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The Most Underrated Episodes Of The Twilight Zone

One of the greatest anthology series of all time, there's not much that can be said about "The Twilight Zone" that hasn't already been said. A groundbreaking show that mixed science fiction, drama, mystery, and even light-hearted comedy, the series ran the gamut of stories and was punctuated by series creator Rod Serling's inimitable introductions and outros each episode.

From supernatural Western capers to space-based adventures, romances, and beyond, "The Twilight Zone" did it all, responsible for some of the most famous episodes of television ever produced. The greatest stories in the series have gone on to become legendary, with a cultural influence that cannot be understated, and they continue to be referenced, paid homage to, and even spoofed to this day. But, despite episodes like "To Serve Man" and "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" continuing to live on in pop culture, there are so many more that deserve your attention.

There are a bunch of under-appreciated installments hidden in the 156 episode run that are worthy of recognition and recommendation. So, get ready to enter the fifth dimension and traverse the middle ground between light and shadow — you've just crossed over into a list of the most underrated episodes of "The Twilight Zone."

The Little People (Season 3, Episode 28)

While episodes like "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "The Midnight Sun" dazzled by putting a sympathetic character through a horrifying hell, another kind of story is often overlooked — the tale of a despicable figure who gets a sinister comeuppance. The best episode in this underrated sub-category is the Season 3 installment "The Little People," which is about a cruel, egomaniacal astronaut who ultimately gets his just desserts.

Opening on a manned mission to outer space, we meet a pair of explorers who stop on an alien planet to make repairs to their rocket ship. While there, the bitter and disgruntled co-pilot Peter Craig (Joe Maross) becomes resentful of his commander William Fletcher (Claude Akins), who gives all the orders. When Craig discovers an entire civilization of miniature people on the planet, he decides he doesn't want to leave and would rather become the god-like ruler of this race of Lilliputians. Though they worship him at first, it's not long before Craig realizes that his dreams of grandeur have their ironic consequences.

This episode is a satisfying jaunt into a world where the worst of us must face justice for our own hubris. Though classic enough to be spoofed on "The Simpsons" in a memorable Halloween special, it's rarely listed among the series' best.

The Parallel (Season 4, Episode 11)

Several episodes of "The Twilight Zone" deal with time travel, but there's one underrated episode that ventured into the multiverse back when the concept of parallel realities was still a relatively obscure one to most viewers. Simply titled "The Parallel," the episode uses the time-tested backdrop of a mission to outer-space. It centers on Major Robert Gaines (Steve Forrest), the pilot of a vessel said to be headed on the longest and farthest space mission ever attempted. During the flight, Gaines blacks out, and he wakes up back on Earth with no memory of how he got there.

Before long, Gaines begins to notice curious changes in his life. At first they are relatively minor, such as a fence in his yard that wasn't there before, or people addressing him by the wrong rank. But when nobody around him recognizes John F. Kennedy as President of the United States, Gaines realizes he's somehow crossed over into an alternate reality. Though the concept is fairly common today, "The Parallel" should be appreciated for its groundbreaking use of the idea of multiple worlds. As a Season 4 episode it also makes the most of its one-hour run time, crafting a clever and suspenseful drama with a surprising mystery.

The Jeopardy Room (Season 5, Episode 29)

It's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly why a great episode of "The Twilight Zone" becomes under-appreciated. In the case of the Season 5 episode "The Jeopardy Room," it may be that it was something out of the ordinary for the series. Eschewing supernatural and science fiction concepts, "The Jeopardy Room" feels more like a Hitchcockian thriller than an episode of an acclaimed sci-fi anthology series. But what it lacks in fantastical elements it makes up for in gripping suspense and brilliant character drama, led by future Oscar-winner Martin Landau.

At the height of the Cold War we meet Major Ivan Kuchenko (Landau). He has escaped his native land with the intention to defect, hiding out in an unnamed neutral country. But he has been followed there by Commissar Vassiloff (John van Dreelen), a renowned assassin famous for elaborate booby traps that he considers a masterful artistry. Awakening in a hotel room, Kuchenko is instructed by Vassiloff that if he can locate and disarm a bomb hidden in his room before it goes off, he'll be allowed to live — but if he tries to escape, he'll be shot dead.

A captivating and intense one-room thriller, this episode finds Landau in top form, turning in an award-worthy performance as the defector. Though not your traditional "The Twilight Zone" affair, it deserves to be appreciated for what it does so well.

Escape Clause (Season 1, Episode 6)

Despite being famous for its stunning twists and mind-blowing sci-fi tales, "The Twilight Zone" also had its fair share of comedic stories. Though the vast majority of these more comedic episodes tend to be lower rated, there's at least one that's worth watching. The Season 1 episode "Escape Clause" definitely doesn't get the credit that it deserves. One of many episodes with a message to be careful what you wish for, it stars David Wayne as Walter Bedecker, a hypochondriac and germaphobe who refuses to leave his bed, constantly believing himself to be either sick or dying.

Walter's long-suffering wife Ethel (Virginia Christine) has had enough of his madness, but things take a turn when Bedecker receives a strange visitor in the form of Mr. Cadwallader (Thomas Gomez), an all-powerful being who offers him a deal: Be free from sickness, injury, and even death, at the cost of his soul. Bedecker readily accepts, but he quickly finds that his imperviousness is not all it's cracked up to be. With a cynical twist ending and a performance by Wayne that's despicably funny and wonderfully charming, "Escape Clause" is a delightful romp that manages to be both light-hearted and grim at the same time.

I Am the Night - Color Me Black (Season 5, Episode 26)

"The Twilight Zone" is known for ironic endings, mystery, suspense, and sci-fi. But rarely does the series get recognition for its groundbreaking minority representation, something Rod Serling felt personally passionate about. "The Big Tall Wish" became a landmark episode for its rare use of a majority Black cast, and several other episodes focused on racial injustice. The most underrated story to focus on the issue may be "I Am the Night – Color Me Black."

Set in a small backwoods town that seems to be in the segregated American south, we meet beleaguered lawman Sheriff Koch (Michael Constantine), who is set to oversee the hanging of a local man the next morning. Koch becomes more distraught by the situation as the convicted murderer Jagger (Terry Becker) remains steadfast that he is innocent, having killed a racist man in self-defense. But the day of Jagger's hanging never seems to come — the sun never rises, a phenomenon initially limited to their town.

While the locals clamor for Jagger to be put to death, the sheriff re-investigates the killing. Reverend Anderson (Ivan Dixon) attempts to reconcile the execution with his faith, and they soon learn that the unrelenting darkness has spread. A poignant story about hate, "I Am the Night – Color Me Black" is as important an episode as there is in the series.

The Long Morrow (Season 5, Episode 16)

The best twist endings in "The Twilight Zone" were mind-blowers, shocking reversals that left audiences in mental knots as the credits rolled. But few were as tragic and heartbreaking as the final moments of the episode "The Long Morrow." An underrated Rod Serling-penned entry, it stars Robert Lansing in a classic star-crossed romance with a timeless "Gift of the Magi" style finish.

"The Long Morrow" is once again an astronaut's tale, this time focused on Commander Douglas Stansfield, a strong, healthy pilot chosen for a mission to a planet nearly 50 lightyears from Earth. Selected because he is a single bachelor with no family, he will be in suspended animation for the 40 year round trip, and when he returns, there's no telling if anyone will even remember him.

Just before he is to depart, however, Stansfield meets and falls in love with a young woman and vows to find her upon his return in four decades. But, knowing that he won't age while aboard his rocket ship, Stansfield makes the choice to remain out of suspended animation, forcing himself into 40 long years of desperate isolation, all in the name of love. A moving story about the power of the heart, its gut-wrenching conclusion won't leave a dry eye in the house.

The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross (Season 5, Episode 16)

When it comes to despicable characters in "The Twilight Zone," there are few who are as selfish and cruel as the title character in "The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross." A story about the dangers of ego, greed, and heartlessness, it stars Don Gordon as Ross, a lovelorn firebrand who wants to win back the love of social worker Leah Maitland (Gail Kobe). He's willing to go to extraordinary lengths in order to do so, but, this being "The Twilight Zone," his efforts go far beyond flowers and gifts.

Following a confrontation with Leah's angry father, Ross meets an ailing old man, and after a sarcastic wish he discovers that he's able to trade the man's cough for a healed hand. With this newly discovered power, Ross makes deals with everyone he meets in an attempt to win Leah's love — he trades years of his life to an elderly tycoon in exchange for vast wealth, and regains his youth by making a deal with a young bellboy. But no matter what he gains, it's still not enough to win Leah back.

Eventually, he realizes that the one thing he needs to acquire is her father's kindness. Unfortunately, the price Ross must pay to get it brings an ironic twist of fate. Like "The Long Morrow," the episode shows the power of love, but this time we see what happens when its wielded by a less-than-honorable man.

I Shot an Arrow Into the Air (Season 1, Episode 15)

Plenty of episodes of "The Twilight Zone" have centered on an ill-fated mission to space, including some others on this list, but few offer up a story of desperate survival quite like "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air." An exploration of human morality, it has one of the most clever and stunning reversals in the history of the series — the episode's final scene will leave you wide-eyed in tragic disbelief. Though episodes like "Eye of the Beholder" and "To Serve Man" might be more horrifying, the conclusion seen in this episode shows the cost of a tragic twist on one man's soul.

Sent on a mission to space, the crew of a capsule is forced to crash land on an apparent asteroid when things go wrong. Though the rock appears to have a breathable atmosphere, the chances of the four survivors living long enough to find rescue are remote, so the group decides to traverse the rocky terrain in hopes of finding shelter. As their supplies dwindle, astronaut Cory (Dewey Martin) wants to let a badly injured colleague die in order to make the water rations last longer. With their situation growing more dire and their water running out, Corey decides that if he's going to survive he may have to take drastic measures — but the cost may be his humanity.

A Quality of Mercy (Season 3, Episode 15)

A war story with a moral message worthy of the best science fiction, we're not sure how "A Quality of Mercy" has escaped most "best of" lists. With superb performances from a cast that includes two future stars, the episode is a statement on how war dehumanizes the enemy and can turn even the most noble into monsters.

The episode begins at the tail end of World War II in August of 1945. A U.S. Army platoon has surrounded a badly injured squad of Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. The American unit's commander, Lt. Katell (played by eventual "Quantum Leap" star Dean Stockwell), orders an attack on the cornered enemy, but many in the group, including radio man Hansen (future "Star Trek" legend Leonard Nimoy) protest, seeing it as cruel and unnecessary. When Katell refuses to back down, he mysteriously finds himself four years in the past — and in the body of a Japanese soldier whose unit has pinned down a group of Americans.

The hateful Katell comes to realize that the enemy is not so different from himself and begins to question his orders. It's a powerful story about the folly of war, and it was very timely: "A Quality of Mercy" dropped in December 1961 at a time when the United States was edging towards entering into the Vietnam War.

Third From the Sun (Season 1, Episode 15)

Like most episodes of "The Twilight Zone," the sorely underrated "Third From the Sun" includes a twist at the end. This one is not quite of the sense-shattering variety, but its inclusion did make the episode all the more meaningful at the time. The reveal turns a tense thriller into a cautionary nuclear tale that spoke deeply to Americans when it was released during the Cold War. In the episode, the world is on the brink of nuclear war when we meet Will (Fritz Weaver), a scientist working at a military base who realizes the end of the world is nearer than most believe — perhaps even just a few days away.

Knowing that a nuclear war is going to break out and believing it will end the world, Will enlists the aid of his friend Jerry (Joe Maross), a trained pilot. Together they plot a daring raid to steal a top secret spacecraft and save both of their families by setting a course for a nearby planet that they have discovered has a thriving civilization. But, as they prepare for their trip across the stars, a suspicious, nationalist colleague threatens to derail their plans. A stylishly directed drama, "Third From the Sun" is both an engrossing, nail-biting affair and an unsubtle message about nuclear proliferation.

The Fear (Season 5, Episode 35)

Another sorely underrated entry, "The Fear" is full of stirring emotion and human drama, but it also has some fun, campy elements that give it a certain charm. Maybe it's overlooked because it was one of the last episodes to air amid a string of lesser episodes, but it definitely deserves a second look. It explores how paranoia can take a toll on even the strongest among us.

"The Fear" follows Charlotte Scott (Hazel Court), a young woman who lives alone in a remote cabin in the woods. After a series of unexplained incidents, including strange lights in the sky and mysterious craters in the ground appearing overnight, Charlotte calls for the aid of highway patrolman Robert Franklin (Peter Mark Richman). Though he's at first dismissive, assuming her fears are the result of her isolation, Franklin realizes something is amiss when his patrol car is overturned and they discover enormous footprints nearby.

Though it's guilty of borrowing similar concepts from other, better installments, they're used in new ways here. The result is a gripping story with a unique message. Overlook the admittedly goofy solution, and you'll find a tale that's as suspenseful as the best episodes of "The Twilight Zone."

Shadow Play (Season 2, Episode 26)

With no space men, no monsters, no beings with fantastic powers, the Season 2 episode "Shadow Play" appears to be an ordinary courtroom drama at first. In what could have been an episode of any prime time playhouse series of the day, the audience meets Adam Grant (Dennis Weaver), a man on trial for murder. The verdict is guilty and Adam is sentenced to death. But, because this is "The Twilight Zone," this is no ordinary trial, and Adam is no ordinary death row inmate.

Following Rod Serling's eerie introductions, we meet Grant again, this time in his cell as he awaits his execution, scheduled for noon. In an apparent fit of madness, Grant insists that none of what is happening is real: He's in the middle of a horrible nightmare from which he can't wake up, and if he dies, everyone will cease to exist. He claims he's been tried, convicted, and executed hundreds of times, dreaming the same dream every night, and is terrified of being put to death over and over. Now, an increasingly panicked Grant must convince the skeptical District Attorney to stay his execution.

While "Shadow Play" is better-known than many of the episodes on this list, it deserves to be ranked as high as the series' very best. It's a taut, suspenseful, and intriguing fantasy drama of the highest caliber.

The Old Man in the Cave (Season 5, Episode 7)

There have been a number of episodes of "The Twilight Zone" set in a post apocalyptic future, but "The Old Man in the Cave" is among the bleakest. Starring John Anderson and James Coburn and written by Rod Serling, it takes place in the then-near future of 1974, a decade after a devastating nuclear holocaust wiped out most of the population.

Anderson plays Goldsmith, the leader of a small band of survivors who have stayed alive thanks to the guidance of a mysterious figure who lives in a nearby cave. Nobody has seen him, but his warnings and wisdom have guided the group to the only sources of food that remain uncontaminated by nuclear radiation and helped them locate areas suitable for farming. When an apparent military commander named French (Coburn) arrives claiming he has orders to organize the town as the government rebuilds civilization, Goldsmith is suspicious and resistant.

The two men are drawn into a struggle for leadership. French promises the townspeople a better life while Goldsmith wants them to trust the old man in the cave, who promises them only hardship. With a clever plot twist once famously lampooned by "Futurama," the episode explores complex themes of faith while being a compelling mystery at the same time.