The Twilight Zone (1959): The Twilight Zone: To Serve Man
October 9, 2023 7:57 PM - Season 3, Episode 24 - Subscribe

Respectfully submitted for your perusal — a Kanamit. Height: a little over nine feet. Weight: in the neighborhood of three hundred and fifty pounds. Origin: unknown. Motives? Therein hangs the tale, for in just a moment, we're going to ask you to shake hands, figuratively, with a Christopher Columbus from another galaxy and another time.

“It’s a cookbook!”

One of the most iconic episodes of the original series, and quite possibly the episode that people think of when they think about twist endings. No, cryptography does not work that way and, no, xenolinguistics doesn’t work that way either. (And lie detection only works that way if you are determined not to look the gift horse in the mouth, which is very much so the case with humanity in this story).

But twist aside, it remains a great example of putting together a tense episode of television where the viewer knows something is wrong, but isn’t exactly sure what until the end. The Kanamits are unsettling throughout, even before their purpose is made clear— and the Columbus reference in the opening narration almost certainly plays differently today than it did 60 years ago.

Emily St. James, AV Club:
The whole story is building to that twist, a twist that makes less and less sense the more you pry it apart. For starters, how on Earth is English a one-to-one match for whatever language the Kanamits have? And if we assume that the Kanamits made the book as a decoy (as we very well might), then why did they fill it with recipes? And why did they simply leave it laying around at the United Nations? Don’t get me wrong. “It’s a cookbook!” is a fantastic moment, a gut punch of an ending, but the road to that point is filled with so many things we have to accept to make the story move forward that it all becomes a bit much.
posted by thecaddy (10 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Boo to overthinking this story, I say. Booooooo. It's got young alien Jaws, it's got That Line. It's creepy and scary and hilarious all at once. Why would you look this particular gift house in the mouth? This is why I love purely episodic shows so much-- if you had to hang a season-long arc on this kind of bullshit, it would be a disaster, but for twenty-two minutes? Golden bullshit.
posted by phooky at 8:18 PM on October 9, 2023 [17 favorites]

I couldn't agree with you more, phooky. To pick apart a Twilight Zone episode like that is to completely misapprehend the whole Twilight Zone concept. Like, of course that's not how xenolinguistics works, lol. The neat thing about old long-season episodic TV shows is they truly can throw away an entire episode on a one-liner joke twist ending based on the double meaning of "serve", and maybe it doesn't all hold up to detailed fact-checking, but it might actually work as TV anyway. When you've got 30+ episodes a season they aren't all going to be winners, and a bunch of them are going to be a little bit nonsensical, and that's okay. That's what makes TZ so fun - you never know when something so goofy on the face of it will end up being seriously sublime television. There's sort of a loose, experimental feel to the show that keeps things interesting.

I mean, there are a LOT of TZ episodes where they take a thin premise and stretch it into the allotted time. Sometimes you're watching them just looking at your watch and tapping your foot. And sometimes you fall into the world of the episode and maybe never truly leave again. I scrolled through the list of episode titles on the AV Club just to check out reviews of some of my faves and I'll admit it's been years since I've watched any TZ and even just seeing the titles of some of those episodes still sent a chill up my spine (oh my god, The Hitch-Hiker!! Such a hackneyed old chestnut of a story but the actor's performance scares the living shit out of me).

To Serve Man isn't one of those for me, but I will say I remember the first time I saw it - remember where I was sitting, what the day outside was like, our tiny little TV and lumpy old couch from back then - and the ending surprised and delighted me so much that I went and told my 4th grade bestie the whole story the next day and spoiled the twist for her. If that's not entertainment, by all means, tell me what is.
posted by potrzebie at 10:30 PM on October 9, 2023 [7 favorites]

"It's a cookbook!" is a running gag on MST3k and also in my family. Where else are you going to get that versatility?

potrzebie, you're right. I love old Twilight Zone episodes, particularly when I'm home for the holidays and my dad and I can just sack out in front of the SyFy yearly marathon. A lot of them are stagey and theatrical, with plenty of Acting!, and those are often lovable too. But some of them still work as TV today, like Agnes Moorhead being pursued by aliens -- scared me something awful as a kid -- or Telly Savalas as a stepfather who's too real.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:41 AM on October 10, 2023 [5 favorites]

I haven't picked up a cookbook in maybe twenty without mumbling in a curious voice, "How to serve man?"
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 9:10 AM on October 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

A lot of Twilight Zone episodes build up to a big twist ending, and it's kind of amazing how rewatchable they can be despite that. Eye of the Beholder, The Howling Man, Five Characters in Search of an Exit or Time Enough At Last are worth going back to over and over again because of the punchy dialogue, great performances and stylish, kooky visuals. Everybody involved was giving it their all, and it shows. This episode doesn't bear up to a rewatch as well as some of the others, it feels like they had to strain a bit to fill the minutes on their way to that EC Comics ending, but it's still fun and the Kanamits are such great sci-fi weirdos.

It feels like the ending was meant to be the hero getting trapped on the ship right after the lady tells him about the cookbook. That's your big twist, and the stuff on the ship was probably just there to pad out the runtime. But then the actual ending we do get is compelling in a whole other way. There's that chilling little scene of the hero impotently raging against the hulking, smirking alien, and then when the hero breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly it's just weird as hell. He asks us if we're on the ship with him, and you're like, "I don't know, are we? How has he been talking to us the whole time, anyway? Has he lost his mind from the stress of it all and he only thinks he's talking to someone, or is he able to perceive us somehow?" The ambiguity of that sticks in my mind, in a way the more straightforward "It's a cookbook!" stuff doesn't.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:24 PM on October 10, 2023 [1 favorite]

The TZ episode that has stuck with me all these years is The After Hours. Creeped the hell out of little me, and I still can’t look at a mannequin and not be juuuust a bit creeped by it.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:02 AM on October 11, 2023 [5 favorites]

posted by dr_dank at 6:27 PM on October 12, 2023

I had read the Damon Knight short story before I ever saw the Twilight Zone adaptation. But I thought I'd seen the essence attributed to H. G. Wells (which I can't find now - boo Google) which went something like "If aliens arrive and say there are here to serve mankind, we should ask 'Boiled or fried?'"
posted by rochrobbb at 4:39 AM on October 13, 2023

Too late to edit: "and say they are here"
posted by rochrobbb at 4:56 AM on October 13, 2023

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