to surgically repair a young woman’s facial deformity. For most of the episode, patient Janet Tyler (played by The Beverly Hillbillies actress Donna Douglas) has her head and face covered with bandages, and the audience is privy to conversations between her character and many of the doctors and nurses involved in the complicated procedure that — they all hope — will allow her to live a more comfortable life. When the bandages finally come off, however, the final moments of the episode challenge everything we know about beauty and society in a brilliant shift of perspective.
‘Time Enough at Last’ (1959)
The eighth episode of the series, Time Enough at Last has inspired countless parodies and homages in one form or another over the years with its tragic tale of a man who finds something positive in surviving a nuclear war that leaves him alone in the world. Celebrated actor Burgess Meredith famously portrays far-sighted bookworm Henry Bemis in the episode, which is based on a short story penned by Lynn Venable for the sci-fi magazine If: Worlds of Science Fiction. Serling himself considered it one of his favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, and it touches on themes of anti-intellectualism, over-reliance on technology, and the value of solitude that still carry weight today, more than half a century after it aired.
‘It’s a Good Life’ (1961)
Rather than explore complicated moral or existential issues, The Twilight Zone occasionally offered audiences a story that just plain, old scary — but still comfortably (or perhaps uncomfortably) set within the tonal framework of the series. That description fits the eighth episode of the series’ third season well, as it tells the story of an Ohio town separated from the rest of the world and ruled by a six-year-old boy with godlike powers. The community and his own family attempt to carry on with their lives, but the whims of a child are unpredictable, to say the least — and the brief look inside this world presented by the episode is one filled with terror from a very unlikely source.
‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ (1963)
William Shatner starred in this wildly popular episode from the fifth season of the original series, portraying a passenger on an airplane who sees something (or more accurately, “some … thing … “) on the wing of the plane, only to have his seemingly unbelievable claims dismissed by his fellow passengers. The fact that he recently suffered a nervous breakdown doesn’t help his cause, and Shatner’s character struggles to prove that the gremlin he sees is really there, not just to the people around him, but also to himself. The episode is based on a short story penned by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, and was later adapted for the 1983 movie The Twilight Zone.
‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’ (1960)
One recurring theme throughout The Twilight Zone in all of its incarnations is that humans often pose a greater threat to each other than any external entities. No episode hammered that point home better than this season 1 story about a neighborhood that swiftly descends into violence and anarchy when they begin to believe the power outage affecting their street might herald an alien invasion. Written by Serling, the episode doesn’t even need to reveal the true cause of the outage (although it does) in order for the message to come through loud and clear: It doesn’t take much for people to turn on each other.
‘The Shadow Man’ (1985)
This episode from the first season of the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone doesn’t get mentioned on many “Best of” lists, but it’s an under-appreciated gem of the later iterations of the series. Directed by celebrated filmmaker Joe Dante (of Gremlins, Innerspace, and The ‘Burbs fame) from a story penned by Farscape creator Rockne O’Bannon, The Shadow Man follows a bullied young boy who discovers that a terrifying entity emerges from under his bed each night to terrorize the neighborhood. The episode brilliantly blends traditional childhood fears with all-too-real adult scares, and is one of the high points of the show’s ’80s revival.
‘Living Doll’ (1963)
Long before Chucky turned talking children’s dolls into nightmare fuel, The Twilight Zone gave audiences this fifth-season episode, which revolves around a “Talky Tina” doll that begins to include threats of murder in its vocal repertoire when it’s gifted to a young girl in a dysfunctional family. Kojak star Telly Savalas plays the girl’s emotionally abusive stepfather in the episode, which leaves you uncertain until its very final moments about whether the doll’s threats are real, or if it’s all in his head. Living Doll went on to inspire countless murderous-doll stories on the big screen and small screen in the years that followed, ensuring nightmares for years to come.
‘Into the Light’ (2003)
The 2002 revival of The Twilight Zone wasn’t particularly well-received, but its willingness to address contemporary issues through the show’s dark, sci-fi filter led to some standout stories in its 43-episode run. In one of the most depressingly timely for the current era, Into the Light casts Samantha Mathis as a high-school teacher who develops the ability to see glowing light emanating from people who are about to die. When she begins seeing the light in her students’ faces, she’s forced to contend with a potential tragedy at the school — and an event that feels all too familiar in recent years.
‘Dealer’s Choice’ (1985)
The Twilight Zone isn’t known for its comedy, but the series hit all the right humor notes in this episode from the ’80s revival series directed by horror maestro Wes Craven. When a group of friends playing a friendly game of poker determines that the devil is among them and he’s come to take one of them away, all bets are off in this surprisingly funny story, which also happens to feature an impressive ensemble cast. Morgan Freeman, Barney Martin, Garrett Morris, and M. Emmet Walsh play the group of longtime pals and facilitate some of the biggest laughs you’ll find in an episode of The Twilight Zone, while also showcasing a very poignant story beneath all of the comedy and eternal-damnation shenanigans.
‘The Invaders’ (1961)
Another favorite of series creator Serling, this episode from the second season is almost entirely absent any dialogue, and is essentially a solo performance by actress Agnes Moorehead. The four-time Academy Award nominee plays an older woman whose simple life is disturbed by an invasion of miniature invaders who arrive in a flying saucer. The premise doesn’t suggest a very complicated story, but things take a dark, unexpected turn before the tale has reached its end.