We’ve all been there. Things go horribly awry, and we feel the bottom drop out from beneath our feet, either by our own folly or by external influence. Our tiny human brains throb, perhaps only for a moment, with a fervent hope that what we’re experiencing is simply a dream or, more appropriately, a nightmare. It seems possible enough, especially given that, no matter how bizarre or senseless our dreams are, they seem to make perfect sense while we’re having them. For those slumbering hours, our dreams are the only reality we are conscious of. To confine our worst case scenarios to the dream world is a perfectly reasonable desire, from a self-preservation standpoint.
“Shadow Play,” written by Charles Beaumont and directed by John Brahm, asks the age-old question: which is more real, our day-to-day reality or the life we live in dreams? Beaumont’s own “Perchance to Dream” from season one touched on this concept, but here it’s explored head on and in much more depth. The entire episode, and every one in it, may very well be one long dream.
Dennis Weaver is engaging and intense as Adam Grant, a man sentenced to death by electrocution. We watch the verdict being announced. We hear the sentencing. We meet the key players. Grant steadfastly claims that none of what we’re seeing is actually happening; it’s all simply a recurring nightmare he’s having. And if they fry him… well, he’ll wake up, and everyone in his dream will cease to exist. Sounds crazy… but damn, he seems to really believe it. As the time of his execution draws near (midnight, of course), those around him begin to suspect, for various reasons, that he may in fact be right.
So you’ve got that tried and true race-against-the-clock-call-the-governor-before-they-flip-the-switch plot device propelling things. You’ve got fine performances, particularly from Weaver and Harry Townes as the cranky DA (Townes was a pretty regular face on TV in the 50’s and 60’s, particularly on Gunsmoke and The Fugitive). You’ve got a top notch script from Charles Beaumont, plus great camerawork from George T. Clemens (heavy on the tilted angles and shadowy lighting, particularly in the opening and closing courtroom scenes). John Brahm, who directed more TZ episodes than any other director, holds it all together beautifully. There’s nothing wrong here. This is top notch Zone, and it sits comfortably within my top 10 all-time favorites.
CBS revived The Twilight Zone in 1985 with a one-hour, multiple-story format. The series offered mostly new tales, with occasional remakes of classic TZs. “Shadow Play” was one of the episodes remade. As I recall, it doesn’t deviate much from Beaumont’s script, except for some business about Grant having a sister. It’s probably the single best remake, but that’s really not saying much (the other remakes included “Night of the Meek,” “Dead Man’s Shoes,” and “The After Hours,” and none of them are worthwhile). The TZ revival worked best when they ignored the lofty heights of the original and focused on new stuff (“Profile in Silver,” “Nightcrawlers,” and “The Once and Future King” are just a few examples of the new crew getting it right). You know, I should probably spotlight the ‘80s series at some point….
Next week, Shelly Berman visits The Twilight Zone. Rod tries to be funny again. It, um… doesn’t quite work out.