Six decades later, “The Twilight Zone” can be found on multiple channels (including MeTV and Syfy) and streaming services (Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video), largely because its themes on the human condition ring eternal. Time travel, cosmic exploration, the power of new technology, the experiences that bedevil us, the nostalgia that summons us — so much of what fascinated Serling speaks to our sense of existential threats, including ways in which shortsighted behavior might hasten our own extinction.
As we live under self-quarantine or enforced lockdown during this covid-19 pandemic of more than a half-million confirmed cases, some “Twilight Zone” stories are especially relevant. Or some episodes of the classic series — which CBS rebooted last year — can be a diverting emotional escape.
Here are seven of the most salient episodes to watch as we shelter from what lies outside our door:
1. “Time Enough at Last”
One person’s mass-casualty event is another person’s opportunity to finally get a little reading done. Burgess Meredith plays the clerk who hides in his bank’s vault to enjoy a few page-turners. When that girded vault allows him to survive a nuclear attack, the clerk is left gloriously alone — just himself and stacks of books to happily devour. The twist, of course, is to watch his step — isolation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
(If you like this episode, also consider: “Static.”)
2. “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”
Do humans help or harm each other in times of crisis? Serling’s Maple Street is first presented as a benign slice of American society, but suspicion that an alien is among these neighbors sparks fearful finger-pointing, and conflicts escalate. When panic sets in, the monsters, of course, can be ourselves. “There are weapons,” Serling says in voice-over, “that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices.”
(If you like this episode, also consider: “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”)
3. “The Lonely”
How close do we grow to our devices in times of isolation? Imagine, if you will, a convict played by Jack Warden serving his solitary confinement truly alone on a sandy asteroid. Once his penalty appears to be a life sentence, the desperate prisoner is given a “female” robot that he develops feelings for. An intervention is required to remind him that he has come to love a companion made of only nuts and bolts. Sometimes, it seems, the illusory warmth of our machines must be destroyed.
(If you like this episode, also consider: “I Sing the Body Electric.”)
4. “The Mind and the Matter”
Jean-Paul Sartre said that “hell is other people,” and the office worker (Shelley Berman) in this episode would agree. He can’t stand all the crowding, whether it’s along the subway commute or in the lunchtime cafeteria. Yet when he lives his dream to eliminate all people, the loneliness makes for an awfully empty life. Serling’s question is clear: Are we really meant to spend so much time alone?
(If you like this episode, also consider: “Sounds and Silences.”)
5. “The Shelter”
What will cause even the best of friends and spouses to turn on each other? In this story by Lamont Johnson, dear old pals gather for a birthday party, but a UFO sighting and talk of a possible nuclear attack drive a psychological wedge between the cozy neighbors. A doctor, for so long a healer, must weigh the prospect of loved ones perishing outside his bomb shelter. What is harder when self-preservation is at stake: a reinforced shelter door or the human heart?
(If you like this episode, also consider: “The Midnight Sun.”)
6. “The Whole Truth”
As global leaders play politics, what becomes of a man who must tell the truth? In this episode, a used-car salesman (Jack Carson) suddenly loses his ability to traffic in lies. But, like a clever politician, the salesman can still bend the facts to his favor in this Cold War tale, which delivers a humorous twist when a rival nation is interested in a “haunted” auto.
(If you like this episode, also consider: “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” and “It’s a Good Life.”)
7. “Where Is Everybody?”
What if everywhere you turned — to movies, to the kitchen, to the streets outside — you could not find another person? A man in an Air Force flight suit (Earl Holliman) seems to be living that “existence.” Serling himself had seen battle, been in World War II planes, and he surely knew that mental duress could be the toughest test.
(If you like this episode, also consider: “The Long Morrow.”)