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updated 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/21/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE TWILIGHT ZONE

The original fantasy series that appeared on CBS from 1959 to 1964 is now known as much for its jangly musical theme (written by Bernard Herrmann) and Rod Serling's ominous voice-overs as for its content. But as any dedicated rerun fan—or anyone old enough to remember the Zone in its original incarnation—knows, it was as well-written, well-directed and well-acted as any series in the history of the medium.

This release of eight half-hour, black-and-white episodes on lour tapes is the first Twilight Zone video package available in stores, and it offers a representative sampling of the program's occasional weaknesses as well as its persistent strengths.

"A Game of Pool," with Jonathan Winters as a pool shark back from the dead to play an uppity challenger. Jack Klugman, embodies the pedantic and sentimental side of the series, with Winters hammily lecturing on what it means to be "the best." Buzz (Brian's Song) Kulik directed.

But "The Invaders," perhaps the series' most famous episode (and justifiably), demonstrates the inventive, adventuresome spirit of Zone creator Rod Serling and his main producer, Buck Houghton. Written by frequent Zone contributor Richard Matheson and directed by Douglas Heyes, it stars Agnes Moorehead, who has no dialogue. In fact, there is no dialogue at all until the closing minute, as Moorehead plays a haggard woman, alone in a deserted house, who battles tiny creatures from a spaceship that lands on her roof. With little help from the special effects (which seem to have come out of somebody's toy box), Moorehead, Matheson and Heyes create a character of real dimension, and the twisty ending is still a kick.

The series also offered a shrewd mix of established actors and the up-and-coming, as "Nothing in the Dark" demonstrates. Movie veteran Gladys Cooper is an old woman who has barricaded herself into her apartment because she fears Mr. Death is stalking her; Robert Redford, then 24, is perfectly cast as an angelic-faced stranger who may or may not be the grim reaper. Lamont Johnson directed George Clayton Johnson's script.

Serling and Co. often tackled tough philosophical questions, never more strikingly than in "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," in which Claude Akins and Jack Weston, among others, act out the paranoia and cowardice of a neighborhood that thinks it's being invaded by aliens. The script, written by Serling himself, is an obvious reference to the then-not-too-distant McCarthy era; Ron Winston directed.

The other programs in this series are "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the ultimate fear-of-flying drama, in which passenger William Shatner sees a gremlin on the wing of a plane he's riding in (Richard Donner directed, way pre-Superman); "Time Enough at Last," in which milquetoasty survivor Burgess Meredith finds the bright side of nuclear war—solitude; "Steel," in which Lee Marvin brilliantly plays the manager of a junk-heap robot boxer in a future when human boxing has been banned; and "The Odyssey of Flight 33," a routine time-warp tale and by far the least interesting of these eight stories.

Chances are pretty good, though, that anytime one of these four tapes is stuck into a VCR, it will be a lot more provocative and entertaining than the hour of new TV it replaces. (CBS/Fox, $14.98 apiece)

KOVACS!

It would probably be impossible for these clips from Ernie Kovacs's TV shows to live up to the extravagant retroactive reputation the innovative comic has developed in recent years. The clips are all in scratchy-looking black-and-white, the skits run on too long in a few cases, and—nothing against Bartók, Gershwin or Tchaikovsky—Kovacs's passion for serious music (both as background and comedic inspiration) at times seems overstressed. The narration, written by Terry Galanoy, verges on the idolatrous, saying Kovacs was "possibly the only true comedy genius."

So much for the hedging, since this is a very funny 85 minutes' worth of innovative TV comedy. Kovacs occasionally got topical, with such bits as a quiz show called Whom Dunnit, a What's My Line? parody in which the panelists try to guess which mystery-guest celebrity has critically wounded a member of the audience.

Most of Kovacs's humor, though, was of an abstract-to-surreal inclination, and this tape makes clear that the fame of his quick-take blackout sketches is totally justified. Try to resist the shooting gallery scene where one of the ducks turns and shoots back, for instance, or his long-running bathtub series, where an actress up to her neck in suds confronts, among other things, a submarine periscope peering up at her.

Laugh-In was probably Kovacs's most direct TV descendant, but in various ways The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, Late Night with David Letterman and Sesame Street could probably trace lines of attachment too.

Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962, never used a laugh track. It would have been aesthetically inappropriate for his style of humor, of course, but it was also unnecessary. Watching his comedy, you never need to be reminded that something funny is going on. (Rhino, $19.95; 800-432-0020)

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