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Half an airliner crashes on a deserted island. The survivors, whose personalities seem hand-picked to play off each other and generate tension, start to see ghosts, hear monsters, and get other hints that inexplicable business is afoot. “Are they all actually dead?” we ask ourselves, “or could this weeks-long experience really be a split-second hallucination between life and death as the plane crashes?” Each week that we return, another mystery is ushered in by four letters that float out of the darkness, coming into focus only briefly before whooshing by: LOST.

Those white-on-black letters evoke another iconic opening-title sequence, that of a show whose sense of the uncanny clearly influences Lost and other recent reality-tweaking series. There’s a signpost up ahead if you need it spelled out: The Twilight Zone.

Like a few other cult-classic TV programs (Star Trek comes to mind), TZ has had spotty treatment in home-video formats. A few episodes would dribble out at a time, sometimes in an order that made sense, sometimes not. Eventually, the series’ seasons were released in individual sets, but without the TLC they deserved. Finally, this fall, Image Entertainment completed a lavish repackaging effort, resulting in a 28-disc Complete Definitive Edition that reminds us that people were testing television’s limits long before the HBO era.

TZ was all the more striking for when it appeared: the tail end of the ’50s, an era when Father was supposed to know best and everyone loved the Beaver. Into this whitebread world came Rod Serling, a Jewish former paratrooper and pugilist who suffered from combat-inspired nightmares the rest of his life. Frustrated by encounters with censors during his early work as a television-script writer — the social themes that interested him were considered too edgy for broadcast — he decided to give allegory a try. He sold CBS on the idea of a science-fiction anthology series, in which each week’s self-contained drama could address serious issues through a veil of fantasy.

Serling’s high-minded motives wouldn’t have mattered much had the stories not turned out to be so great — multi-layered dramas that often had enough subtext for a lit-class analysis, but which almost always worked on levels any pre-teen viewer could appreciate. (Having been an after-school addict to Zone reruns in the ’70s, I can vouch for the latter.) While episodes sometimes hinged on a single “gotcha” moment that delivered the perception-shifting moral theme (hey — physical beauty is totally relative! in a world of ugly people, a fashion model would be a freak!) they were often much more than one-note plays. Serling’s sardonic commentary on each episode, famously delivered with cigarette in hand, lent a streetwise irony to the corniest conceits; he also was aided by actors who could put all that weirdness across, some of whom — William Shatner, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead — have Serling and his directors to thank for some of their best performances.

For a show that often had trouble finding sponsors and only ran for five seasons, Twilight Zone made an incredible mark on the pop psyche. The Simpsons has served to cement its influence, ensuring that the plots to “To Serve Man” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” are familiar even to kids who don’t know anything about the original. (Hell, The Simpsons has even made reference to Serling’s less-successful, post-TZ series, Night Gallery.)

In keeping with the series’ status, these new DVDs are about as good as one can imagine. The sound and image are pristine, with the caveat that in some instances — like the batch of episodes in the second season where videotape was used as a cost-cutting measure — even 100-percent fidelity to the source materials doesn’t mean it’s going to look great. The DVDs also retain much of the old intro and outro material, rendering the time-warp complete.

The extras are ample, running the gamut from cast commentaries to recently produced radio dramas that adapt famous episodes. Considering that the series’ key figure died three decades ago, it’s surprising how much good Serling material there is here, from silly game-show appearances to audio recordings of college lectures he gave in the ’70s.

Not that we much need that extra material to know what was going on in the writer’s mind. For those who have spent much time in this Zone, Serling’s sympathies are about as unmysterious as they can be.


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