7 best 'Twilight Zone' episodes to watch on Twilight Zone Day

Rod Serling hosts The Twilight Zone
(Image credit: Alamy)

You don’t need a national holiday day to visit the so-called dimension of imagination: the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, that lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. But if you’re looking for a reason to rewatch, or finally watch, “The Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling’s seminal 1959-64 sci-fi anthology series, there is an actual holiday: May 11 is National Twilight Zone Day. 

While Syfy, the cable home of the black-and-white classic, serves up a full-day marathon starting at 8 a.m. ET, you can stream our picks for the best episodes any time on Paramount Plus, which houses all five seasons, and for free on Pluto TV (excluding season 4, when episodes ballooned to an hour). 

FYI: The Forest Whitaker-hosted 2002-03 revival is currently streaming on Tubi, and Jordan Peele’s 2019-2020 update is now on Freevee.

'It's a Good Life' (season 3, episode 8) 

Some episodes culminate in a final-moment gut-punch. The haunting beauty of this half-hour is that we know the terrifying hook from the beginning: Six-year-old Anthony Fremont (an Opie Taylor-esque Billy Mumy) was born with the godlike mental ability to create and eliminate. He can make a three-headed gopher and kill it when it bores him. He’s done away with electricity, cars, and TV (except for what he himself projects onto the screen). He reads minds, and if your thoughts aren’t happy with him and his choices, he’ll turn you into a monster or send you to the cornfield. Everyone, including his family (Cloris Leachman, John Larch, and Alice Frost), must smile and assure Anthony that whatever decision he’s made out of annoyance or on a whim is “good” — or else. When the Fremonts invite uneasy folks over to celebrate a neighbor’s (Don Keefer) birthday, the tension is just as excruciating for those of us at home.

Viewing the tale of the tiny tyrant today, you may wonder how children showered with positive reinforcement and gifted with tools of AI may alter the world in which we live. Or, perhaps you’ll think about members of a political party placating a temperamental, unhinged leader to keep their own careers alive.

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

'Time Enough at Last' (season 1, episode 8) 

This early-run benchmark was one of Serling’s all-time favorites: Burgess Meredith stars as bespectacled bank teller Henry Bemis, who’s the worst thing a man can be: a reader. His wife (Jacqueline deWit) doesn’t want him to read at home, and his boss (Vaughn Taylor) threatens to fire him for reading at work. Hiding away in the bank’s vault during his lunch hour, Henry ends up being the sole survivor of a bomb that levels civilization. Now he has all the solitude he ever wanted, but only the same newspaper to read. “If it just weren’t for the loneliness, if it just weren’t for the sameness. If there were just something to do,” he says, contemplating his fate. Cue a twist that’ll make fellow introverts elated for him, followed by another twist so utterly simple and heartbreaking you’ll gasp. 

Living through the isolation of a pandemic — along with the rise of anti-intellectualism, book-banning, and employee burnout in America — should give modern audiences layers of appreciation for Henry’s predicament.

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street' (season 1, episode 22)  

“There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices to be found only in the minds of men.” In this gripping cautionary tale, the residents of suburban “Leave it to Beaver”-like Maple Street assume it must have been a passing meteor that just took out the power on their block (as well as their phones, radios, and cars). But then a teen tells them about an alien invasion story he’s read: In it, scouts had been sent ahead to pose as a human family and prepare for the others’ arrival. Are there aliens living among them? Have more just landed?

As suspicion moves from one neighbor (Barry Atwater) to another (Claude Akins) and another (Jack Weston), prepare for both a lesson on mob mentality and a prescient debate on stand-your-ground laws. 

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

'Nightmare at 20,000 Feet' (season 5, episode 3)

Three years before he boldly went where no man had gone before as Captain James T. Kirk, William Shatner was Bob Wilson, a man taking a flight home after spending six months in a sanitarium recovering from a previous nervous breakdown on a plane. As he glances out the window, Bob sees a creature on the wing, trying to sabotage the aircraft. When anyone else looks out, the “gremlin” hides. Is Bob’s mind playing more tricks on him, as his wife (Christine White) suspects? Or is he seeing what others can’t and it’s up to him to save them? The tense half-hour, directed by Richard Donner, preys on the universal fear of flying and the torment of having to decide whether the ominous feeling you have is valid self-preserving intuition or false panic-induced fancy. One thing is certain: Shatner’s riveting close-ups proved he was a leading man. 

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

'Eye of the Beholder" (season 2, episode 6) 

It’s a timeless life lesson, exquisitely staged by director Douglas Heyes for maximum suspense. A woman named Janet Tyler sits, face entirely bandaged, in a hospital. She describes a life of children and adults screaming at the sight of her. We learn this is her eleventh and final State-sanctioned treatment attempting to make her look “normal.” If the injections have failed, she will be forced to segregate with “her own kind.” Her frustration grows: “The State is not God. It hasn’t the right to penalize somebody for an accident of birth! It hasn’t the right to make ugliness a crime!” You’ll be on the edge of your seat as the doctor takes nearly four minutes to remove her bandages once the process finally begins. Only after we see Janet’s face are those of her attendees shown. The jaw-dropping reveals hold a mirror to the arbitrariness of beauty, “the norm,”  and privilege — and are a somber reminder that being different in a way that harms no one is still considered treason today.

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

'To Serve Man' (season 3, episode 24) 

People who watched this thriller at an impressionable age just got a shiver down their spine. A representative from the alien race Kanamits shows up at the United Nations promising that they’ve come to Earth with honorable intentions: The 9-foot-tall samaritans want to share ways to end famine, war, and disease, and set up reciprocal visits between the planets. The Kanamit (Richard Kiel) leaves behind a book, written in his own difficult-to-decipher language. When its title, “To Serve Man,” is later translated, it seems to confirm, along with a passed polygraph test and the proven success of the aid, that the aliens are indeed allies. Even the once skeptical decoding specialist Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner) has planned his trip on their spaceship.

We won’t spoil the shocking twist or the memorable line in which it’s delivered. But the moral: Don’t let peer pressure or an easier road lead you to go along with something that sounds too good to be true. At the very least, don’t commit until you’ve managed to read the fine print! 

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

'Living Doll' (season 5, episode 6) 

Some folks are afraid of dolls, but parents who had a Chatty Cathy doll in their home in 1963 must have really been scarred by this horror story. Stepfather Erich (a menacing Telly Savalas) is angry that his wife, Annabelle (Mary La Roche), has spent money on yet another doll, Talky Tina, to pacify her daughter, Christie (Tracy Stratford). Sensing Erich’s animosity toward both innocent Christie and herself, Talky Tina changes her pre-programmed dialogue when she’s alone with him: “My name is Talky Tina, and I’m beginning to hate you.” The battle that ensues will have you questioning if Talky Tina (voiced by Chatty Cathy’s June Foray) is Christie’s much-needed protector or a terror in her own right. 

The end narration appears to pick a side: “…[T]o a child caught in the middle of turmoil and conflict, a doll can become many things: friend, defender, guardian…” But let’s not forget that memories of Talky Tina would help inspire the idea for a certain doll named Chucky. 

Watch on Paramount Plus and Pluto TV

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Mandi Bierly

After spending more than a decade as a reporter and writer at Entertainment Weekly and EW.com, Mandi served as an editor at Yahoo Entertainment and TV Guide Magazine. As a freelance writer, her work has appeared in The New York TimesTV Insider, Vulture, Thrillist, Billboard.com, ArchitecturalDigest.com, HBO.com, Yahoo.com, and now Tom’s Guide. She is an expert on Hallmark movies, Shark Week, and setting an alarm to watch the Olympics live.