Note: I want to preface this by saying only the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents is available on Netflix Instant right now. Who knows when those arbitrary gatekeepers of streaming rights will relent and give us more? Anyway, the first season has 39 episodes, enough material to keep you busy until the next installment of Netflix This.
It’s generally regarded that we're living in a golden age of dramatic television that—efforts to meticulously document every subspecies of the American housewife notwithstanding—has given us more and better TV dramas than ever before. (It’s even pretty common to argue, and I think I agree, that The Wire alone surpasses any other English-speaking dramatic series.) But that makes it easy to neglect a type of show of which there are at least two shining examples from the late 1950s, shows that are probably more cinematic than any before or since. One such show is the original Twilight Zone (1959); the other is Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955), which as you may have guessed, is the subject of today's Netflix This.
I consider Alfred Hitchcock Presents cinematic for three reasons: 1) The production values are high; they’re from an age when it wasn’t a bold choice to let a camera linger on a shot. 2) The list of stars who made appearances over the show's run is as long as my arm, and includes Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Ed Asner, Leslie Nielsen, Bette Davis, Cloris Leachman, Sydney Pollack, even William Shatner. 3) Each individual episode is essentially a new 20-minute film.
Like The Twilight Zone (which is also both excellent and on Netflix Instant), each episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents follows a strict order. There’s that iconic music, Hitchcock’s silhouette stepping into his caricature, an introduction from Hitchcock himself, the episode, and a short conclusion. Beyond that, besides a consistent tone, each installment is completely different—directors, writers, characters, actors, and settings are all new each episode.
Hitchcock's presence is a constant both physically and audibly (his voice as an auteur permeates the series), even though he only occasionally directed. Otherwise, episodes vary widely. In this first season alone, there's a western, then an adaptation of a ventriloquist suspected of murder who bizarrely only tells the truth through his dummy. There are also plenty of more-conventional dramas set in the time they were filmed, complete with common Hitchcockian themes like romantic betrayal (which leads to murder), greed (which leads to murder), revenge (which takes the form of murder), madness (which leads to murder), and murder (which is murder). Though the plots often dive into the very creepy or extremely ironic, they never entertain supernatural elements. More than anything, they’re thoughtful exercises in cinematic tension, a subject no one in history mastered like Hitchcock. Hear him talk about this concept here (fun fact: if you play this clip in front of Michael Bay, he withers and shrinks until he exists no more):
I can’t overstate Hitchcock's charm as host when he introduces and concludes each episode. He’s like a beloved grandfather with a twinkle in his eye, spinning stories to rapt grandkids. He rarely changes his inflection, deadpanning with self-awareness. He often refers to the story as a "play," making clear the distinction between himself as a real provider of entertainment, and the fiction that follows. Though the actual drama is consistently quite serious, Hitchcock’s disarming presence defuses any pretentiousness: In one episode, two characters threaten to kill each other for almost 20 minutes straight. A woman masterfully intervenes, though, fixes them a meal to eat together, and in effect saves their lives. That’s the end. “That was disappointing, wasn’t it?” Hitchcock says immediately afterward. “They died that same day. Food poisoning. She just wasn’t a very good cook.”
See his straight-faced charisma for yourself. Here he is introducing "The Older Sister" (Season 1, Episode 17):
I won't get into describing the individual episodes in detail, because they’re too easy to spoil. But trust me: If you are suffering from any summer rerun blues, this show is an amazing antidote. Queue up the first episode, "Revenge"—which Hitchcock directed—and tell me you're not immediately addicted.