"THE TWILIGHT Zone" was the kind of TV that got people thinking -- about television, about suspense and about themselves. From 1959 to 1964, Rod Serling's half-hour series on CBS opened viewers' eyes to a short-form mixture of science fiction, fantasy, horror and humor. Each episode established its premise, developed the story to get past the commercial break, and administered a gut-level twist before the closing credits. For audiences giddy with excitement over the Philco in their living room, it was immensely, perversely satisfying: O. Henry with a black, black heart.
These six episodes, released on the 40th anniversary of the show's debut, leave no doubt that "The Twilight Zone" was ahead of its time, even though they're obviously a product of that peculiar period in American history. Serling, the show's writer and creator, was a Binghamton boy who came of age in the postwar years. Out of those small-town roots, the widespread paranoia about the H-bomb and infiltrating Reds, and apparently a thorough reading of Poe, he created a suspense anthology that applied the moviemaker's art to the small screen.
The 1960 episode "The After Hours" is an example. Anne Francis ("Forbidden Planet") plays a carefully coiffed, perfectly made-up young woman, blandly named Marcia White, who finds herself trapped in an empty department store whose mannequins begin taunting her. All the cinematic tricks are in evidence: quick cuts, images superimposed in quick succession, and a great shot of the hapless woman's face through the pebbled glass of a locked exit door, distorted and frightened.
Another well-remembered classic, "The Eye of the Beholder," centers around a woman in her hospital bed, her head wrapped in bandages, fretting for the entire half-hour about whether she'll look "normal" when the wrappings are removed. Devilishly clever camera work shadows and conceals the faces of all the doctors and nurses, setting up an expected but still visceral punch when the patient's face is finally revealed.
The series also was one of the first to go to the well of psychology for its deep-seated suspense dramas. "Living Doll" dissects an unhappy blended family -- mother, young daughter and resentful stepfather, played by a glowering Telly Savalas -- whose anxieties manifest themselves in the original Bride of Chucky, a doll who looks the stepfather right in the eye and says things like, "I'm Talking Tina and I'm going to kill you!" The argot of the therapist's couch is everywhere these days, but as the '60s dawned, this was disturbing stuff.
And boy, did Rod Serling know how to pick his talent. Besides those actors already mentioned, look in these episodes for Burgess Meredith (as a henpecked, desperately bookish little man in "Time Enough at Last"), and listen for the distinctively jarring music of Bernard Herrmann, who helped Alfred Hitchcock's cause tremendously in "Psycho" and "North by Northwest."
The other episodes are more sci-fi: "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up," in which state troopers investigating a UFO sighting have to pick the space alien from among a handful of patrons at a roadside diner; and "To Serve Man," a particular cult favorite, in which a government cryptologist tries to discover the motives behind a visit by seemingly benevolent 9-foot-tall visitors from another world. (In this one, a merry little bit of dialogue between two characters when the Earth is suddenly at peace: "Odd . . . not reading about the hydrogen bomb or war scares or insurrection or anything like that anymore." "Millennium." "Yeah, close to it.")
All of them hold up well as drama, yet all are distinctively a product of their time: the boom years of consumerism and conformity, years that spawned "The Organization Man," "On the Road," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Dr. Strangelove." Classics all, and "The Twilight Zone" was no less groundbreaking.
"Return to Victory" is the title of NFL Films' 1998 Buffalo Bills season-highlights video, a half-hour of Doug Flutie, the offensive line, Doug Flutie, the defensive backs, Doug Flutie, the special teams, and did we mention how great Doug Flutie was last year? It borders on the annoying, even for the unabashed Flutie fan: scenes of tailgaters enjoying a bowl of Flutie Flakes with beer instead of milk, dramatically lighted reflections by Doug the Thinker, even a choir singing the quarterback's praises. There is that one great play: 18 seconds left in the game against the Jaguars, fourth and goal, Flutie fakes the handoff, runs left and into the end zone untouched. But boy, overkill is a word they don't much understand at NFL Films.
What they do understand is amazing camera work, the kind that stops you in your tracks when you're channel-surfing. They can show the ball in flight -- you can see the laces -- for 60 yards in the air, then have the perfect angle as it nestles into the wideout's gloved hands. It's beautiful to watch, and boy, does it sell the game.
Rated G -- no profanity, even on the sidelines; no drunken fights in the stands; no exuberant topless women fans; no public urination. Was that really the season that was?