How ‘Bonanza’ Once Paid Tribute to ‘The Twilight Zone’

by Craig Garrett

Bonanza was a classic TV western that didn’t shy away from mixing genres, and one episode, in particular, owes a debt to The Twilight Zone. Both Bonanza and The Twilight Zone debuted in 1959, with Bonanza lasting a staggering 14 seasons. Though The Twilight Zone only lasted 5 seasons, it had a continuation of sorts with Night Gallery as well as three revivals to date. Beloved by generations, both shows air on networks like MeTV to this day. One episode of Bonanza incorporates Twilight Zone motifs expertly.

Originally airing on October 13th, 1963, “Twilight Town”, tips its hat directly at Rod Serling. The Bonanza episode starts with Little Joe (Michael Landon) getting attacked by a bandit. He’s left to die in the desert, unconscious. Little Joe awakens in a town called Martinville. Curiously, the town is populated by ghostly folks that pressure Little Joe to become sheriff. Of course, the townspeople aren’t just trying to give Little Joe a cushy job. They want him to fight off a dangerous outlaw that the entire population fears. After falling for a young woman from the town, Little Joe agrees to face off against the dangerous gunslinger. Fittingly, this outlaw ends up being the same bandit that attacked Little Joe earlier in the episode. Little Joe manages to rally the townspeople against the outlaw, and the confrontation ends with him once again unconscious.

Bonanza pays a direct homage to The Twilight Zone in dialogue

When Little Joe awakens once again, it’s to the familiar faces of his Bonanza family. Joe relates what happened in the nearby town, but he’s told no such place exists. A curious viewer might wonder if it’s time travel, ghosts, or even a bad dream. However, in true Twilight Zone tradition, those questions go unanswered. “Where is everybody?”, a confused Little Joe exclaims, in a direct homage to The Twilight Zone. Of course, this refers to the very first episode of The Twilight Zone. Titled “Where is Everybody?,” it aired back on October 2nd, 1959.

It’s likely that The Twilight Zone fans know that Rod Serling and company didn’t shy away from the Western, either. In part due to high availability of sets for shows like Bonanza during the 60s, multiple episodes took place in the Old West. Perhaps the most famous example is the season 3 episode, “The Grave.” The 1961 episode features Western mainstays like Lee Marvin and Lee Van Cleef dealing with a ghostly gunslinger.

Cy Chermak was the writer for “Twilight Town.” Though it’s his only credit for Bonanza, he went on to produce Kolchak: The Night Stalker in the 70s. Kolchak was highly influential to a young Chris Carter, creator of the hit 90s paranormal series, The X-files.