Alfred Hitchcock Presents vs. The Twilight Zone

If you’d asked me when I was a teenager to name my favorite TV series, I’d have said The Twilight Zone. If you’d asked me to name my favorite director, I’d have said the man behind Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

I’ve seen the work of many more directors since then, and quite a few more TV series. If I were to list all of my favorites now, it would take a while. But you know what? My top answers are still the same today.

It’s hard to beat Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock. If anything, the intervening years have deepened my appreciation for their work. So it’s hardly surprising that they were behind the two most successful anthologies in the history of television.

That’s really saying something, by the way. The networks have never been crazy about putting anthologies on the air. They prefer to hook viewers with a strong situation and memorable characters — ones the audience can be sure will be there week after week. With an anthology, that’s impossible. Every episode brings a totally new cast and setup.

That calls for a lot of trust on the part of the audience. That’s why an engaging host is key. CBS was willing to take a gamble on Alfred Hitchcock Presents because the portly director’s fame would draw in curious viewers who had eagerly flocked to such thrillers as “Notorious”, “Strangers on a Train”, and “Rear Window”.

Hitchcock’s name on a movie meant long lines at the box office, so they banked on his name on a weekly TV show translating into people tuning him in at home. And they did. Sure, AHP lacked the color and wide-screen glamor of Hitchcock’s theatrical releases, but it brought the same cheeky attitude he was famous for to more modest tales of greed, obsession, and homicide.

You’d think the success of Hitchcock’s show (it had been on the air for exactly four years when The Twilight Zone premiered on October 2, 1959) would make CBS’s decision to approve Serling’s show an easy one. But that wasn’t the case. The writer then known as “TV’s angry young man” had to fight for it.

“It was a show no one wanted to buy,” Serling later said. “I wanted to do it for years, but they said no, no, no. Fantasy in any form is out.”

Part of the problem, as you can see from that last sentence, was the subject matter of Serling’s proposed series. Hitchcock was trafficking in fiction, yes, but his stories weren’t supernatural. They could happen in the real world.

Serling, however, wanted to take audiences to different planets (at a time when the moon landing was still a decade away) and to different eras (via time travel). He was giving viewers everything from alien visitors to parallel planes of existence. Such fare isn’t unusual today, but in the buttoned-down world of the 1950s, it was pretty far out. CBS wasn’t sure viewers would bite.

As we now know, they needn’t have worried. Still, it took the ratings success of “The Time Element“, a Serling script that was produced for Desilu Playhouse in 1958, to convince them. The story concerned a man who tells his psychiatrist about a recurring dream, one in which he finds himself in Hawaii the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Again and again, he tries to warn people, but to no avail. Even more bizarre, the man believes it’s not a dream. He’s sure that he’s actually traveling back in time. And the mysterious ending (which, in retrospect, is clearly very TZ-like) suggests that he actually was going back in time.

It’s a sign, though, of how unsure CBS still was that they offered Serling only a half-hour slot in which to do his show — much to his chagrin. Serling was a famous dramatist who was used to writing TV scripts that ran at least an hour, and sometimes 90 minutes. A 30-minute slot felt too rushed to him. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to develop his characters and stories sufficiently in that time frame.

You’d think he’d have been encouraged by what Alfred Hitchcock Presents had been able to do for years in the 30-minute slot. Moreover, another anthology series, “One Step Beyond,” had premiered in the meantime (January 1959), and its subject matter, the paranormal, was closer to what Serling wanted to do. It, too, was a half-hour show.

But maybe because Serling had something different in mind — a series that occupied a unique spot between Alfred Hitchcock Presents and One Step Beyond — he felt that a full hour was justified. And yet, in a twist that befits either TZ or AHP, he later admitted it had worked out for the best:

“Ours is the perfect half-hour show. If we went to an hour, we’d have to fleshen our stories, soap-opera style. Viewers could watch 15 minutes without knowing whether they were in a Twilight Zone or Desilu Playhouse.”

As it turns out, though, The Twilight Zone did spend one season (its fourth) as an hour-long show before reverting to a half-hour one for its fifth and final season. Alfred Hitchcock Presents also switched from being a half-hour show (for seven seasons) to an hour (for its final three).

AHP clearly had a more successful switch to the hour-long format. I think that’s because, although both series relied on twist endings, the fact that Hitchcock’s stories were grounded in reality meant it could focus more on drama without losing its focus. When you’re dealing with fantasy elements, though, as TZ did, it’s harder to draw a story out and still land it with a great twist.

I think you also have to give The Twilight Zone credit for more variety. We all know what a classic TZ is like: legendary episodes like “Eye of the Beholder”, “The After-Hours”, “Time Enough at Last” and many others exemplify the scary, twisty nature of the fifth dimension. But there were also sweet tales like “A Passage for Trumpet”, “Walking Distance”, “Nothing in the Dark” and “The Changing of the Guard”. And there were funny ones like “A Penny for Your Thoughts”, “A Most Unusual Camera”, “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”, and “A Kind of a Stopwatch”.

Serling’s introductions reflected this variety. He could say something amusing, with a twinkle in his eye, when the story was more relaxed and comedic. But when the subject matter was more serious, his tone shifted accordingly, sounding alternately stern or sad, depending on the story.

That wasn’t the case with Hitchcock. You could count on him to introduce his tales (and wrap them up) with his trademark dry wit, week in and week out.

Yet I think it’s fair to say both shows were more similar than they were different. I frequently have people ask if I can help them name an episode of The Twilight Zone, only to have them describe what turns out to be an Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And I’m sure the same thing happens in reverse: there are surely fans who have mistaken a TZ for an AHP.

Small wonder that Me-TV could label one of its viewer quizzes “Is this an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone?” If you’re enough of an expert on either show, it’s not hard to get a perfect score, but it illustrates how much the synopses for many TZs sounds like an AHP, and vice versa.

For all of their differences, the series were close enough that they could both, for example, stage episodes about scary ventriloquist dolls (AHP’s “And So Died Riabouchinska” and “The Glass Eye”; TZ’s “The Dummy” and “Caesar and Me”). And each series aired its own version of Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”.

As Serling said in one of the introductions to his post-TZ series Night Gallery: “For those of you who’ve never met me, you might call me the undernourished Alfred Hitchcock. The great British craftsman and I do share something in common. An interest in the oddball — a predilection toward the bizarre.”

To the delight of those who love fun, crafty tales of the unexpected, they also shared something else. Each man left us a legendary TV series that has thrilled and delighted audiences for many years. And they will surely continue to do so for many more.

***

This post was written expressly for The 4th Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. If you want to read some great posts on Hitchcock and his work, be sure and check it out at this link!

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 08/09/2020, in General and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I enjoyed both series. It’s funny, it was easier to convince my mom to watch AHP than the Twilight Zone. I think it was the movies, they seemed familiar to her. On the other hand, an episode of The Outer Limits clearly had to wait for a night when both parents were out and my older brother was in charge.

    • That makes sense. Of the three options you just mentioned, Hitch is clearly the “safe” choice. So I can see why your mom would be more willing to give his show a try. TZ is more out there, and OL … pfft, it’s OUT there. xD

  2. Roger Scarlett

    When I was a young tyke, there’s no doubt that Twilight Zone captured my interest much more than Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I think a straight drama to an under-10 boy was kinda boring. That being said, I do remember seeing an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour entitled “The Jar” which totally blew me away. I think I had nightmares for awhile about it. Interestingly, James Best and Collin Wilcox, both TZ alums, were in that episode along with a number of other great character actors.

    Today I am enjoying working through AHP while listening to Al Sjoerdsma’s podcast on this series. His DEEP dive into each episode brings a lot of great background to light on the productions.

    Nevertheless, I will still pick TZ over AHP if asked my fave between the two.

    Thanks for this essay, Paul. Fun read.

    • Oh yes! “The Jar” was a Ray Bradbury short story, and that definitely leaned toward the paranormal on a show that’s usually realistic murder-mystery.

    • I appreciate that, Roger! Really glad you enjoyed it.

      You’re so right about TZ having a more immediate appeal if you’re a kid. Both shows demand an adult perspective if one is to get the most out of them, but at least TZ has some surface appeal even when you’re not yet old enough to really get it. I frequently have people tell me, for example, how they enjoyed a certain TZ episode as a kid, but then they grew up and it hit them even deeper.

      I’ve subscribed to Al’s podcast as well. I’m glad you mentioned it, though — I’ve been meaning to rewatch each episode, then listen to Al’s take when the story is fresh in my mind.

      And yes, when push comes to shove, it’s TZ on top! Fortunately, we don’t really have to pick, and we can just enjoy both. :)

  3. We started watching the Twilight Zone, starting at episode 1, and it’s hard to imagine this series being a tough sell for the networks.

    As for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, I’m a little embarrassed to say I haven’t seen any episodes, but I recently discovered a cache of them on YouTube. Yay!

    Really enjoyed your analysis and comparison ot these two anthology programs. You’ve given me lots to think about.

    • Definitely hard to imagine. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight. At the time, only Serling knew what he had in mind. There was a perception at the time that sci-fi was just kid stuff, so Serling was treated at first the same way Shakespeare would be if he said he was going to go write comic books. They were soon singing a different tune!

      Glad to hear you found some AHP to watch. It was streaming for a while, but sadly (like so many other classic shows) it’s not nearly as available as it used to be. I’m sure you’ll enjoy seeing it. Some of the episodes are real classics — and deservedly so.

      Thanks for stopping by! Glad you liked the post.

  4. Howard Manheimer

    I believe that for me, the funniest TZ episode is Hocus Pocus & Frisby. “Do you fellas mind if I play a little tune on my mouth organ?” (Frisby sees the surprising reaction of the aliens next) “Do you fellas have harmonicas on your planet?” (Frisby asks this with a widening grin on his face)…..No! Don’t try to stop him! He has an instrument that emits a DEATH SOUND to us! (Then being back at the general store, he finds a surprise birthday party waiting for him!) To W. Somerset Frisby on his 63rd B-day! The best and wildest liar to ever come down the pike! (Now he tries, unsuccessfully, to convince them of what had happened to him earlier that same day!) Oh SURE it did!…..”Ain’t he the perfect limit!?!?!”

    • Ha! Oh, man. That is one of a handful of episodes that elicit very strong reactions. Some people love it, but others — whew, not so much. I’m in between, but that seems to be a minority view. Glad you enjoy it, though!

  5. I love both shows. I wish TZ lasted as long as Alfred Hitchcock. I think the AH series might’ve gotten a little inspired by Outer Limits because there were a handful of “Strange Tales” type episodes usually written by Ray Bradbury, particularly the episode, “Special Delivery” about the mushroom spores that were taking over people’s minds. Great episode. And “Design for Loving” with an android duplicate. I still haven’t seen every episode yet. I have this on my DVD/BluRay list, I tell everyone I’m buying hard copies for the time I retire I’ll be watching all these old classics. lol

    • Right there with you on your first two sentences, Lady G. As for whether AHP was inspired by OL (must have been the last season or so, since the latter premiered in ’63, and AHP went until ’65), you may have something there. I have to admit, I haven’t seen the hour-long episodes in a long time. Like a lot of fans, I’m much more familiar with the earlier, half-hour ones. I recently rewatched through the fifth season on DVD, and would love to watch further, either via disc or streaming, but that’s not easily done (at least here in the U.S.). I know at least some can be found on YT, and they’re also rerun on MeTV. (Hate to see stuff with ads and edits, though.) Anyway, one way or another, I hope to see those later episodes very soon!

  6. Great piece here, Paul. I love both series a lot, and I consider them both to be two of the greatest TV series ever created. They are quite similar in terms of the twist/shock endings and macabre content.The presence of Rod and Hitch as hosts is an integral part of the overall experience of both series as far as I’m concerned. Ca you imagine either series without those intros and outros by Hitch and Rod? I can’t.

    I like how the Hitch series gave audiences the content they loved in his film, but scaled it down to the TV format.I also think it shows that Hitch was well aware that TV was becoming potentially more popular than seeing films at the cinema. I think on some level he knew that in order to keep his name relevant and reach more people he would have to ensure they could see his stories weekly on telly. I also like how some episodes of his series are standard thrillers and suspense stories, while others have a far more creepy and scary feel.

    There are many excellent TV series out there from across the decades, but few that have stood the test of time and retain the impact of these two. If pushed to decide which of the two is the better series, I would go with Twilight Zone. I feel Twilight Zone was so groundbreaking and imaginative, whereas the Hitch series(although equally excellent)had more traditional subjects such as murder,secrets and mistakes catching up to people at it’s core.

    Twilight Zone on the other hand really makes you think, and it also tackles important topics such as racism, hate,ageing, war, the evil of man etc. I will forever be grateful to Rod for being brave and determined enough to fight for this series and its subject matter to be aired. There really is no other series like this one out there.

    Thanks so much for joining me to help celebrate Hitch and his work. Thanks for also choosing to discuss two of my favourite TV series. Maddy

    • It was my pleasure, Maddy! Thanks for hosting it. I’m seriously such a huge fan of Hitchcock. I could easily be running an AH blog (and just may start one up at some point!).

      You’re so right about AHP and TZ. Shows come and go, but very few continue to have an impact decades later. Serling and Hitchcock shaped the culture. They’re both in a rare class, obviously. But considering their sheer talent, it’s really no surprise, is it? Both of them were full of personality and good ideas — and lucky us, we got to reap the benefits.

      I appreciate the chance to participate in your blogathon. I’ve started working my way through the other entries. Looks like a great round-up!

  7. Great article. Like you, I would name TZ as my favorite series and Hitchcock as my favorite director, and you hit the nail on the head here. Two legendary series, forever linked.

    I guess you could say that other series are also “forever linked” to TZ (Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, and Thriller), but can you say that for AHP? Thriller is the only one of the those three that has much in common with AHP…and Hitchcock supposedly switched to an hour long format to run it off the air.

    • Thanks! And hmm, good point. AHP doesn’t really have any other series that’s linked to it, as you put it. Perhaps that’s because it’s whole outlook was unique to Hitchcock. No one else was quite like him, with that “cheery” take on “homey homicides”.

      Interesting to hear about Hitchcock switching to an hour to kill it. Do you recall where you read or heard that?

  8. A delightful article that conjured up so many memories and made me hunger to enjoy both series again. If not for the first time, for the thrill of appreciation at whatever number we have arrived at in 2020.

    – Caftan Woman

    • So glad you enjoyed it, CW! I know what you mean about a hunger to see them again. I’m always up for a rewatch of either one.

  9. Kenneth Brian Sall

    Great piece! I enjoyed the comparisons and differences. I’ve been a major fan of both TZ and AHP since they first appeared (yes, I’m older than dirt). Fortunately, my dad liked both shows too, so I was permitted to watch first-runs as a youngster. I’ve collected Hitchcock movies and believe I’ve managed to obtain virtually every commercially available film including most obscure ones. I also have the first 6 seasons of AHP — unfortunately S7 and the 3 seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Hours aren’t available in Region 1 format AFAIK. Thanks for the blogathon link; more to explore!

    • You’re welcome, KBS! So glad you enjoyed this post and hope that you find other ones of interest. I’m working my way through them as well.

      Can’t say I’m old enough to have watched either one first run, but they’re not TOO much older than I am. Watched them faithfully in reruns, however, and still love them both.

      And yes, what a disappointment about the availability of AHP’s later seasons! I hope they remedy that at some point.

  10. OOOOH! That’s a tough one. Both were great.

  11. Very enjoyable article! Your intro made me smile because I could claim exactly the same thing—when I was a young teenager I would have said (and did say) that TZ was my favorite TV series, Hitchcock my favorite movie director…and I’d say the same today, 40+ years later. The difference is that now I teach and edit books on these topics, which pleases the 13-year-old in me to no end.

  12. I had recently begun watching Hitch’s 30-minute and hour-long serieses. Anyway, while I liked his 30-minuters, I found his hour-longers to be mean, bleak, and depressing! But okay, largely well written. I love his film work, but I had to stop watching the hour-long ones, because they were just so bleak and put my imagination into a bad place. I don’t see how one can write all that stuff and NOT have a negative, dark mindset. Geez. The 30-minute ones were lighter, not as dense, and—at least those I caught—didn’t seem as mean spirited. Was nice to see all the early “famous names”!

    Great post, Paul!

  1. Pingback: The 4th Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon Begins | Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

  2. Pingback: Alfred Hitchcock Presents vs. The Twilight Zone – blackwings666

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