First and Last: How The Twilight Zone Nailed Fantasy and Science Fiction

Tristan Ettleman
10 min readJan 15, 2024

This is First and Last, an essay series examining my favorite TV show debuting each year through its first and last episodes. The seventh installment features THE TWILIGHT ZONE, created by Rod Serling. The show ran for five seasons from 1959 to 1964 across 156 episodes, the first being “Where Is Everybody?” and the last “The Bewitchin’ Pool.”

There are few shows about as old as THE TWILIGHT ZONE with as much staying power. Bring it up with even young adults, born nearly a half-century after its debut, and Rod Serling’s immaculate creation will inspire questions like “Remember that one where…?” Everyone has a favorite story. The sheer quality of episode after episode of the science fiction and fantasy anthology show is staggering, and indeed, THE TWILIGHT ZONE is one of my favorite series of all time; perhaps top five. Unfortunately, it didn’t end on the highest note (indeed, it ended on one of its lowest), even as it began with great promise yet to be fulfilled.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE sprang from Serling’s already impressive TV writing credits. With scripts for anthology and “play of the week” shows like KRAFT TELEVISION THEATRE (1947–1958) and PLAYHOUSE 90 (1956–1960), including 1955’s “Patterns” and 1956’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (both turned into feature films), the man had some cachet. After running into numerous risk-averse sponsors and networks, especially with his 1958 “A Town Has Turned to Dust” episode of PLAYHOUSE 90, which aimed to comment on the racism that led to Emmett Till’s murder, Serling devised a framework that would allow him to work in more impactful messages: science fiction and fantasy. At first, however, THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s network, CBS, wasn’t convinced by the otherworldly angle and wanted everything grounded in some kind of reality.

That was the case for the show’s very first episode, “Where Is Everybody?” Written by Serling as a CBS-mandated replacement for his intended premiere, a story in which a society’s people are executed at age 60, and directed by workhorse TV director Robert Stevens, also known for his numerous ALRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS (1955–1962) and THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR (1962–1965) episodes, “Where Is Everybody?” was a daring test-case for a new bizarre show. It stars Earl Holliman as a man walking into a small town, with no memory of who he is and the town’s denizens totally missing…although jukeboxes are still playing and cigars are still smoking. To build an entire episode and even series premise on essentially one performance is a total Serling move, and in spite of Holliman’s regrets regarding certain acting choices of his own, I think he delivers a good portrait of a man slowly descending into madness. The Americana of the town’s square, familiar to any viewer of the Back to the Future movies, is a warped complement to how profoundly alone Holliman’s man is.

There aren’t exactly a lot of plot developments in “Where Is Everybody?” And yet there is something distinct to each disembodied “encounter” the man has, from the empty diner that starts the whole “adventure” to the female mannequin he mistakes for a real person. The most profound are his near accidental closure in a jail cell and a movie theater that projects films all on its own. Serling deftly wrote a story that makes the viewer wonder just exactly what is going on. Are there spirits involved? Is it just coincidental? Or is it all in the man’s head?

It turns out to be the latter, in an interesting twist that is nevertheless compromised by CBS’ desire to explain seemingly fantastical events. Thankfully, that desire was outplayed in just the next episode. In any event, it is revealed at the end of “Where Is Everybody?” that our lonely man is Sergeant Mike Ferris, an astronaut training to go to the moon by sitting in a small bunker in a hangar. The message is ostensibly that companionship is needed for a healthy human mind, and that if we are cut off from such connections, we may also find terrifying spaces in our mind. But I also find that THE TWILIGHT ZONE’s premiere has some other import. First of all, Ferris’ exploration of seemingly wholesome yet empty spaces reflects the fact that “small town friendliness” can often be a lie. You can see that quite a few more times within TWILIGHT ZONE itself, but also in the prior “A Town Has Turned to Dust.” Perhaps it’s just my bias, but I don’t think it’s quite unfounded considering Serling’s personal views and other works, but I also think the inclusion of the brass and their reticence to actually release Ferris in his mania reflects the military-industrial complex’s questionable practices and goals.

The wonderful thing about “Where Is Everybody?” is that it affords all these interpretations. In that way, it totally embodies what THE TWILIGHT ZONE would achieve. Even still, although I think Holliman’s performance is pretty good, I do agree with him that some moments could have been put over better, like his encounter with the mannequin. And the compromised “realistic” ending doesn’t quite carry the same bone-chilling quality that would define many TWILIGHT ZONE episodes. But “Where Is Everybody?” is one of the better-known episodes of the series not just because it’s the first, but also because its off-kilter vibe does draw the viewer in.

Over the next few years of its life, THE TWILIGHT ZONE would stay just above water in drawing those viewers in. Although it was almost always a critical darling, producer, sponsor, and network pressures and Serling’s growing weariness stemmed from and led to ratings issues and his lessened involvement with the show. It’s a testament to the talent he cultivated, however, from writers, directors, and stars, the roster of which reflected the best anthology shows’ legacies as showcases of older talent and those who would in short order become big stars, that the show didn’t descend into terrible territory. It didn’t really even come close. Well, it did in one particular instance, and unfortunately, it was the finale of THE TWILIGHT ZONE: “The Bewitchin’ Pool.”

Directed by Joseph M. Newman, also known for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and written by Earl Hamner Jr., the future creator of THE WALTONS (1972–1981), “The Bewitchin’ Pool” came at the end of a season that was an attempt to course correct. The fourth season of THE TWILIGHT ZONE went to the hour-long format, a change that didn’t eradicate lasting episodes but one that definitely upset the equilibrium of the tight high-concept science fiction and fantasy pioneered by Serling’s early scripts. In the fifth season, the show went back to half-hour, even as the creator and host’s involvement was at its nadir. However, Serling does appear on-screen for “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” as he had done since season two (the first season he only provided narration), setting and wrapping up the story.

What the finale does differently in terms of structure was unprecedented in the history of THE TWILIGHT ZONE (and obviously was never replicated). “The Bewitchin’ Pool” starts with a kind of teaser scene that is cut out from the middle of the story, presumably to cover up a runtime deficiency. That shortcut may have stemmed from technical issues that plagued production.

“The Bewitchin’ Pool” stars Mary Badham, fresh off the success of her performance as Scout in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962). However, much of Badham’s performance isn’t even her own. Perhaps because almost all of the episode was filmed outdoors, there was some kind of audio issue. Everyone had to dub their characters but Badham was out of town, so voice actor extraordinaire June Foray took over the duties. Foray was a great talent but hers is obviously not Badham’s voice, and indeed, the dub for everyone else is clumsy at best. Not a single actor delivers a good performance in “The Bewitchin’ Pool” and that’s at the heart of why it’s one of the worst TWILIGHT ZONE episodes.

There are a few episodes in the show’s history that are upbeat and more positively whimsical, which its finale fits into. But the overt fairy tale tone just feels ridiculous and totally lacking of the life lesson or social commentary impact THE TWILIGHT ZONE is known for. Hamner Jr. stated that his goal was to comment on how divorce hurts children, but the resolution of the story is totally weak. But perhaps I should explain what leads up to that resolution.

“The Bewitchin’ Pool” follows two children, Sport (Badham) and Jeb (Jeffrey Byron), with two wealthy parents who always fight: Dee Hartford as Mrs. Sharewood and Tod Andrews as Mr. Sharewood. The parents are terrible to each other and their kids and they are totally lacking of any redeemable qualities. Hartford and Andrews play the characters like the evil parents of fairy tale lore, so perhaps that fits into the goal…of the production team at least, as Hamner Jr. has himself said he was unhappy with how his script was brought to the screen. The parents’ performances read to me as totally hysterical, lacking any kind of interiority or seriousness. Badham and Byron also fit into the total “kid actor” tendency to enunciate strange parts of their lines, although all the outdoor scenes with Sport could actually be attributed to Foray. By the way, both Sport and Jeb have Southern accents, and indeed the whole episode has a rural Southern inflection, except that both the parents have a kind of “coastal elite” vibe and no discernible accent. It’s a discrepancy that just shatters the believability of the episode, more than the actual fantasy of it all.

Sport and Jeb hang around the pool, and as they wish they could get away from their parents’ bickering, a Huckleberry Finn-esque kid comes up out of the water and tells them to follow. They do and emerge from a rural swimming hole, which abuts a fantastical meadow full of playing children and Aunt T’s (Georgia Simmons’) hut. Some of the plot of “The Bewitchin’ Pool” makes it feel like it could go dark, Hansel and Gretel-like, but no, Aunt T is indeed a benevolent magical gatherer of outcast kids, feeding them cakes and sweets with no intention of fattening them for consumption. Sport, being the older sibling, is more intent on going back, even as Jeb wants to stay.

Return to reality they do, however, and Sport is told by her mother that the parents have something to tell her and Jeb and things will be better. Sport goes back to Aunt T’s, where Jeb is hanging out, and convinces him to come back again. They learn that their parents are divorcing and these terrible people ask the kids who they’d rather live with. Instead of answering, the kids dive back into the pool to live with Aunt T and the other kids forever. The last image of THE TWILIGHT ZONE is a (reused) shot of the various children playing outside the hut. And it’s, in spite of the story’s intention, a depressing sight.

That’s because it’s the culmination of a simplistic episode full of forehead-smacking-ly bad performances. The shots and transitions of the swimming pool and swimming hole hold some magic, but otherwise, the way “The Bewitchin’ Pool” uses fantasy to imagine a better world for children of divorce is simplistically escapist, especially by the standards of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. As I mentioned, it stands as one of the show’s worst episodes, and indeed one of the few categorically “bad” ones.

It obviously wasn’t all “The Bewitchin’ Pool’s” fault, but THE TWILIGHT ZONE was canceled after its fifth season, and therefore series, finale aired. It took some time for the show to reach its peak cult, then mainstream reputation, but the universal appeal of many of its stories and the impactful ways they were translated to the screen held on in the popular imagination of television viewers. Comparing “Where Is Everybody?” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool” doesn’t highlight the heights of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, but it does usefully reveal the fact that shows can start promisingly yet take some time to find their footing of greatness…and the fact that even one of the greatest shows of all time, especially one with 156 episodes, can have a few stinkers.

My favorite episode, by the way? “The Big Tall Wish.” It’s an underrated yet immensely moving work of progressivism.