On this date, sixty-four years ago, the first episode of The Twilight Zone aired on CBS.
In honor of that, I’m re-watching the series, one episode a day, starting today. I will do my best not to give away any major twists. Much of the fun is seeing them. But what some people forget is that The Twilight Zone is not just about twist endings. Sometimes it was trust middles, and other times the twist was in the concept that appears at the very beginning.
The pilot was definitely of the ending twist mold, so I shall feel comfortable describing the premise and my impressions.
It amazes me that the show began without the opening theme music we have all cine to associate with this series. It seems so endemic to the experience that one might have expected the music to be hummed under Rod Serling’s breath as he wrote this episode.
Already, we can see so much of what will inform this series. It was made in the days of the Cold War and the Space Race. The fear of nuclear war was an undercurrent on everyone’s minds back then. And though, current understanding of nuclear weapons and radiation paints a different picture from the expectations of the last fifties/early sixties, it is easy to see how the audience would cine to believe the protagonist might be experiencing a viable last man on Earth scenario. Of course, even in this first episode, Serling showed that it was unwise to take first impressions of his work at face value.
Another interesting thing about this episode is the relative lack of the supernatural/unexplainable. This could almost have been an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
In “Where Is Everybody?” we see a man wandering through an empty town, searching for someone … anyone! And though he is filled with a sense that he is being watched and occasional signs that others might exist, his solitude remains unbroken. He has no memory of his own identity nor how he arrived there. He only knows loneliness.
We watch as he slowly transforms from jovial confusion to despair. And I must say that the actor sells it admirably. It’s the little things. The way he flashes a bit of panic before regaining his joking demeanor. The relief upon hearing a phone ring followed by the shoulder slumping realization that there is no one on the other line.
I love this episode. It is creepy, but in a very understated way. A wisp of smoke here. A stuck phone booth there. A slowly closing door. A book rack of irony. Little things which niggle upon the minds of both the protagonist and the viewer. Yes, the score adds to the feeling, but at a certain point, the music stops and we see just how intense this slow buildup has become.
Earl Holliman plays the amnesiac man wandering through the empty town. I am not familiar with his work. I shall have to look him up on IMDB later. He gives such an earnest, likeable portrayal to this man. I could imagine chatting with him at a diner. James Gregory’s appearance at the end was fitting and well done.
The ending of the episode is optimistic. And once more, Holliman’s performance is what sells it. Without giving anything away, it takes ten years (in real life) for the protagonist’s prediction to come true. And what a glorious truth it was.
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