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The Nostalgic Attic: The Twilight Zone - Season One: 'Where is Everybody?' and 'One for the Angels'

21 June 2014

The Twilight Zone - Season One: 'Where is Everybody?' and 'One for the Angels'

"The place is here, the time is now... and the journey into the shadows that we're about to watch could be our journey..."

It's hard to know where to start talking about a show as iconic and influential as The Twilight Zone. Despite airing several decades before I was born, it had already become so deeply embedded in pop culture lexicon that I felt I knew it before I had ever even watched an episode. Growing up we watched plenty of re-runs, with shows such as The Lone Ranger, Rawhide, Star Trek and Lost in Space playing as vital a role in our regular TV schedule as Thundercats and He-Man. It was a great time to be a kid, getting the best of both worlds. By the time I was growing up, the legacy of Serling's work was already visible on the TV landscape; in its wake came a some truly fantastic shows, classics such as The Outer Limits, Night Gallery, Tales From the Darkside, The Ray Bradbury Theatre and eventually, the show got a a re-boot itself to mixed results. Not only was the format successfully translated to other shows, but it was a great introduction to the masses for ideas in film and television that moved beyond just being science fiction and horror, but fell into the weird place that could only truly be found in The Twilight Zone...

If you've never seen the show, then the best thing to do is this - start from the start. The Blu Ray's are fantastic, and really do pack a huge amount of information into the box sets, including the original promo's done by Serling for the following weeks episode. It really does give you that feeling you are watching it fresh, for the first time, back in '59. What I'll be doing over the coming months is just doing exactly that - starting from the start. So just sit back, turn down the lights, and let the clipped, matter-of-fact voice of Rod Serling take you on a journey... 

Episode One - Where is Everybody?

A man wearing what looks like an airman's jump suit wanders into a dusty, no-name town that is eerily quiet. Not just quiet, it seems abandoned. He enters a cafe; the jukebox plays but the place is empty. He calls out to the owners, but no one answers. As he talks out loud to nobody, he admits he is unsure of who he is or how he got there. After helping himself to a mug of coffee, he heads into the town, past empty shops and streets, the town bell tolling with nobody to hear it. Suddenly he spots a lady sitting in a car - relieved, he starts calling to her, explaining that he seems to have amnesia and needs help. When he opens the car door, he's shocked to see it's just a mannequin, and heads off again desperately looking for companionship in this empty place, growing more and more upset and anxious as he goes. As if the loneliness isn't bad enough, what's with the feeling that he's being watched?

Where is Everybody? isn't the best episode by any stretch, but it does a great job with setting the audience up for what to expect, and makes the perfect introduction. Being the first episode to air, it sets the scene for the viewer on things to come - a protagonist slowly loosing his marbles in a world that seems like everything should be right, but just isn't. It also introduces you to the twisty nature of the writing, and the concept that anything can happen has rarely been more apt. I won't spoil anything here, but having such a reality-based science twist is something quite unusual for the show, and quite cold-hearted, but fits perfectly with the themes of mans need for man, and the fear of isolation; themes that Serling would come back to with later episodes. In fact, Serling later would later modify this story for his collection, Stories From The Twilight Zone, to include an additional twist at the very end, as he felt disappointed in the fact that there was little fantastical about the tale. Finally, it's a great example of how well the concept worked for the half hour slot on television - you could have a simple plot that hinged on a twist, and never have it overstay its welcome. 

Episode Two - One for the Angels

A street salesman called Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) spends his summer days hawking goods on the pavements of the city, selling toys and trinkets to anyone who'll stop and listen to him. Despite his lonely and meagre existence, the kids in the neighbourhood love Lou, and always gather around him when he returns after a hot days selling. One day, after entering his apartment, Lou is met by a man in his own living room - a man who happens to be Death himself. He advises Lou that at the stroke of midnight he will be taking him away to the afterlife - a fact that Lou isn't too happy about. Begging to be let off the hook, Death advises that unless there is some great, unfinished business that Lou needs to attend to, then he has no choice but to carry out his work as planned. Desperate, Lou finally figures out a plan that can extend his life; as a sales man, he wants to give the greatest sales pitch that was ever made, 'one for the angels' themselves.

Death agrees to this, only for Lou to proclaim he will never make a sales pitch in his life again. Disappointed in being deceived, Death advises him that one way or the other, he will be taking a soul at midnight. Out on the street, there's a squeal of brakes - the little girl, Maggie, who adores Lou, is struck by a truck, and the doctor advises that she won't live past midnight. Lou now has a choice, carry on living his life and cheating death, or do what he promised to do - deliver a pitch so great to Death himself, it will move even the angels above...

Episode two feels in stark contrast with the season opening - in place of the dark mystery and cold science fiction we have a near whimsical fantasy with a lot of heart at the front and centre. There is almost a touch of A Christmas Carol about this one, not that Lou is a terrible character who deserves to die, but in the way it reminds us all of what really is important in life. Is it better to live long and achieve little, or go out gracefully and make the right decisions and touch peoples hearts? Despite the general lack of pomp around this episode, the humanity really sticks with me, and it does what The Twilight Zone does best in my opinion - allowing heavily flawed characters have some redemption through the strange circumstances they find themselves in.  Being able to find the humanity in the science fiction and weirdness was one of Serling's strengths, and the ending is genuinely moving. It all comes down to the spot-on performances here; Wynn is great as the street smart Lou, and playing Death is the always wonderful Murray Hamilton. Who could sum it up better than Serling himself?

"Lewis J. Bookman, age sixtyish. Occupation: pitchman. Formerly a fixture of the summer, formerly a rather minor component to a hot July. But, throughout his life, a man beloved by the children, and therefore, a most important man. Couldn't happen, you say? Probably not in most places - but it did happen, in the Twilight Zone."

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At 21 June 2014 at 14:04 , Blogger Wes M said...

I'm delighted with this post John because this plugs me right back into The Twilight Zone. I've watched the first two episodes in preparation for reading this excellent post so my Season 1 DVD is parked up next to the TV, with more eps. to follow in the next few days... Well now.... how do we work this ? You've skillfully laid out the plots of both episodes without adding any spoilers - so I'll add a disclaimer for the uninitiated, that this comment contains spoilers

**** SPOILERS ! ****

Where is Everybody?
Not the best episode as you say but a fine introduction to the show's shifting perception of what is real and unreal, as well as the big existentialist questions the series would deal with throughout its run. I thought the twist in this one was pretty effective - although it does come with one large caveat - and I might have missed this point during the denouement - but couldn't the space agency solve the isolation problem by simply providing a companion for the Pilot ? Regardless of my nit-picking I really enjoyed this episode - I was wondering if Richard Matheson had written I Am Legend before this episode and of course he had - by at least 5 years, so the book must have loomed large in Serling's mind when he penned the teleplay. I thought it was interesting though when the Pilot spoke to the mannequin which anticipates the 2007 film of I Am Legend (I don't remember such a scene in the book?). Another thing the show anticipated was Kennedy's famous "We choose to go to the Moon" speech from September 1962, when the Pilot signs off at the end of the episode with the line We'll be up there in a little while. I dunno if JFK was watching The Twilight Zone in 1959 (why not?) but it would be nice to think so. Very good physical performance by Earl Holliman as the Pilot and that moment where he smashes into the mirror is just a fantastic magic moment ! Incidentally, Serling would revisit the theme of isolation with better results with Episode 7 episode "The Lonely"

One for the Angels
I think this might be called an early classic - I love the fact that the business of death is run as a highly organised and efficient bureau and Murray Hamilton really is wonderful as the slightly overworked clerk trying to meet his targets and deadlines. John that's interesting that you picked up on a A Christmas Carol angle and what's more, the Pilot from Where is Everybody? actually quotes a few lines from Dickens - I think it would have been more appropriate if Lou Bookman had recited the same lines on first seeing the Mr. Death. This is another fantastic bit of Serling writing and Bookman's pitch that "opens up the skies" really is a fantastic piece of writing - I can't remember the exact line, but Bookman's blarney about the birds bringing the silk halfway across the world in their bills was priceless !

At 21 June 2014 at 20:50 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

How I do love this show - and like you - I had read about it and heard about it long before I got to see it. I had to visit my brother who was in college two hours away to finally see one. It was the one (again, too lazy to look up anything) where the guy has suddenly and arbitrarily decided to do something devastating to every evil person on Earth at 4 o'clock and spends the bulk of the episode calling those he deems evil to let them know it's coming. Not a great episode to be sure - but I still enjoyed it. I have in the years since caught up with probably half of the episodes. I have recently added the first season on Blu-Ray to the video vault. I think I might have found the 80's version a little more palatable than you did - I thought it was a worthy follow up to Serling's classic show. (I did not feel the same about the early 2000's reboot with Forest Whitaker. It was crap.) I also worked on a real honest to goodness Twilight Zone production...doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo indeed!

At 22 June 2014 at 04:38 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Wes, hopefully we can go on an epic trawl through The Twilight Zone here! Spoilers in comments are fine with me, but thanks for marking them. I'd hate to have something ruined on me, even on a show as old as this.

I got the impression the journey to the moon was going to have to be carried out alone - there isn't really any explanation given in the episode - but I got the feeling we are lead by the nose through that point, as the general explains that he pilot would need to be in isolation for over 400 hours. it doesn't seem to factor in radio, either, but hey, I can forgive a pre-60's sci-fi such oversights! That's a good observation on I am Legend, I guess I'm so familiar with the trope of 'deserted town' that it didn't even spring to mind. The mannequin moment is great, you get a real jolt from it too. I don't remember that scene being in the book, either! Good call on the speech, too, you have a fine eye for detail! No doubt Kennedy was watching the show, it had a slow start but it became pretty big! It was essentially the Lost of the time... I won't get into 'The lonely' now, but yep - it was a theme he would get back to quite a few times...

I loved One for the Angels, though it definitely doesn't seem to get as much love as I give it. It really does hinge on those performances, and as you said, the climax is beautifully handled with Lou giving the ultimate pitch - Murray's reaction is brilliant! I actually found the quotes from Dickens in the previous episode slightly out of place - they definitely would have played quite well here, though perhaps it would have been a little too close to Dickens for comfort then!

At 22 June 2014 at 04:42 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, it's definitely a show you can dip in and out of, and not be too worried on what you are missing, though if you can get into Season One on BLu Ray, no doubt you will want to pick the rest up!

Don't get me wrong - I really like the re-boot from the 80's, but there was still plenty of 'misses', but sure wasn't there plenty of those in the original show too? Same goes for classic Star Trek, there are plenty of duds in there. None of these shows are flawless, it's the nature of the beast when it comes to portmanteau style shows or films...

I would love to hear about your experiences on that production!!

At 22 June 2014 at 11:20 , Blogger Wes M said...

I really only got to grips with the original series about five years ago - but I did watch the 80's series back in the day, and like Craig (and maybe a lot of people), I have a montage of memories in my head of nameless episodes - like the guy who steps into a diner for a hamburger and walks out into the Vietnam war, or some shopping mall mannequins which come to life during the night. The 80's series has dated quite badly (and looks atrocious) but still is very watchable, and it's fun to see names like Wes Craven, Joe Dante, John Millius, William Friedkin, Tommy Lee Wallace, Curtis Harrington. But I digress... The original series is still hugely impressive for the kind of ideas it was working with, and seen in context with other shows of that era - Rawhide, Bonanza, The Untouchables, it seems completely mind-blowing - I can't think of anything comparable to it during those early seasons, save for Alfred Hitchcock Presents... I know it was on TG4 over here, but I never caught any of 2002 series - was this one sexed up or am I thinking of the revived Outer Limits ? I seem to remember one of these shows had moments of sex and nudity ( á la The Hitchhiker series). By the way I've never seen a single episode of The Outer Limits and I've always heard good things about it. Y'know what, all this talk has put me in the mood for The Night Stalker movie...

At 22 June 2014 at 12:55 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Yeah Wes, it was a fantastic role call of talent on the re-booted series, it is airing on the Horror Channel at the moment, if you are interested in catching up on it. I have the boxset so will definitely get to it at a later date!

I know that the re-booted Outer Limits in the 90's was quite sexed up, there was plenty of sex and boobs in it (needless to say, I loved it when it was airing, though I can imagine it won't hold up very well. I have the original series on DVD too. I always liked it, but I don't think it worked quite as well as Twilight Zone - for me it was a lot to do with the longer running time, which I always found troublesome, even for TZ when they changed up the format.

There was a The Night Stalker movie??

At 22 June 2014 at 13:10 , Blogger Wes M said...

John I should have said Night Stalker TV movie, which MGM put out waaay back in 2004 on a double-bill with a further Kolchak film called The Night Strangler. Well worth tracking down !


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