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I'll Never Starve Here: My Top 5 Favorite Episodes of The Ray Bradbury Theater
The Ray Bradbury Theater was an anthology series based on the writing of Ray Bradbury that was produced, written, and hosted by Ray Bradbury and opened with confusing narration by Ray Bradbury. It was a low-budget, low-frills affair that was shot in Canada and aired from 1985 to 1992, and now it’s streaming on Freevee and Peacock.
Unlike Tales from the Darkside, The Ray Bradbury Theater has a pitiful ratio of good to bad episodes. In fact, out of 65 episodes over six seasons, only 10 are watchable, and they’re all in the first two seasons. Out of that 10, here are my top five favorites…
#5: The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl
The season two premier, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” follows a frustrated writer named Acton (Michael Ironside) as he confronts a wealthy publisher named Huxley (Robert Vaughn), who refuses to publish Acton’s work and only gives him the time of day to get close to his wife. Acton brings a gun along, “just to scare him,” of course.
Huxley responds to Acton’s confrontation in an unexpected way: He insists on giving him a tour of his house and encourages him to handle several of his objet d’art, urging him to “touch” and “feel” everything. This culminates in Huxley actually goading Acton into strangling him to death. Huh.
When he realizes what he’s done, Acton frantically tries to remember everything in the house he touched and wipe off his fingerprints. He runs around the enormous mansion, wiping off figurines, vases, busts, and chess pieces. After a while, he starts seeing fingerprints everywhere, even in places he never touched, and he feels compelled to wipe them all off.
The title comes from a bowl of artificial fruit in Huxley’s house. Acton sees his fingerprints on every single piece of phony fruit, even the fruit at the bottom of the bowl. Acton’s fingerprint-wiping rampage eventually ends with a twist that I won’t give away. You’ll just have to watch it.
The best thing about this episode is Michael Ironside’s performance. You can see him gradually losing his mind in his frenzied fingerprint furor. Even though he’s the killer in this story, you still wanna root for him because you can see how this rich asshole has withered him away to a babbling mess by harshly criticizing his work and stealing his wife. And Robert Vaughn is great as always playing the pompous jerk.
This episode is light on action, but heavy on psychological thrills, and the creative ending will make you go, “Ohhhhh!”
#4: The Town Where No One Got Off
Have you ever thought about committing the perfect murder? Me either, but TV and movies would have us believe that just about everyone has at some point.
Season one, episode four, “The Town Where No One Got Off,” is inspired by that belief. It stars Jeff Goldblum as Cogswell, a “damn fool writer” (as another character referred to him) who dreams of leaving the rat race of the big city behind and retreating to an idyllic small town, kind of like the main character in The Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby.”
One day, Cogswell meets a stranger on a train (Cec Linder), who dares him to make his dream a reality and get off the train at the next small town. Cogswell accepts the challenge and pays the conductor to stop the train at a town called “Erehwon” (“nowhere” backwards), where no one ever gets off. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly), the little town is far from idyllic. The townspeople stare at him suspiciously like they’re in Santa Mira (the town from Halloween III, for the uncultured), and the ones he tries to engage with are standoffish to downright rude.
As he walks around the town amongst the glares of its citizens, Cogswell notices an old man (Ed McNamara) who seems to be following him everywhere he goes. Eventually, the old man catches up to him and strikes up a conversation. He explains that for the last 20 years, he’s been sitting at the train station, waiting for someone to get off the train, because he has a plan for the perfect murder. He says that since no one ever gets off at that stop, no one would expect the murder victim to be in this little, out-of-the-way hamlet, so the authorities would never think to look there, and he would get away with it. He lures Cogswell into some shady little hideout and produces a knife. Whether he succeeds in committing the so-called perfect murder or not is for you to find out.
The growing tension of this episode is really what keeps you watching: the suspicious townspeople, the old man stalking Cogswell, and the inevitable meeting of the potential murderer and his intended victim. It’s all set against a beautiful fall day in a cute little town worthy of a series of Norman Rockwell paintings, creating a very pleasing juxtaposition.
Jeff Goldblum is…Jeff Goldblum (nothing wrong with that, I love Jeff Goldblum). He masterfully portrays the initial naiveté of Cogswell followed by his growing dubiousness and eventual resentment in his usual laid back, believable way.
Ed McNamara at first appears to be a harmless old man, but as he begins explaining his plan, he gradually begins to transform into a total madman so bored with small-town life that he fantasizes about brutally murdering everyone around him. He almost makes you feel sorry for him…
Whether you’re rooting for the big city writer with bucolic delusions or the bored retiree with a taste for blood, the ending will surprise you.
#3: The Small Assassin
I mentioned in my last post that I love stories about evil kids. Season two, episode six, “The Small Assassin,” takes that concept to a whole new level with an evil infant.
The story follows a new mother named Alice (Susan Woolridge), who’s convinced her newborn baby is trying to kill her. She explains that she remembers being born and resenting her own mother for bringing her out of the womb and into the cold, cruel world. She believes her son feels the same way and wants to kill her as revenge for forcing him to be born. For this reason, she hates the baby and doesn't want him around her.
It sounds crazy, but she’s dead serious, and soon things start happening that seem to prove her theory, like toys left on the stairs where someone could trip over them and the sound of tiny footsteps in the night, which seem to indicate the baby can get out of his crib on his own.
Alice is completely convinced that the baby is going to kill her, and no one—not her husband, not even her doctor—can convince her otherwise. Whether or not she's right is something you'll have to find out for yourself.
Susan Woolridge's performance makes the episode. It's hilarious seeing this grown woman filled with such intense, seething hatred for a cute, tiny baby. She really sells the idea that an infant could commit murder and clearly expresses the intense fear total and resignation Alice feels in her certain knowledge that this thing will happen: her baby will kill her, and no one will be able to stop him.
The camera sometimes shows the baby's point of view, shooting low to the ground with the baby's squeaky little breaths as a constant, rhythmic soundtrack, like he’s a pint-sized Michael Myers. It’s so creepy it almost makes you question everything you know about babies. Could a baby really climb out of his crib and murder his mother? In the world of Ray Bradbury, anything's possible.
#2: The Playground
Season one, episode two, “The Playground,” continues the theme of evil children. William Shatner plays a single father named Charles, who is abnormally terrified of the neighborhood playground and refuses to take his isolated son, Steve (Keith Dutson), there to make friends. Apparently, Charles was bullied as a child, and the playground featured heavily in his torment by a boy named Ralph (Mirko Malish). He seems to be convinced that if he takes Steve to the playground, the same thing will happen to him.
At the urging of his sister, Carol (Kate Trotter), Charles finally steels himself and takes Steve to the playground. As he looks around at the other children, he begins to see them as little, snarling monsters with dirty faces, wild hair, and razor-sharp teeth. He even sees his old bully, Ralph, still a child, standing guard over the slide. He quickly grabs Steve and rushes him back home.
In his irrational fear, Charles becomes so desperate to spare his son from what he perceives as a terrible fate that he wishes he could “take the blows for him.” Finally, he agrees to take Steve to the playground one more time and face his demons. Will Steve suffer the same fate as his father? You'll have to watch the episode to find out.
Anything that stars William Shatner has to be good, and “The Playground” is no exception. Shat is his usual over-the-top, campy self, infusing some good, plain fun into an otherwise creepy, atmospheric episode. Like Alice from “The Small Assassin,” Charles is absolutely convinced that small children are out to kill him. (Am I sensing some kind of theme here, Ray?) Shatner expertly portrays Charles’s frustration and resolve as he struggles to overcome his abject terror to do what's best for his son. The ending will make you laugh and cry at the same time.
#1: The Crowd
Season one, episode three, “The Crowd,” begins with a photographer named Spallner (Nick Mancuso) getting into a terrible car accident. As he lay in the street among the wreckage of his car, he sees a crowd gather around him in what seems like just a few seconds.
Spallner eventually recovers from his injuries, but he can't get the faces of the crowd out of his head: the little blonde boy, the red-haired woman, the old man, and the rest. He doesn't understand how this group of people managed to arrive at the scene of his accident at 2:00 in the morning even before the tires on his car stopped spinning, and he becomes obsessed with solving the mystery.
Later, Spallner is in his excessively-80s, tragially-hip, neon-drenched loft apartment, telling his friend, Morgan (R.H. Thomson), about the crowd, when suddenly, they hear a loud crash. Spallner looks out the window and sees a crowd already starting to form around the aftermath of a car accident. He runs outside and sees some of the same people who were at the scene of his accident: the little blonde boy, the red-haired woman, the old man. He watches as they crowd around and move the victim, which Spallner believes caused her to die.
He becomes increasingly unsettled and starts walking around the city at night, looking for car accidents so he can watch for the crowd. He sees the same people showing up again and again, crowding around the victims, moving them when they shouldn't be moved, and breathing their air.
Spallner watches videotapes of accident scenes and finds the same faces in the crowd at every one: the little blonde boy, the red-haired woman, the old man. He points them out to Morgan and explains his theory that the crowd goes to accident scenes to kill the victims. He then produces a series of photographs depicting each of the people in the crowd. He tells Morgan that he got these pictures from the morgue. The people in the crowd are all dead, killed in car accidents within the last year. There's only one member of the crowd that Spallner can't identify. He seems to be a man in a raincoat, but he's always in the shadows, and Spallner can never see his face.
Spallner becomes determined to track down the crowd and plead with them to stop killing people. He convinces Morgan to drive him around the city (his car was totaled in the accident) so he can look for the crowd. They find the crowd gathered at another accident scene, and Spallner runs out to confront them. What happens next is for you to find out.
This is definitely one of the creepiest episodes of pretty much anything ever. The dark scenes combined with the simple 80s synth music and the stellar performance of Nick Mancuso create an unsettling atmosphere that sends real chills down your spine. It just might give you nightmares.