The Twilight Zone S01E01: “Where Is Everybody?” (1959)
The first ever episode of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” was not only a high watermark for the series, but for anthology series and televisual suspense more generally. Unlike Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as later episodes of The Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?” opens without any real preamble or explanation, by way of a character who doesn’t really awaken so much as simply finds himself thrust into the mise-en-scene at exactly the same moment as us. With no memory of his life, his family or his personality, this man (Earl Holliman) suddenly finds himself planted in the middle of an archetypical American town from the 50s. Everything you’d expect to be there is there, from the diner to the jukebox to the cinema, although it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone around to experience it. While traces of life are never far away – a smoking cigarette, mannequins hastily half-loaded into a van, food left out on the counter – the man gradually realises that some event has either destroyed the town’s inhabitants or removed them to a realm beyond his perception.
In that sense, the episode speaks to a certain 50s paranoid fantasy in which nuclear holocaust would destroy human life but leave everything else entirely intact, as well as the corresponding fear that the infrastructure of everyday life would eventually outlive everyday life, as people were forced to contemplate even the most banal structures and institutions in their environment as part of their impending tomb. As a result, this small town doesn’t simply feel like the setting for this particular episode, but the space and field of the series as a whole, much of which feels like a rumination on what it feels like to live in the shadow of impending nuclear end times. At the same time, “Where Is Everybody” also feels like the beginning of a new and unique fusion of television and cinema in an effort to come to terms with the Cold War mindset. Defying a lot of clichés about what television looked like at the end of the 50s, director Robert Stevens – who would become famous for his work on Alfred Hitchcock Present – is certainly quite televisual in his economy, efficiency and austerity, but that just makes the moments of cinematic bravura and expansive compositions all the more unbelievable when they do occur.
In particular, as the man wanders around the town, the aesthetic becomes more and more flamboyantly panoramic, increasingly identifying itself with some as yet unformulated panoptic potential. If, as Andre Bazin has argued, cinema responded to television with widescreen technologies, then this is possibly one of the first decisive gestures on the part of television to reinstate that widescreen within a small-screen aesthetic. What ensues is a beautifully poised alternation between claustrophobia and agoraphobia, as well as between television and cinema, as the action periodically condenses and contracts to the small-scale spaces of television, but only to evoke the sense of being pinpointed by some unbearably scrutinising gaze, the harbinger of some extravagant and exotic spatiality. It’s only when the man finds himself trapped in a phone box in the middle of the town square that he realises he’s been watched, forcing him to flee for shelter to an empty movie theatre, only for images of crowds to start playing on the screen.
In that sense, the episode proposes something like a genuinely dialectic relationship between claustrophobia and agoraphobia, as well as between cinema and television. Just as the constrictions of the Cold War only make sense within the context of its unimaginable horizons, so “Where Is Everybody?” suggests that neither cinema nor television is entirely adequate to the crisis, but that a commensurate response has to instead be sought at their intersection. In other words, the episode enacts something like a convergence of cinema and television in the name of the Cold War, which is perhaps why Cold War melodrama has become such an important allegory for and backdrop to the convergences of television and cinema taking place in our own milieu. Resolving such a dynamic, dialectic vision is risky, but screenwriter and series creator Rod Serling comes up with the only twist that could really feel like a twist – revealing that the man’s situation is both more claustrophobic and more agoraphobic than we could ever have imagined. In the last few minutes, he wakes up to find himself in an isolation chamber in preparation for a space voyage that is designed to thwart the Soviets, and realises that his vision of the small town has been nothing but a hallucinatory by-product. While the American military personnel assure him that he won’t experience these kind of side-effects when he is actually in orbit, their presence is too shadowy and diffuse to give too much comfort, and we’re left with one of the most chilling versions of that ultimate Cold War nightmare: a bunker, shelter or isolation chamber left to drift through the universe in the aftermath of a nuclear blast.
The result is one of the most beautiful meditations on the relationship between cinema and television that I have ever seen, one of the best short films I have ever seen, as well as what must have been a new standard for cinematic television. It’s no surprise that Hitchcock gravitated towards this kind of short thriller format, nor that it’s become prominent again in our time, both in extended analogy serials like American Horror Story and one-off anthology formats like Black Mirror. As in the late 50s, we’re faced with a new kind of convergence of cinema and television that lends itself quite naturally to anthology formats, especially cinema itself is increasingly adopting this model as well, with the Marvel Cinema Universe franchise, in particular, encouraging audiences to invest in each individual filmic instalment in the name of an anthology that may only be completed ten or twenty years down the track. And as post-classical cinema and post-quality television continue to converge on anthology ambition, there’s something hauntingly prescient about “Where Is Everybody,” which still feels like a history of the present even if the specific political conditions that brought it into existence have evolved beyond all recognition.
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