The First Twilight Zone Episode I Ever Saw Hooked Me For Life. Here’s Why.

Can you name the first Twilight Zone episode you ever saw?

I’m a fan of many classic shows. I grew up watching reruns of I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, Perry Mason, Mission: Impossible … the list goes on. I still watch many of them today, in fact, either on disc or on a streaming service. But I couldn’t name the first episode I saw of any of those shows.

And yet I doubt you’ll be surprised to learn that I do recall my first Twilight Zone. Oh, yes. It was “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”.

It made quite an impression on my kid mind, as you can tell. (I was about eight, I think.) Here was a series that didn’t look or sound like anything else on television. TZ is utterly unique.

Even if you don’t recall your first TZ, you know what I mean, I’m sure. Just ask Fox Mulder. In Season 11’s “The Lost Art of Forehead Sweat,” the X-Files agent is flummoxed when someone claims that the episode Mulder recalls as his first TZ doesn’t exist. He searches feverishly through his books and VCR tapes for confirmation. Scully, as usual, doesn’t understand what the big deal is.

Scully: “It can’t be that good of an episode.”

Mulder: “It’s not about the episode, Scully. It’s about my memory of seeing my first Twilight Zone. It changed me. You don’t forget that.”

You might assume that “Five Characters” is my all-time favorite TZ, or at least in my top 5. It isn’t. Episodes such as “Eye of the Beholder”, “Walking Distance”, and “The After-Hours” are, for me, among the crème de la crème of Rod Serling’s brainchild. But I still feel a lot of affection for “Five Characters” and rate it quite highly to this day.

Not all fans agree, though. Some consider it a real misfire, particularly if they don’t like clowns.

I can respect that. We all have different tastes, and one of the best things about TZ is that you get to enjoy so many different stories. And take it from me, every last one of the show’s 156 episodes has its staunch defenders and critics. I’ll tweet a quote or fact from an episode, and there will be fans sitting side by side in my notifications saying how much they love or hate it.

So why does “Five Characters” work for me? Part of it, I’m sure, is the fact that it was my stepping-on point for the fifth dimension. But it’s more than mere nostalgia. I’ve watched it numerous times since that first viewing, and I did so again before starting this post, so I could judge it as objectively as possible. (If you want to check it out before perusing my spoiler-laden observations below, try Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime, or get it on DVD/Blu-ray.)

For one thing, it’s a good mystery. We meet an Army major as he awakens in a mysterious place. We don’t know where he is or why — and neither does he. He’s in some sort of a cylindrical enclosure, but that’s all we can tell. There are no windows or doors, no obvious entrances or exits. There’s just a big opening at the top. Every now and then, without warning, a very loud bell clangs.

Making matters even stranger, he’s incarcerated with four other random individuals: a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, and a bag-piper. And they don’t know the answers any more than he does.

We don’t get a definitive answer until the very end, and in the best TZ tradition, it’s a jaw-dropper. It turns out they’re all dolls in a toy barrel, collected during a Christmas gift drive by a lady who appears to be working for the Salvation Army. The clanging we heard earlier is a hand-bell she rings as she urges passersby to “open their hearts” and donate toys for needy children.

As we view them lying in a heap at the end — motionless and now truly doll-like, though with tears glistening in the eyes of the ballerina — it’s easy to see why some fans call this episode the inspiration for Pixar’s first feature film, “Toy Story”.

To solve the mystery, of course, we have to investigate, and that’s where the episode becomes particularly entertaining. The group trots out every imaginable theory. Perhaps they’re in prison. Maybe they’re on another planet, or on a spaceship en route to said planet. Or they could all be insane, or at the very least, experiencing some odd illusion.

“We’re dead,” the hobo says, “and this is limbo.”

“We don’t really exist,” the bag-piper interjects. “We’re dream figures from somebody else’s existence.”

“Or we’re each of us having a dream,” the clown says, “and everyone else is part of the other person’s dream.”

It isn’t long before the major floats the most damning scenario: “We are in Hell.”

Round and round it goes. After all, if there’s one thing they have plenty of in this strangely Spartan cell, it’s “possibilities — an infinite number of possibilities,” the clown adds.

It’s interesting to note that this episode could only occur after The Twilight Zone had been on the air for a while. It comes, in fact, nearly halfway through Season 3. I say this because only then does all this speculation make sense. Many of the answers that the dolls provide had already been seen on the show. There had been, for example, visits to other planets, and stories in which what we assume to be the real world is in fact someone’s nightmare.

So the regular Zone viewer at this point would already be pondering these possibilities. It’s clever, then, to have the characters actually bring them all up. It’s a bit of a tease and a wink from Serling, and it certainly makes for a thought-provoking discussion.

The major, however, doesn’t have much patience for all this guesswork. His cellmates have been there longer than he has, and although they claim to have searched high and low for a way out, they seem more or less resigned to their situation. The clown is especially blasé about their fate, irritating the major with endless quips and peals of laughter.

I realize that those who have a hatred or fear of clowns probably won’t agree with me (I’m largely indifferent to them myself), but I enjoy the dynamic between him and the major. In many ways, it’s the heart of the episode, and the two actors are very well cast. Murray Matheson brings a genuine sense of joie de vivre to the clown, while William Windom is note-perfect as the frustrated, sputtering Army man.

I can’t help feeling too that their attempts to figure everything out bear more than a passing resemblance to the efforts of most human beings to decode their own existence. I’m not suggesting that this was Serling’s intention, and I may be reading too much into what is meant to be simply an entertaining tale, but I always get a sense that I’m watching our world in microcosm.

I mean, isn’t this the way many people perceive the world? They don’t know how they got here, or why, or how long it’ll last. They struggle for answers. They go from theory to theory (usually over a number of years, not minutes, but still). Some, like the major, are desperate to discover the truth. Others, like the bag-piper, hobo, or ballerina, have ideas, but they’re less manic about making sure they’re right.

And others? Like the clown, they go through life with an almost cheerful agnosticism. Whatever will be, will be.

Since we’re in the you-know-what Zone, it’s an open question as to whether we’ll get a firm answer. Some episodes leave things very much up in the air. But this one doesn’t. We follow the major up to and over the top of the barrel … and down into the snow. And then back into the barrel (after being picked up by Zone producer Buck Houghton’s daughter, incidentally), where the ballerina is crying.

So is it a sad ending? Sometimes that is what you get in the fifth dimension. But not this time. In the beginning Serling warns that he won’t “end the nightmare” — he’d only “explain it.” True enough, but that’s another thing I like about this episode: He not only gives us a great twist ending, but he concludes it with this:

Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth, wrought in a distorted image of human life. But this added hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children, there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a Major. Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage known as … the Twilight Zone.

The word “depository” is apt, as Serling based his script on a short story called “The Depository” by author Marvin Petal. Serling’s replacement title, by the way, is an apparent take-off on a 1921 play by Italian writer Luigi Pirandello called “Six Characters in Search of an Author”.

Since Petal’s story is unpublished, I don’t know for sure how much Serling retained and how much he invented. That “hopeful note”, though, is pure Serling. For me, it’s the cherry on top of one of my favorite Zone episodes.

The major may want out, but once the credits roll, I think most fans are right where they want to be.


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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 08/28/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 36 Comments.

  1. GREAT piece on one of MY Top 3 TZ, episodes, Paul, and the one i most often show to young TZ newbies! Here’s what I’ve written about this, one of the most DEFINITIVE of TZ episodes:

    “Where are we? What are we? Who are we?” cry out the “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” while trapped in an absurdist, circular conundrum—literally, another great Serling adaptation of another writer’s short story; Serling’s new title, an allusion to both the title of Pirandello’s famous play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author” and the single-set existentialist tract “No Exit” by Jean Paul Sartre (in which “Hell is other people”), with a soupcon of Eugene Ionesco’s Theater of the Absurd.

    Together, those influences must have made the sui generis “Five Characters” come across to the 1961 American television audience, narcotized by a phalanx of westerns, like a transmission from outer space.

    The five characters’ answers become metaphors for the nature of identity and existence, making this existential and surreal story, with the tense interplay between Billy (later William) Windom’s macho “Major” and Murray Matheson’s effeminate “Clown” adding a subtextual, sexual frisson to this, the most didactic, and dialectic, episode of The Twilight Zone—or any series in television history—and the blueprint for, most notably, the similarly-themed Patrick McGoohan ‘60s-centric TV series The Prisoner, the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy, and J.J. Abrams’ 2004-10 ABC-TV series Lost.

    “Five Characters” is also the greatest example of how Twilight Zone directors like Lamont Johnson collaborated with Emmy Award-winning TZ Director of Photography George T. Clemens to reduce images to their most basic, iconic forms, placing actors in sparse, simple set designs (like the props—or, in this case, dolls—they often turned out to be). These pared-down, stark elements made the (black and white) television set itself work as a kind of electronic puppet theater, never more so than in the phantasmagorical “Five Characters.”

    • Glad you enjoyed the post, Arlen! I remember you being a big fan of this episode, so I’m glad you added your take here. I almost mentioned “The Prisoner” when I was writing it — it’s clearly a big influence on that. On “Lost” as well, for sure, and “The Matrix”.

      I’m also grateful that you brought up the direction and the photography, both of which are absolutely first-rate (as they were on almost every TZ). One thing I always notice when I pull screen-caps for posts like this is how compelling the angles are, how crisp the images. They all look so clear, it’s as if they could be in your living room as you’re watching them. Remarkable.

      Or “phantasmagorical”! Love that word.

  2. Kenneth Brian Sall

    Paul, I’m pretty sure I watched the first-runs starting at either age 8, 9 or 10 (which would have been seasons 1, 2 or 3), but I can’t recall the first episode I saw. Too many years ago!

    • That’s great, Ken! I wasn’t around when TZ first aired, but I’d like to think I’d have been tuning in if I had been. It’s amazing that a series that debuted over six decades ago is still so riveting.

  3. “The Odyssey of Flight 33” for me, seen on KTLA Channel 5 shortly after Rod Serling’s death—it was the news surrounding his passing that got me curious about him and the show. I was 12 at the time and thought Serling was mostly famous for “Night Gallery,” which I’d seen with my mother on occasion. But “Flight 33” absolutely hooked me like nothing I’d ever seen and made me a Zone fanatic forever after. (I’ve sometimes wondered what would have happened if the first episode I’d seen had instead been a bottom-drawer effort—“From Agnes With Love,” say, or “Come Wander With Me”?)

    • There’s another fun episode, Christopher! I can see why it would turn you into a lifelong fan. And yes, I’ve thought the same thing about those lesser episodes. I’ll see them on the schedule for the New Year’s marathon, for example, and I’ll picture some teenager tuning in and thinking, “This is the Twilight Zone?” Can’t stand that thought!

  4. Howard Manheimer

    I can’t recall if it was the very first episode I viewed, but “The Private World Of Darkness” gave me nightmares, all those wild doctor and nurse faces! WOW! “No change!…..Needle, please!” (Yes, Dr. Bernardi, right away) When and where would this happen? It really doesn’t matter, whether next week, or 100 years hence, because the old saying happens to be true, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

  5. It’s funny, Paul. I don’t like clowns, but this clown is an exception. I like him a lot, and I like this episode. I don’t remember seeing it until the series was in syndication. We didn’t watch the show often when it was on, only when my brother and I were home alone.

    The first episode I ever saw – I was six – was “The After Hours” and I’ve never been that scared since. I still don’t do well around mannequins. Given the choice, send in the clowns. Even the scene in “Where Is Everybody?” with the mannequin freaks me out a little.

    • I know what you mean. Clowns don’t BOTHER me, but I also don’t really like them. This one, however, I get a kick out of. That may because I know everything is going to be okay; maybe the first time I saw it, he irritated me too!

      Ah, “The After Hours”. Love that one. I even (as you may recall) wrote a post years ago saying it’s the one I would first show someone who had never seen TZ. So you clearly had a good intro to the series, at least in my view. Don’t blame you for being spooked around mannequins! 😬

      • The thing about TZ, is that it wasn’t a series. You’d see an episode like “The After Hours” and never see anything like it again. The next episode was like a new series.

      • True, at least not in the conventional sense. Still, there was a general formula — you knew you’d get a different story each time, but it would always be a twist-laden one, introduced by Serling, and written by him or by a writer who did the same kind of story. But in a way, yes, it WAS a new series each week — which is part of the fun.

  6. My first episodes would have been the three that were remade for the feature film. WPIX/Channel 11 in NYC, the station that (I believe) pioneered the New Year’s Day TZ marathon, aired a special about the making of the movie. So my first would have been either Kick the Can, Nightmare at 20K Feet, or It’s A Good Life. The last one of those is the one that terrified me the most, I’d have been 9 years old, and now almost 40 years later I’m still living in the Twilight Zone.

    • An excellent trio and a great introduction to the series, no question. So you saw the movie first, or the episodes? Either way, it worked well, obviously!

  7. What a compelling post, Paul. I’ve always loved this episode… always thought it had a very Waiting for Godot feel to it. Can’t believe I never considered what is now so obvious; yes, these characters really do seem to reflect the universal question regarding the reason for our existence (and, as you explain further, our desire to know how we got here and how long this existence will last.) I agree that their plight and search for meaning is a microcosm of our own question about just what are we doing here. Now you’ve got me wondering even further. Do you think it’s possible that Serling was using the depository as a metaphor for the idea of reincarnation? (At “the end,” the Major is thrown back in, waiting to be loved by others, again.) Now, about my introductory episode, I’m pretty sure it was either “Little Girl Lost” or “The Big Tall Wish,”and I was about 6 yrs. old. (It was the one TV/ 4 channel days, so whatever program was on in the house, that’s what the kids saw, too.) Thanks to the former, I remember I made my parents move my bed faaaar away from the wall after that one, and after the latter, I’d go around reciting, “You gotta beleeeeeve, Boley! If you don’t believe, it won’t come true! That’s how the magic works, Boley!!” to all my family and friends. Maybe it’s because I was the same age as the little boy; I just remember I really related to him and his openness to believing in the possibility of magic. P.S. I’m aging myself big time in this revelation, but these were the first-run, original episodes, not reruns.

    • You sound like a true fan, Kathy! And being a charter member of the club, so to speak, is even cooler.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I tend to doubt Serling had reincarnation in mind — my own speculation, as I indicated, is probably a bit of overreach, but then again, who knows? Serling had a deep interest in the bigger questions that haunt any thoughtful human being, and he was quite intrigued with supernatural phenomena.

      Thanks for stopping by, and for the kind words!

  8. I wish I could remember my very first TZ ep. I know I’ve been watching it on and off since I was at least 7 years old and I’m 40 now. There are still episodes I don’t think I’ve ever seen or haven’t seen in at least 30 years. I’m going to guess it was either “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “Will the Real Martian Please Stand up?” or “The Dummy.” My earliest memories are of those episodes.

    I remember the episode that firmly convinced me of how brilliant the show was in terms of writing/story and direction. I mean, when I was at the age to appreciate those aspects of filmmaking. “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” Collin Wilcox’s portrayal of Marilyn really floored me, it was raw and emotional, and even I felt stunned when Marilyn revealed her father killed herself in despair. The ending was a shocker too, and very sad how Marilyn was ultimately broken and transformed.

    • I don’t know how common it is to remember one’s first TZ. I’ve heard from a lot of people who DO recall which one it was, but my guess is that most people don’t. And let’s face it — that’s a more common experience. Usually it takes a while to warm up to a show. With TZ, though, that wasn’t the case!

      As for Number 12, I’m a huge fan. I think it’s one of the series’ finest and deepest episodes, one that grows more relevant all the time. You’re right about Wilcox’s performance; she was extremely impressive as Marilyn. That revelation about her father is a shocker, yes, along with the ending. Here’s a post I did on Number 12: Perhaps you‘ve read it already, but I wanted to be sure. Hope you like it.

      • Yes, TZ is a binge-worthy series. You watch one episode you just know that you’re in for a great show.

        Thank you, I did read your post on the episode and left a comment. But it’s been 2 years so I will see myself out and read it again! :)

      • Ha, I should have checked the comments first! :P

      • It’s fine, it was like reading it for the first time because I had forgotten that you responded to a counter-tweet. That was very interesting.

  9. This was a wonderful post. I enjoyed your breakdown of the story and the characters. I love the final words. Their true purpose is to bring joy and happiness to children. Like Toy Story, an unloved toy is very lonely, sad, and bitter … they also seem to turn villainous and go off the deep end. Which one would say of the 5 toys would do that? Most likely the Major, who yearned for purpose and had the most bleak outlook, believing they were in hell. Then again, being a “Major” once he realizes it’s his “duty” to belong to a child, he may be like Woody and remain loyal and steadfast.

  10. maddylovesherclassicfilms

    How good is Five Characters In Search Of An Exit? Brilliant episode. I for one did not see the twist coming the first time I watched.

    My first time in the Zone was when I saw the episode The Hitch-Hiker. I was hooked by this suspense tale with supernatural elements thrown in. The ending just blew me away. I knew I had to check out more episodes after that. Been a fan ever since.

  11. “Five Characters In Search of An Exit” is in my top two, second only to “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”

    The first episode I ever saw was “The Parallel.” About as random as it gets, I suppose, but it was good enough to make a lifelong fan out me.

  12. My first episode was the pilot, because we’ve started watching them in order. I haven’t yet seen enough to have a Top 5 or 10… would it be cheating to say all episodes I’ve seen so far would be in those categories?

    • Ha, not cheating at all. I once went to make a top 10 list, and wound up with a top 25! And even then it felt incomplete. Hope you find many more to fill those top slots. :)

  13. Ewan Tristan Booth

    It’s the major’s world and welcome to it.
    I’m one of those people who have never liked clowns, not even as a child. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never been a big fan of this one, although I’ve warmed to it a little over the years. I’ve always loved the ending, but the rest has always struck me as a little dull.
    If I were to place all TZ episodes into tiers from favorites to least favorites, this would probably be in the second-to-lowest tier. The lowest would contain the sports episodes and the two with ventriloquist dummies (which I dislike more than clowns).

  14. I only watched this episode for the first time a few weeks ago. And because I’d seen many of the Toy Story movies, it helped me guess the ending. I’m a firm believer that the episode must have been at least some inspiration for the Toy Story movies, Paul.

    Sadly, I can’t remember my first ever Twilight Zone episode. I’m coming towards the end of season 3, so maybe the episode is yet to come. Some, I do recall, but many I don’t. For me, the best ones seem to be the ones I know I’ve never seen before. I have my firm favourites, but I wonder if any of the remaining epsiodes will alter my top 5?

  15. Larry Newstead

    Have you read Sands of Time a collection of thought provoking stories.
    By Beatrice C Snipp
    Some of the stories are so like early TZ stories.
    See what you think

  16. If you get of a chance to read it do. Well worth it with the twists at the end. Very reminiscent of TZ.
    Read the reviews on Amazon.
    Does not look like many have been sold, but that is always the way with a niche product.
    Stay safe in these worrying times

  17. My first episode was “The Howling Man” – I remember when I first watched it and it’s still one of my favorites.

    My 2nd was “The Invaders” and my 3rd was “The Odyssey of Flight 33” – a trifecta of great episodes!

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