“The After Hours”
If you were picking one episode of The Twilight Zone to show someone who had never seen the show before, which one would it be?
You could opt for the iconic “Time Enough at Last,” with its devastating O. Henry-type ending. Or the wrenching “Eye of the Beholder” — its looking-glass world, full of unforgettable meditations on the true nature of beauty and ugliness, never fails to leave a mark on any viewer.
Me? I’d probably pick the episode that first aired on June 10, 1960: “The After Hours.”
Not that it’s necessarily better than the two named above — or, perhaps, a dozen others. But “The After Hours” is, for me, the Zone in miniature. We’re set in a seemingly normal world, with a woman on a normal task: shopping for a gift.
But then this world begins to appear odd. People say and do strange things. A sense of fear and dread creeps in, bit by bit, as we try to unravel the mystery with the unsettled Marsha (played beautifully by Anne Francis, in the first of her two Zone roles).
Is this all in her imagination? Or is someone playing a trick on her? Is this a normal woman being harassed by mannequins come to life, and if so, why? Thanks to Serling, and an incredibly talented cast and crew, we’re kept guessing right up to the end.
And then — and this aspect of the story may be what puts it over the top for me — it’s not a sad or horrifying ending. Yes, Marsha’s turn among the “outsiders” has come to end (for now). But she’s not being punished or destroyed. She’s not the victim of unseen forces or an uncaring universe. She’ll enjoy another opportunity to live among “real people” again in the future.
The ending may not be quite so happy for the rest of us. It’s hard to look at store mannequins quite the same — sort of like spotting a line of birds on a jungle gym after watching “The Birds.”
Serling, as always, wraps it up perfectly:
Marsha White, in her normal and natural state. A wooden lady with a painted face who, one month out of the year, takes on the characteristics of someone as normal and as flesh and blood as you and I. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
Just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street? A rather good question to ask, particularly … in the Twilight Zone.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!