The best television show ever?

The best television show ever? October 9, 2009

Michael Anton makes a good case for The Twilight Zone:

“Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible” — that’s how Serling initially described the concept. Every week, the show would have a new setting, a new cast, and a new premise. The unifying theme would be “the unknown” — understood broadly to include space travel and time travel, ESP and immortality, dystopian futures and idyllic pasts, Santa Claus and Mr. Death.

Yet it was precisely The Twilight Zone’s disconnect from reality that gave Serling cover to comment on the issues he most cared about. His favorite topic — revisited again and again — was prejudice. Serling was absolutely marinated in the anti-racism ideology of midcentury liberalism. “The worst aspect of our time is prejudice,” he once said, a sentiment he repeated in nearly identical terms over and over again. Sometimes drawing from this well yielded inspired results, such as the classic episode “Eye of the Beholder,” set on a planet in which a beautiful plastic-surgery patient is considered ugly and all the “normals” look like pigs. But Serling returned too often, burdening the show with clunkers like “He’s Alive” (the “he” being Hitler) and “I Am the Night, Color Me Black” (a melodrama about a lynching).

When he turned his rhetorical guns against authoritarianism, he left nothing standing. One of the most powerful episodes — “The Obsolete Man” — pits a meek, Bible-quoting librarian against a book-banning, atheistic über-state, over which the librarian scores a posthumous victory. There is also a strong streak of anti-Communism in Serling’s work. (Serling was a lifelong patriot who served bravely in World War II; he came to oppose the war in Vietnam because he thought the corrupt Saigon government unworthy of American support.) One underrated episode (“The Mirror”), about a Castro-lookalike Latin American dictator, could have been inspired by Animal Farm or Leo Strauss’s On Tyranny. Another episode makes a punch line out of Nikita Khrushchev.

Not that all, or even most, of the scripts were thinly veiled social criticism. The Twilight Zone was first and foremost entertainment — “good stories, well told,” Serling promised, and largely delivered. Many of the greatest plots had no political undertone at all — and were not even scripted by the boss. Serling wrote an incredible 92 of the show’s 156 episodes, but some of the most beloved and memorable were penned by a quartet of freelance contributors: established sci-fi gurus Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, and newcomers George Clayton Johnson and Earl Hamner Jr. (who went on to create The Waltons).

Serling returned to these men again and again in part because of how well they understood the form. As Matheson put it, “The ideal Twilight Zone started with a really smashing idea that hit you right in the first few seconds, then you played that out, and you had a little flip at the end; that was the structure.” Indeed, the show’s hallmark came to be those sucker-punch endings: “It’s a cookbook!” “Dolls for Christmas . . . ” “U.S. Air Force Space Probe No. 1.” And on and on. They became so characteristic of the show that some wags dubbed it “O. Henry in Outer Space,” after the turn-of-the-century short-story writer’s famous twist finales.

I will accept nominations for other candidates for best TV show ever as well as favorite episodes of the Zone.

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  • Tom Hering

    Season 4 (1963), Episode 118 (1 hr.), “On Thursday We Leave For Home” This was the story of colonists shipwrecked on a hostile planet for forty years, of the rescue mission that finally came to take them back to Earth, and of the colony leader (James Whitmore) whose pride led to a terrible fall – choosing to be left behind on the planet, all alone, for the rest of his life, rather than lose his authority and identity. Watching him change his mind, when it was too late, really hit me hard as a nine-year-old. I learned something.

  • Tom Hering

    Season 4 (1963), Episode 118 (1 hr.), “On Thursday We Leave For Home” This was the story of colonists shipwrecked on a hostile planet for forty years, of the rescue mission that finally came to take them back to Earth, and of the colony leader (James Whitmore) whose pride led to a terrible fall – choosing to be left behind on the planet, all alone, for the rest of his life, rather than lose his authority and identity. Watching him change his mind, when it was too late, really hit me hard as a nine-year-old. I learned something.

  • Tom Hering

    Nomination for best television show ever (after The Twilight Zone): The Prisoner (1967, 17 episodes) starring Patrick McGoohan. Runner up: Walt Disney’s The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964, 3 episodes) also starring McGoohan. (Both shows were mini series.)

  • Tom Hering

    Nomination for best television show ever (after The Twilight Zone): The Prisoner (1967, 17 episodes) starring Patrick McGoohan. Runner up: Walt Disney’s The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (1964, 3 episodes) also starring McGoohan. (Both shows were mini series.)

  • fws

    “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible”

    genius. So then this is a true new genre to literature that only appeared in the last 40 years Dr Veith? And this was heavily influenced by christian thought? So our generation is not a cultural wasteland after all?

  • fws

    “Fantasy is the impossible made probable. Science fiction is the improbable made possible”

    genius. So then this is a true new genre to literature that only appeared in the last 40 years Dr Veith? And this was heavily influenced by christian thought? So our generation is not a cultural wasteland after all?

  • The Rockford Files was the best TV series ever. I have spoken.

  • The Rockford Files was the best TV series ever. I have spoken.

  • The Obsolete Man is probably my favorite episode. Watch it here.

  • The Obsolete Man is probably my favorite episode. Watch it here.

  • Josie

    Twilight Zone was a definite favorite in our home. Another one that was memorable at the time was Hitchock Presents-good commentary on human nature. I think one of the best TV series of the last 10yrs though is Foyle’s War…a BBC production.

  • Josie

    Twilight Zone was a definite favorite in our home. Another one that was memorable at the time was Hitchock Presents-good commentary on human nature. I think one of the best TV series of the last 10yrs though is Foyle’s War…a BBC production.

  • Charles Veith

    My nomination would be “The Prisoner” starring Patrick McGoohan.

    “I AM NOT A NUMBER I AM A FREE MAN!”

    Intense, taut, and filled to overflowing with social commentary vis-a-vis the individual versus the state and the tyranny of public opinion.

  • Charles Veith

    My nomination would be “The Prisoner” starring Patrick McGoohan.

    “I AM NOT A NUMBER I AM A FREE MAN!”

    Intense, taut, and filled to overflowing with social commentary vis-a-vis the individual versus the state and the tyranny of public opinion.

  • fws

    hey british program “the avengers” was pretty good. so was “the adams family” for a commentary on traditional family values….and then… there is always “monty pithon” for a more profound and serious treatment of the human condition….

  • fws

    hey british program “the avengers” was pretty good. so was “the adams family” for a commentary on traditional family values….and then… there is always “monty pithon” for a more profound and serious treatment of the human condition….

  • Tim Webb

    Another vote for “The Prisoner” as the best show evver. We watched it this past summer. Only 17 episodes, but absolutely riveting, and even though it was made in the 1960s, it is as timely as ever. It is available on DVD. See it!!!

    “Lost” (final season to begin airing in January) is an amazing show; no show has ever been able to achieve and sustain the incredible and innovative narrative form that it has achieved. But even “Lost” owes a debt to “The Prisoner”.

    I’ve seen many episodes of “Twilight Zone”, and enjoyed it. I like the one where Sterling starts talking at the end of the episode, and then the characters acknowledge his presence, and the main character (who was able to create people by taping a description of them) pulls out the tape that he used to create Sterling, which he then burns, and Sterling disappears!! Hilarious.

  • Tim Webb

    Another vote for “The Prisoner” as the best show evver. We watched it this past summer. Only 17 episodes, but absolutely riveting, and even though it was made in the 1960s, it is as timely as ever. It is available on DVD. See it!!!

    “Lost” (final season to begin airing in January) is an amazing show; no show has ever been able to achieve and sustain the incredible and innovative narrative form that it has achieved. But even “Lost” owes a debt to “The Prisoner”.

    I’ve seen many episodes of “Twilight Zone”, and enjoyed it. I like the one where Sterling starts talking at the end of the episode, and then the characters acknowledge his presence, and the main character (who was able to create people by taping a description of them) pulls out the tape that he used to create Sterling, which he then burns, and Sterling disappears!! Hilarious.

  • Tom Hering

    Another nomination (if we’re allowed multiples): I, Claudius (1976, BBC & PBS Masterpiece Theater, 13 episodes). An unforgettable drama.

  • Tom Hering

    Another nomination (if we’re allowed multiples): I, Claudius (1976, BBC & PBS Masterpiece Theater, 13 episodes). An unforgettable drama.

  • Gary

    I’m out of my league here, but I have to nominate Firefly.

  • Gary

    I’m out of my league here, but I have to nominate Firefly.

  • Best TV show ever?

    The BBC’s Inspector Morse (1987 – 2000). Wiki’s summary:

    Morse is a senior CID (Criminal Investigation Department) officer with the Thames Valley Police in Oxford, England. With a Jaguar car (originally a Lancia), a thirst for beer, intellectual snobbery and a penchant for Wagner, Morse presents a likeable persona, despite his sullen temperament.

  • Best TV show ever?

    The BBC’s Inspector Morse (1987 – 2000). Wiki’s summary:

    Morse is a senior CID (Criminal Investigation Department) officer with the Thames Valley Police in Oxford, England. With a Jaguar car (originally a Lancia), a thirst for beer, intellectual snobbery and a penchant for Wagner, Morse presents a likeable persona, despite his sullen temperament.

  • LAJ

    The best TV show ever for family entertainment was and is “Andy Griffeth.”
    Sorry, that’s spelled wrong, you get the idea.

  • LAJ

    The best TV show ever for family entertainment was and is “Andy Griffeth.”
    Sorry, that’s spelled wrong, you get the idea.

  • I vote with Lars. The Rockford Files leads the pack.

  • I vote with Lars. The Rockford Files leads the pack.

  • We loved the Twilight Zone so much that we made a documentary about one of the writers: Charles Beaumont. He died of premature aging and premature presenile dementia.

  • We loved the Twilight Zone so much that we made a documentary about one of the writers: Charles Beaumont. He died of premature aging and premature presenile dementia.

  • I can’t say for the best TV show ever, as I have not watched enough TV shows across the spectrum to even make an educated statement. I will say that I like the Twilight Zone, especially the “gotcha” moments at the end; my favorite episode has to be “Time Enough At Last”. It is so sadly ironic and each time I see it it makes me cringe, even though I know what is coming.

  • I can’t say for the best TV show ever, as I have not watched enough TV shows across the spectrum to even make an educated statement. I will say that I like the Twilight Zone, especially the “gotcha” moments at the end; my favorite episode has to be “Time Enough At Last”. It is so sadly ironic and each time I see it it makes me cringe, even though I know what is coming.

  • boaz

    I’d agree with the Twilight Zone. I’d offer X-Files, The Wire, Simpsons, and Star Trek as others.

    I’ll have to watch the prisoner.

  • boaz

    I’d agree with the Twilight Zone. I’d offer X-Files, The Wire, Simpsons, and Star Trek as others.

    I’ll have to watch the prisoner.

  • Greetings, Charles, my dear cousin! Good to hear from you. I can’t remember watching TV with you when we would get together. I do remember listening to your short wave radio!

  • Greetings, Charles, my dear cousin! Good to hear from you. I can’t remember watching TV with you when we would get together. I do remember listening to your short wave radio!