Let’s all ignore the metatextuality of thinking about what makes a first good episode in the first post of a new blog and talk about what makes the first episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?” such a good opener. The episode starts with Mike (Earl Holliman) walking into a quintessential, unnamed American town. It would be idyllic, except Mike can’t find anyone else. It’s great place to start The Twilight Zone because it does so many of the things the show would become famous for. It pulls back the veil of the American dream to let viewers see the darker nightmare underneath. It preys on the primordial fears of being alone and being watched. It builds tension incrementally by having Mike find signs of other people closer and closer—a boiling kettle, then a smoldering cigar, and finally the projector of a movie theater turns on while he’s in the auditorium. For now, I’ll focus on what The Twilight Zone is still famous for: the twist.
As Mike has a climactic breakdown, the story backs up and shows us that Mike was right. He was being watched, and by a room of high-ranking military generals no less. It turns out that Mike is an astronaut, preparing for the isolation of a mission to the moon and that after 484 hours alone, his brain had constructed this fantasy world to escape into. The twist, penned by series creator Rod Serling and directed by Robert Stevens, has as much in common with Kishōtenketsu as it does with American storytelling, and it works well for two reasons.
The first, and the simpler one, is that for the first twenty minutes or so, the story was solidly in Mike’s point of view. The audience couldn’t know that he was in a sensory deprivation chamber because he didn’t it. The point of view changes when Mike becomes too overwhelmed. His story ends as his emotions overcome his ability to think, ejecting the audience into a new point of view. To pull off any storytelling surprise, a writer needs absolute control of what audiences perceive, and telling stories in a close-third or a first person point of view allows that parcelling of information to feel more natural.
The second reason it works is because on multiple occasions, the show literally tells us what’s coming. Visually, Mike is wearing a jumper. It’s clear that he’s not a mechanic, so who he could be and what he could do is fairly limited. And then, Mike repeatedly tells himself that it’s a dream. There’s nothing withheld. Mike verbatim says that he’s dreaming, and somehow it’s still shocking when it turns out that he is. A good twist is one that an audience can predict but doesn’t. That’s why if you watch “Where is Everybody?” twice, it feels so different the second time. The episode doesn’t change, but you know where to look now.
The success of that twist is what makes this episode so good to start the show. When ordering stories for a collection or an anthology, you want to lead with the strongest story that captures what the flavor of the whole collection. In “Where is Everybody?” The Twilight Zone does just that.