Sure, creators of television’s disposable sitcoms and game shows have to sell their wares, and strenuously, to network executives. But The Twilight Zone? How could such an innovative, influential televisual institution have ever needed to push its way past gatekeepers? Yet watch the series’ 1959 pilot above, and, before that even starts, you’ll see creator Rod Serling himself make his pitch: “You gentlemen, of course, know how to push a product. My presence here is for much the same purpose: simply to push a product. To acquaint you with an entertainment product which we hope, and which we rather expect, would make your product-pushing that much easier. What you’re about to see, gentlemen, is a series called The Twilight Zone. We think it’s a rather special kind of series.” And how.
As the quintessential late-night, black-and-white plunge into the speculative, the bizarre, the moralistic, and the simply eerie, The Twilight Zone continues to captivate viewers—nowadays often, no doubt, YouTube viewers—born generations after the end of its run. The pilot episode, “Where is Everybody?” sets the tone by following a lone, bewildered man through a mysteriously empty town, seemingly abandoned moments ago. But before that rolls, Serling tantalizes the bosses with descriptions of other tales then in production: a man stuck on an asteroid with a robot, an immortal sentenced to life imprisonment, and a milquetoast mistaken for the fastest gun in the old west. Not for nothing did Serling build a reputation as an auteur of human loneliness. But that would come later. “Mr. Serling should not have much trouble in making his mark,” wrote the New York Times‘ critic when the show first aired. “At least his series promises to be different.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.