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September 13-19, 2006

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Cult Leader

DVD 'TZ' Marathon, Part I

By Steve Palopoli

RECENTLY I conquered a personal DVD milestone: my first marathon viewing of an entire series that was more than one season long. I picked kind of a weird show to do it with, I guess—the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone. But I've always had a soft spot for this barely remembered show, which suffered from always being compared to Rod Serling's incomparable original. I have so many notes after hours and hours of viewing that I have to break them up into two weeks. Here are 10 truly great episodes from Twilight Zone II:

1. A Matter of Minutes: Not only the best episode of the '80s TZ, but as good as anything from the original show as well. Most people remember it for the "blue men" that Adam Arkin and Karen Austin discover building each moment in time before it arrives. The idea is fascinating and developed well beyond the gimmick treatment that great sci-fi ideas sometimes get in anthology shows. The execution is top-notch, and the design is simple enough to make you buy into an idea that's both epic and theoretically preposterous. This kind of conceptual sleight-of-hand is almost a science-fiction version of magical realism, and incredibly hard to pull off. The depth of the story is the kind of brilliant construction TZ does better than anyone: a twist on everyday life that grabs you and holds you all the way through, only afterward leaving you to consider the weightier implications.

2. Button, Button: For "classic" TZ endings among the '80s episodes, this one—about a couple who are given a button that, if pressed, will give them a payday but kill someone else—wins hands down. I challenge anyone to pull themselves away from this story midway through the first time they see it. It's also the best example of one of the '80s series' distinctive strengths in the way it paints the characters a dark shade of gray, rather than the black and white Rod Serling favored on the original show. These characters aren't "evil," but from the beginning you can tell there's something dark lurking in their hearts. That open-ended question of whether they have a moral center—and if so, if they can find it in time—adds an extra layer of tension.

3. Profile In Silver: TZ loves its time-travel tales; would that they were all as good as this one. While other time stories run through the conventions of the genre, this one sets up those same conventions and then knocks them down. Add to that the fact that it centers on the JFK assassination, a subject most shows don't have the guts to touch (even the makers of Star Trek backed off when they were considering a plot for their first movie). Underappreciated character actor Lane Smith gives a great performance here as a historian of the future. Political fantasy on TV has rarely been better than this.

4. Paladin of the Lost Hour: One of the most fondly remembered shows, and rightly so. Danny Kaye and Glynn Turman are both fantastic in the series' best mingling of sci-fi with character study. It also features some of the funniest one-liners in TZ history, as written by Harlan Ellison and delivered by Kaye at his most eccentric.

5. A Little Peace And Quiet: Another show remembered by most people who remember the series at all. Usually they refer to it as something like "the one where the woman digs up a watch that stops time." And that it is, but it's the ending that chilled to the bone in 1985, and still shocks. I actually spent an embarrassing amount of time as a kid trying to figure out how Melinda Dillon could realistically get herself out of that situation. It involved, like, a 30-year plan she would have to do. You don't even want to know.

6. Dealer's Choice: Rod Serling's version of Twilight Zone rarely did comedy well, and the makers of the '80s series made a few stabs at improving on his record. This was the most effective, with none of the strained goofiness that Serling often leaned on. Plus this episode has the best cast of any in the series: Morgan Freeman, M. Emmett Walsh and Dan Hedaya? Not just that, but Dan Hedaya as the freakin' devil? It never got better than that, that's for sure, nor would it ever need to. The story is slight, but this is the most breezy fun you could ask for from TZ. Great direction from Wes Craven—along with "A Little Peace and Quiet" and "Wordplay", he's got three of the ten great episodes on this list. Perhaps he related to the material in this particular episode because the house they play poker in looks like it could be an address on Elm Street?

7. Aqua Vita: Most people remember this for the performance of Christopher McDonald as the Aqua Vita delivery man. Creepy barely begins to describe it. And yet, what's great is that his acting doesn't jump out and bite you in the neck; in fact he grins moronically nearly the whole time he's on screen. That makes him all the better as a symbol of the supernatural yet corporate evil this episode drips with. But I like the lead performance of Mimi Kennedy here as the youth-obsessed TV anchor, too—a cliché version of this story would cast her as a hollow fall girl, but though you start out hating her, Kennedy fleshes out and truly brings to life this character. Which is the only way the ending can work, and it hits a note that's genuinely soulful and touching without being sappy. Also, for a series whose effects look mostly dated and sometimes downright terrible, it's only fair to note that the make-up effects here are disturbingly effective. Though various episodes of TZ have sought to revisit and play off the themes of Serling's classic "Eye of the Beholder," this is perhaps its best companion piece.

8. Wordplay: This story about a man who suddenly finds that the meaning of words has inexplicably shifted around him is a simple idea with endless possibilities, many of which are creatively explored in a very short episode which nonetheless stays with you long after it's over. Serling would definitely have wished he'd written this one, as it offers a classic tweak on his favorite theme of modern man trapped in a universe he doesn't understand. TZ at its cleverest.

9. Need To Know: Another notable cast, with Frances McDormand and William Petersen in the leads. This one might not be everyone's cup of tea, and some will complain you can see the big set-up coming a mile away, but I like the final twist a lot. There's something about the eeriness of this episode that you can't laugh off, even if it does roll along like a cheesy "outbreak" TV movie for a while (hey, it was written by Sidney Sheldon, what do you expect?). Ultimately, it's a smart subversion of that genre, and I love the way it milks horror out of the American cliché about how people in a small town are just more neighborly.

10. The Storyteller: The thing about this episode is that it's good against all odds. Writers think it's really experimental and cool when they write about writing, but the end result is usually atrocious—witness another '80s TZ episode, "Personal Demons." Both episodes were written by Rockne O'Bannon, but in this second attempt at putting pen to paper about putting pen to paper, he triumphs with an ingenious take on the Arabian Nights fable. The ending takes his deconstruction of the storytelling process to another meta-level.

Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite '80s 'TZ' episode here.

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