It's a good thing Judge Erich Asperschlager wrote this review—a very good thing.
Our reviews of The Twilight Zone: Season One (Blu-ray) (published October 29th, 2010), The Twilight Zone: Season Two (Blu-ray) (published December 9th, 2010), The Twilight Zone: The Complete Second Season (published June 20th, 2013), The Twilight Zone: The Complete Third Season (published July 10th, 2013), The Twilight Zone: Season Four (Blu-ray) (published May 17th, 2011), The Twilight Zone: The Complete Fourth Season (published August 9th, 2013), The Twilight Zone: Season Five (Blu-ray) (published August 29th, 2011), The Twilight Zone: The Complete Fifth Season (published September 26th, 2013), and The Twilight Zone (2002): The Complete First Season (published October 6th, 2004) are also available.
"No logic, no reason, no explanation; just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness and the unexplainable walk hand in hand through the shadows. In a moment we'll start collecting clues as to the whys, the whats and the wheres. We will not end the nightmare, we'll only explain it—because this is the Twilight Zone."—from Rod Serling's introduction to "Five Characters in Search of an Exit"
In the years since it first aired, the 156 episodes of The Twilight Zone have been mixed, matched, and homogenized through endless re-runs and TV marathons. If you separate them into their original seasons, however, they tell a different tale. The show changed dramatically from year to year, each season with its own triumphs and failures. During the first season, The Twilight Zone was a question mark—an experiment in smart, genre programming that could have gone horribly wrong. Instead, it flourished, picking up awards and viewers. Season Two is as much a testament to high quality and fearless storytelling as the purse-tightening at CBS that not only reduced the number of episodes but also demanded that six of them be shot on videotape instead of film. By Seasons Four and Five, the series was in decline—the former hamstrung by sponsor issues that resulted in the show changing to an hour-long format, and the latter the victim of creative misfires and lessening involvement by the show's creators. Smack dab in the middle of that arc from promising beginning to troubled end is The Twilight Zone: Season Three—the longest of the five seasons, and apart from the first season, the one with arguably the most well-known and beloved episodes. Even with show creator Rod Serling complaining of creative exhaustion and the beginnings of the self-cannibalization that would plague the show in its final years, Season Three stands among the best sci-fi television.
Facts of the Case
The Twilight Zone: Season Three has 37 episodes across five Blu-ray discs:
Disc Five • "The Trade-Ins"
Feeling the strain of having written around two-thirds of the 64 episodes that made up The Twilight Zone's first two seasons, Rod Serling stepped back for Season Three. Instead of a steady stream of original Serling stories, the third season is a mix of short story adaptations (including one by Ray Bradbury); further contributions by contributors Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and Charles Beaumont; and teleplays from newcomers like Montgomery Pittman ("Two") and Earl Hamner, Jr. ("The Hunt"). Although the variety makes the third season less cohesive in style and tone than the first two, it's not necessarily a change for the worse.
If anything, the larger pool of talent pushes the show into new, darker areas, edging into the kind of creepiness seen more in pulp comic books than science fiction novels. In the third season, the show's famous twist endings aren't just surprising, they can be downright chilling, as in the grisly denouement of "The Jungle," for example, or the disturbing "switcheroo" that caps off "The Dummy." There are lighter episodes, to be sure—comic tales like "Once Upon a Time," which stars the legendary Buster Keaton, and the Carol Burnett vehicle "Cavender is Coming"—but this season has just as many stories that end with death…or worse.
Some of the best known third season episodes are also the darkest, including "It's a Good Life"—starring Billy Mumy as a telekinetic six-year-old who kills anyone who displeases him by wishing them into the dreaded "cornfield"—and the alien visitor story "To Serve Man," which just might have the biggest gut-punch twist of the entire series. Even the Serling-penned tales deal with the dark side. In "Deaths-head Revisited," a fugitive Nazi official revisits Dachau to gloat, only to wind up in the hands of his victims. Its counterpart, "Changing of the Guard," might have a heartwarming ending, when an aging teacher played by Donald Pleasance finds out just how many lives he affected, but the revelation comes only after he contemplates suicide.
Most anthology series build their stories around the "twist ending," as though a shocking ending makes up for sub-par storytelling. The Twilight Zone might be famous for its twists, but the episodes rarely rely on them. Serling's background as a writer of TV dramas translated to his vision for the series, and it shows. As it was in the first two seasons, the supernatural elements and plot twists are almost incidental to the best Season Three episodes. In "A Game of Pool," Jack Klugman plays a boastful pool player who challenges the dearly departed local legend Fats Brown (played by Jonathan Winters) to a game with the highest of stakes. But what makes the episode a classic isn't the ghost story, or the memorable finale, it's the crisp dialogue the two men trade as they play for immortality. "Kick the Can" (later remade as a segment in Twilight Zone: The Movie) and "Nothing in the Dark" (with a young Robert Redford) are both moving meditations on what it means to grow old, twist endings aside.
Not every episode is a winner. The few missteps come across as simplistic compared to their better counterparts. "The Shelter" is a chilling look at mob mentality in the face of nuclear war, but it comes across as preachy. The same is true of the heavy-handed war tale "A Quality of Mercy," which is most memorable for appearances by Dean Stockwell and Leonard Nimoy. Other episodes are problematic because they lean more on supernatural set-ups than convincing characters. "Dead Man's Shoes" is a story about a murdered mobster whose consciousness is transferred from person to person through his designer footwear; it's fun, but that's about it. "A Piano in the House" suffers from a similar thinness. The idea of an enchanted player piano that makes people act according to their true natures is interesting; the over-simplified depictions of those people is not. Sadly, even "I Sing the Body Electric"—adapted by Ray Bradbury from his short story—is on the disappointing list. Bradbury is a legend and a master, but his poetic writing style doesn't translate well to TV.
Except for the infamous video episodes in the second season, the first two Twilight Zone Blu-ray releases looked amazing. I'm sad to say that Season Three doesn't quite match that level of quality. Most of the AVC-encoded 1080p episodes look just as sharp, rich, and blemish-free as the previous sets. But not all of them. Whether because of the way they were filmed, the quality of the available prints, or the compression needed to fit 37 episodes on five discs, some episodes and scenes look soft, with more noise and the occasional dirt and scratches. This seems especially true on the last couple of discs, with the grainy "Cavender is Coming" as the worst offender. To be fair, even the problem episodes look better than their standard definition brethren; but when you've gotten used to being able to see the finest fabric detail, every bead of sweat, every wrinkle in an actor's face, it's hard to go back to a picture that's merely "very good."
Once again, the audio comes in both original mono and a restored uncompressed 2.0 mono track, with the option to hear just the isolated score for each episode. Once again, the remastered sound is excellent, with clean dialogue and good separation for the orchestration and effects.
Even if you bought The Twilight Zone: Season Two when it came out, chances are you've only recently finished digging through the many hours of bonus material. If so, Season Three should give you plenty to do until the next set comes out in a few months.
The first two Blu-ray releases included bonus episodes of other shows from the period, written by Serling. Season Three focuses instead on his fame, with several vintage TV appearances. The first is a full episode of Liar's CLub, a 1969 game show hosted by Serling. In this show, two contestants are presented with an unusual object and have to decide which one of four celebrity panelists (including a young Betty White) is telling the truth about what it is. The second is a 15-minute segment from the 1962 program Tell it to Groucho. Though it's billed as a Serling appearance, he appears just long enough to introduce a talented waiter who sings opera, and then to come back and help him play a quick game at the end. Lastly, a four-minute promo featuring Serling shilling for the Famous Writers School, a correspondence school that ended up being most famous for false advertising and questionable academic practices. Although none of the bonus clips have anything to do with The Twilight Zone, they do show how far-reaching its creator's influence and fame spread during the '60s and '70s.
Next up, 26 audio commentaries, 19 of which are Blu-ray exclusives. Most of them feature The Twilight Zone Companion author Marc Scott Zicree and guests like Blade creator Marv Wolfman, author Neil Gaiman, Battlestar Galactica writer Jeff Vlaming, screenwriter Mark Fergus, and Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein. There are also actor commentaries, by Billy Mumy, Jonathan Winters, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Cornthwaite, and Cliff Robertson. In addition to the commentaries, certain episodes also include archival audio interviews between Zicree and Twilight Zone heavyweights like producer Buck Houghton, George Clayton Johnson, writer Earl Hamner, and directors Lamont Johnson and Richard L. Bare.
Rounding out the bonus features: part three of Zicree's interview with Twilight Zone cinematographer George T. Clemens; sponsor billboards from companies like Chesterfield cigarettes and Arrid; the option to watch "Cavender is Coming" with its original, misguided, laugh track; 19 more episodes of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas; Jonathan Winters reading the alternate ending of "A Game of Pool;" a clip from the 1989 remake of "A Game of Pool" with that original ending; a clip from the 1985 remake of "Dead Man's Shoes" retitled "Dead Woman's Shoes;" a nine-minute clip from The Garry Moore Show of a Serling-introduced Twilight Zone spoof with Carol Burnett; and an interview with actor Edson Stroll, who appeared in this season's "The Trade-Ins" and the Season Two classic "The Eye of the Beholder."
By the time The Twilight Zone reached its third season, not only had it established the rules and conventions that would be followed by pretty much every anthology series that came after, it was in danger of leaning too heavily on those formulas instead of pushing in new directions. Despite that feeling of familiarity, The Twilight Zone: Season Three has some of the best sci-fi and fantasy writing ever seen on television. One of the best thing about these full season sets is that they make room for lesser-known episodes like "Little Girl Lost," "Four O'Clock," and "Five Characters in Search of an Exit," which are just as surprising and effective now as when they first aired half a century ago. Even with a few muddy-looking episodes, Image Entertainment continues their impressive streak with this latest set, beautifully curated and packed with bonus features.
Smoking might be hazardous to your health, but watching The Twilight Zone sure isn't. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
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