Who among us hasn’t spent a holiday – Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve – watching a marathon of The Twilight Zone? Tried and tested for over the last thirty years, the annual holiday tradition of marathoning Rod Serling’s classic showcase of bold genre entertainment is as synonymous with the show as Serling’s famous narration and that iconic opening title sequence.
While the genesis of these holiday marathons is contested from coast to coast, what they did was breed new generations of fans long after its cancellation in 1964. The earliest memories I have of the show – outside of a particularly haunting pinball machine – are through tuning into these day-long marathons. What else are you to do as a 10-year-old indoor kid in 1998 on holiday break with nothing but syndicated television and basic cable to watch? Check out 8 hours of TV that will absolutely melt your mind. Sounds a lot like what you probably did last weekend, am I right?
By getting a chance to watch back-to-back episodes, The Twilight Zone didn’t just become a flash in the pan classic show that the modern viewer caught and forgot on the local stations. These marathons let you get a true sense of how Serling used the trappings of genre to tell stories that were informed by what was happening in the world in the late ‘50s and early 60s. Through the lens of sci-fi and horror, the show was able to tackle everything from global anxiety over nuclear war and emerging technologies to themes of racism and authoritarianism to something as simple as asking the question, “What lies beyond the stars?” Each new episode of The Twilight Zone is filled with wonder and impossibilities that oftentimes rear too close to reality for comfort.
Serling stretched the boundaries of what stories we could – and should – be telling in mid-century television. Nothing was too fantastical or off-limits in The Twilight Zone, and there was always something for everyone. Not sold on a story about a retirement home sipping from the fountain of youth? That’s ok! Wait till you see the one about the alcoholic department store Santa who may get the job opportunity of a lifetime. Too melancholy for you? What about a computer that falls in love with its programmer? If you’d prefer to feel stressed out, then discover what would really happen to a society in panic, as told through the eyes of a single suburban street. Want something spookier? There’s like three episodes about creepy dummies and dolls. Hell, Serling gave us scarily powerful psychic kids on TV well before Stranger Things made that hip!
The Twilight Zone is the ultimate binge not just because it’s a sharply written show that gave a platform to some of the most influential scribes of the genre like Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, but because it’s an infinity pool of inspiration that you feel fulfilled watching. You can see how the way Serling used apt metaphors to confront societal problems would later inform the work of future screenwriters and directors, like Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante who would go on to direct segments in Twilight Zone: The Movie. If The Twilight Zone can inspire them, why can it not also inspire you to create your own Serling-esque worlds?
Over five seasons The Twilight Zone produced 156 episodes. Truly any combination would make for a great binge watch, but if you don’t have 24 spare hours, here’s a shortlist to give you a stellar afternoon marathon, no holiday required.
The Fever (Season 1, Episode 17)
Truly manic and genuinely weird, you may find it hard to believe that a story about a killer slot machine can be this disturbing, but then you may have never seen an addiction metaphor quite like this before. A shrewd man on vacation falls prey to the one-armed bandit and before long his all-expense paid trip to Las Vegas, and his marriage, is lost to the possibility of “just one more.” It’s a sweaty, anxious look into a state of being you shouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Once Upon a Time (Season 3, Episode 13)
Fact: Buster Keaton, even at age 64, can take a pratfall like a mother fucking champ. He stars in one of the series few purely comedic episodes, with an ingenious framing device that tips its hat to his years as The Great Stone Face. Keaton’s Mulligan, an old slacker straight cruising through life, lives in a silent film world, filled with a jangly piano score and intertitles before – thanks to a time machine as if made by the Goorin Brothers – he crashes into the loud, raucous world of the 1960s. What can I say: it’s truly delightful and a welcome reprieve from the series darker tones.
The Howling Man (Season 2, Episode 5)
With its liberal usage of dutch angles and a framing device that hearkens to H.P. Lovecraft’s anxiety-riddled protagonists, there’s little not to admire in this story of tested faith and fears of corrupt religion. Is the man imprisoned actually the Devil? Are his jailers zealots? Have their actions actually made the world better? All is revealed at the end of the episode, but I think the biggest moral of the story is one we’ve been taught since childhood: if someone says don’t open something, don’t fucking open something.
Little Girl Lost (Season 3, Episode 26)
There’s a clear path between Richard Matheson’s “Little Girl Lost” and some of the great works of horror over the last half century, like Poltergeist and Insidious all the way to Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’. A young family fights against an existential horror as they look for their daughter, lost in a slip in space time somewhere in their mod ’60s eldritch house. It’s simple, it’s unnerving, and it’s unlike anything that came before it.
The Masks (Season 5, Episode 25)
Ida Lupino, the first female director to helm a film noir, was also the only woman to ever direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, and lucky for us: it’s one of the all-time greatest. A group of shitheel family members, salivating at the prospects of a hefty inheritance, gather at the estate of their dying father during Mardi Gras. The patriarch (played by the incomparable Robert Keith, in his final role) sees through the families selfish, sociopathic ways, and while the ending may be forecast from the get-go, it still doesn’t rob the episode of its devilishly delicious conclusion. Even schadenfreude can be found in The Twilight Zone.
Miniature (Season 4, Episode 8)
Starring a young Robert Duvall, “Miniature” is a highlight of Twilight Zone’s short tenure of hour-long episodes. It’s also one of the only stories with queer subtext which arguably Duvall uses to inform his nebbish protagonist who lives with his mother, is uninterested in women, and would much rather spend all of his time fantasizing about a young woman’s life in a museum’s ornate dollhouse. Look, I’m not saying his obsession with the dollhouse is like of our obsession with binge-watching, but I’m also not NOT saying that.
Night Call (season 5, Episode 19)
Twenty years before Stephen King and George Romero ever dreamed of teaming up, two other titans of the genre brought us one of the best, and saddest, episodes of The Twilight Zone. With a script by Richard Matheson, under the direction of Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Night of the Demon), the masters of horror mix real-world tragedy with traumatic supernatural events in this tale of an old woman receiving increasingly unsettling phone calls. It leaves you with a wistful pit in your stomach in a way that The Twilight Zone was rare to do.
Five Characters in Search of an Exit (Season 3, Episode 14)
With a name deriving from Luigi Pirandello’s absurdist play Six Characters in Search of an Author, the episode strikes similar chords with Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, where a group of strangers find themselves in an impossible situation, unsure of how they got there and even more unsure of how to escape. With a shockingly strange ending, this is The Twilight Zone at its most cerebral best, filling you with palpable anxiety that lingers long after the credits roll.