29 May 2009

Twilight Zone: Where Is Everybody?

As I mentioned in my review of Twilight Zone: The Movie, this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Twilight Zone, which premiered on CBS in 1959. So why not review some episodes from that fantastic first season, which is available on a superb, extras-laden DVD set? And why not start with the very first (if you don’t count “Time Element,” the unofficial pilot TV special) episode of the show’s run?
Episode #1: Where Is Everybody?
Directed by Robert Stevens. Written by Rod Serling. Starring Earl Holliman.

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

A man (Earl Holliman) walks along a dirt road toward a town. He doesn’t remember who he is, and worse, he has no one to tell him because there’s not a single human being anywhere in the town. Evidence shows people were there recently—a smoldering cigar, coffee still bubbling on the stove—but no one responds to the man’s desperate calls for help. However, he has the oddest sense that something is observing him.

Although not a classic episode of the show, “Where Is Everybody?” certainly gets enormous points as the first episode. It also shows how cinematic The Twilight Zone strived to be. It looks and feels like a feature film in its innovative cinematography (the increasingly canted and weird angles as the man reaches greater levels of paranoia) and the quirky and eerie score from Bernard Herrmann. It explores a deep human fear—isolation and loss of identity—that are hallmarks of the show. Some of the man’s speeches, such as his quotation from A Christmas Carol, are perfect examples of Serling’s writing style. What’s most disappointing about the show is the way it concludes… and that isn’t the fault of Serling or anybody else making it, but a stricture from CBS. Jump down to my “spoiler” section and I’ll fill you in.

Holliman recoded an audio commentary for the new DVD set, and he’s critical of his performance looking back on it after so many decades. I’ll have to disagree with him on this: I think he’s terrific in most of his scenes, and his growing fear emerging out of a certain cocky confusion is played perfectly. This is essentially a one-man show, a hard task for any actor to execute, but Holliman has it down.

By the way, if the empty town looks familiar, that’s because it’s the standing “Small Town Set” on the Unviersal Studios backlot that was used for many films—including Back to the Future and Gremlins.

Spoilers: “Where Is Everybody” is a rare episode of the series with no speculative-fiction elements. The viewers at last discover that the amnesiac man is an Air Force pilot named Mike who has been locked in an isolation chamber for a few weeks in order to test human resolve during a long mission to the Moon. The empty town was the pilot’s fantasy developed to adapt to the loss of human contact. According to Holliman on the commentary track, CBS initially didn’t want a science-fiction or fantasy show, everything had to have a logical explanation. They sure changed their minds in a hurry… with the second episode (“One for the Angels,” where Ed Wynn out-pitches Death). But for this inaugural episode, the logical conclusion simply feels like a let-down when we think of all that would come later.