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