For years I resisted the Twilight Zone cult, just as I had the Honeymooners cult and those idiotic Trekkies. With The Twilight Zone, my beef was this: The series' reputation rested on its supposedly choice ironies and profound twist endings; to me, the ironies seemed cheap and the endings twisted in a way that would surprise only someone who has never read O. Henry or Saki.
However, with the release to stores of four volumes of highly regarded episodes of the 1959-64 series (they were previously available only by mail order), I have a new respect for this creation of narrator and writer Rod Serling. No,I haven't caved in to the show's cult or gone softheaded for portentous irony it's the acting, and The Twilight Zone's portrayal of America in the still-innocent early '60s that makes these handsomely restored reruns worth watching.
In ''Time Enough at Last,'' for example, Burgess Meredith gives a beautifully detailed performance as a harried, bookish man who turns out to be the only survivor of a nuclear attack.
The teleplay hinges, as usual, on a final, dry joke that's a typical Serling groaner, but Meredith is a wonder: shy yet aggressive, despairing yet elated a colorful character in a black-and-white sketch.
Similarly, in ''The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,'' Jack Weston does a great job as a suburbanite straight out of a John Cheever story. Unfortunately, Weston's Cheeverish character is stuck in a Serlingish story about an alien invasion that turns into yawn a metaphor for McCarthyism.
The Twilight Zone tapes also let you catch up with fledgling careers of actors who went on to bigger things. Volume 1's ''Nothing in the Dark,'' for example, is distinguished by an appearance by Robert Redford. But that's not all: He plays a character called Mr. Death. Who wouldn't want to see Robert Redford as Mr. Death?
The bottom line is this, if you ignore the goofy final few minutes of each of these half-hour dramas, you can appreciate the many excellent and idiosyncracraic performances of everyone from Agnes Moorhead and William Shatner to Lee Marvin and Jonathan Winters, as well as the fact that Serling hired good directors to guide those actors through The Twilight Zone. B