Friday, 30 November 2018
(Not to be confused with the licensed video game Bart's Nightmare that was released for SNES and Sega Genesis in 1992.)
I get the impression, from watching these Ullman shorts, that Groening pilfered an awful lot of cookies in his youth and developed something of a guilt complex, for it's a theme to which they seem to keep returning time and time again. (In that piece he wrote on Dennis The Menace and the failure of the 1959 series to live up to his childhood expectations for an issue of the Simpsons comics - sorry, I forget which issue precisely - I seem to recall Groening specifically stating that he wanted a show about "a kid who stole cookies. A kid I could relate to.") "Bart's Nightmare" was the last in a trilogy of shorts examining Bart's compulsion to illicitly pocket and devour any cookies he came across, following on from "The Perfect Crime" and "Shell Game", both of which concluded with Bart's nefarious antics being foiled by super sleuth Maggie. "Bart's Nightmare" provides our epic finale, in which Bart's lust for sugar rebounds on him by dragging him into the deepest, darkest pits of despair and self-loathing. I do not recall cookie-stealing being a behaviour that Bart exhibited much in the series proper, so I can only assume that Bart (or, more accurately, Groening) had it all out of his system from here.
In "Bart's Nightmare" we join our intrepid anti-hero in the aftermath of a particularly bountiful cookie raid. Bart has already gorged himself into a bloated stupor, and his sugar-addled brain is about to take him on a twisted journey down a strangely familiar rabbit hole. This is one of the more interesting Ullman shorts, visually speaking - there's a sequence where Bart is transported through a Twilight Zone-esque vortex and chastised by each member of his family in turn (as with "The Money Jar", it is the withering, accusatory gaze of Maggie that proves the most damning rebuke of all), but more resonant still is the following sequence in which Bart finds himself shrunken down and dropped into his family's kitchen, gazing up at a cookie jar that's several times larger than him. The metaphor is obvious - Bart's cookie cravings have swollen to the extent that they now threaten to overwhelm and consume him. The scenario takes a particularly terrifying turn when Bart breaks the jar and Homer is summoned into view as a dark, hulking figure advancing slowly on Bart, who has no recourse but to cower and scream, "I didn't do it!" over and over in desperation ("I didn't do it" is, of course, a phrase that would gain added significance for Bart later in life). Those with a more comprehensive knowledge of Groening's cartooning career might recognise this The Simpsons' tip of the hat to his comic strip Life in Hell, more specifically the recurring "Shadow Rabbit" running gag, in which the silhouette of adult rabbit Binky looms threateningly over his one-eared son Bongo, who has been caught in the immediate aftermath of some kind of misdemeanor, incriminatory evidence fresh at hand, and makes a feeble attempt to bluff his way out of what is blatantly an inescapable situation.
The "Shadow Rabbit" comics are a riot, but they might also be the most authentically nightmarish concept ever to have sprung from any of Groening's creations (not being a Netflix subscriber I haven't seen Disenchantment, but absolutely no one I've heard discussing the series has been talking about how scary/disturbing it is). Ordinarily, Binky is not a particularly threatening character, but here he becomes an absolute leviathan, his blackened, imposing form encapsulating everything that young children instinctively fear about adult authority. Periodically, Groening would use the gag to lampoon the ineffectual attempts of contemporary politicians to cover their hides following some humiliating fumble (the most famous example being a panel in which Bongo is squeaking out, "Mistakes were made"), but at its most effective it functions as a painful window into the raw childhood terror of being caught out and having nowhere to run - the chilling split-second between exposure and the moment when the axe comes crashing down - the high walls in the backdrop emphasising Binky's magnitude but also Bongo's immense sense of entrapment and desperation. The "Shadow Rabbit" panels are so diabolically concocted as to make one feel physical discomfort just glancing at them, and that, of course, what makes them so weirdly alluring.
The real horror of "Bart's Nightmare", for Bart, lies in the discovery that he is effectively his own worst enemy; when he finds himself in the oversized kitchen and spies the giant cookie jar above him, his visceral reaction clearly goes against everything he understands to be smart and sensible. We saw in "The Money Jar" that Bart is bad at making moral decisions because his id and super ego operate on exactly the same page, but here he's already learned by bitter experience just what a detrimental effect his cravings are having upon him. It becomes a battle of common sense versus force of habit, with the result that Bart winds up screaming at his own body as it betrays him and makes a beeline for the sugar-laden treats. He finds himself entrapped twice over, not merely by Homer's monstrous shadow but by his own insatiable compulsions as they take a hold and pull the strings on his every movement. The short ends in full Wizard of Oz fashion, with Bart awakening to find his family gathered around him, alerted by his fuddled murmurs for clemency. "I didn't do it!", of course, becomes Bart's analogue for Dorothy's "No place like home", as the mantra that enables him to reject his troubled fantasy life and find his way back to reality. Unlike Dorothy, however, Bart finds no refuge in the staid embrace of reality. His family have apparently not twigged that Bart was responsible for their supply of cookies disappearing (this presents a mild continuity problem, as Bart fell asleep with cookie crumbs all around him), for Homer makes a sincere attempt to pacify Bart by offering him the last remaining cookie. Confronted with this symbol of his own gluttony, and his of subjugation to his own biological stirrings, Bart realises, to his wide-eyed distress, that the nightmare has not dissipated, but could potentially haunt him for many impulse-driven cookie jar raids and binges to come. And he's sworn off the damned things ever since (or at least, seems less prone to swiping them).
The Simpsons would pay homage to the "Shadow Rabbit" series once again in the music video to "Do The Bartman" in 1991, during the portion of the song where Bart speaks of putting mothballs in the beef stew (yeah, well, who does that? There's a whimsical jape and there's just plain stupidity, Bart). Here, both Homer and Marge get to play the role of Binky.
Oh, and one more random observation - at the start of the short, as we find Bart stretched out in his bedroom with a severely stuffed gut, we pan past a signed photo of Krusty The Clown (Krusty having made his debut earlier in this season of The Tracey Ullman Show), in which his name is actually misspelled as "Crusty". Oh well, we'd be finding out that he's illiterate shortly enough, I suppose. Then again, we all know that Krusty delegates menial tasks like signing autographs to some unfortunate personal assistant. What's their excuse, I wonder?
Tuesday, 27 November 2018
Note that when I call the Cadbury Schweppes Leopard "horrifying", I do mean it in the most complimentary way possible. Clive (for 'tis his name) may be as sinister as the nautical polar night is long, but as freaky advertising creatures go, he's a distinctively awesome specimen because...well, just watch the above ad. I'm sure you can figure it out.
Got it? Good.
Clive made his debut in 1998, in a campaign created by Young & Rubican London, which saw him navigating the wilder side of nocturnal bar culture in order to indulge his affection for Schweppes, everyone's favourite Swiss brand of carbonated tonic water. Originally, his suave vocals came courtesy of Kelsey Grammer, who imbued the spotted cat with the same blend of dashing sophistication and bubbling malevolence that have consistently made his performances as Sideshow Bob such a class act. Grammer's talents were perfectly suited to voicing a leopard, the kind of glamorous-yet-lethal beast whose elegance dazzles but you just know is gearing up to sink his teeth into the back of your neck the instant you let your guard down, as prospective dinner date Madame Gazelle is at risk of finding out. That gazelle, incidentally, is a source of endless confusion for me. She does sound somewhat reminiscent of Daphne from Frasier, which seems entirely appropriate as an allusion to Grammer's most famous role, but I'm not 100% sure if it actually is Jane Leeves providing her vocals. If it is her, then it is admittedly a tad disconcerting to see what is effectively Frasier (albeit in feline form) putting the moves on Daphne period, let alone with such blatant predatory undertones.
Nevertheless, "Watering Hole" is a triumph, with a surreal quality that goes well beyond the novelty of seeing Savannah fauna served by human maître d's. There's a dark, deadly undercurrent that feels less like something out of a species-tweaked version of Frasier than it does Twin Peaks (the red colour scheme and slinky jazz soundtrack give it the distinctly hypnotic air of a dream that Agent Cooper is having after consuming slightly rancid cherry pie). The digital wizardry and genteel parlance of the four-legged bar patrons barely conceal the savagery of their underlying animal natures - the Watering Hole feels alive and dangerous, a seductive wilderness all unto itself. As for the Daphne Moon gazelle, I do have one further question. Is that elephant really her boyfriend or does she just like having him trail her around for bodyguard purposes (smart move, given the kinds of insatiable souls she's obligated to rub shoulders with at the Watering Hole)? If the former, then are they, you know, intimate? Because how would that even work? We're into serious Hot Skitty on Wailord Action territory here.
The follow-up ad caught Clive on vacation and took a darker turn than its predecessor. Rather than merely work his predatory magic on a suspecting gazelle and get cock-blocked by an elephant, it's implied that Clive has Christopher the Crocodile murder a particularly inconsiderate jet-skier on his behalf. A third spot, "Taste of Elephant", saw Clive's vacation continue as he stayed on his sun lounger and reminisced fondly about his salad days (when he was distinctively not a salad eater).
After the initial trilogy, Grammer quit the gig for unknown reasons and British actor Stephen Fry took over as Clive in subsequent ads. Fry, of course, sounds nothing like Grammer, so we might as well regard his take on Clive as a completely different character from this point onward. Oh sure, Fry's a pretty solid go-to guy for calm sophistication, but he doesn't convey the same degree of cutthroat malevolence as Grammer, and Clive's personality appears to have been neutered to match. Check out the below ad, "Fancy Dress", and you'll notice that Clive seems considerably less mean than when Grammer was voicing him. The concept is as visually playful as always, but if there's one thing that Clive is lacking here it's just a little more bite. Fry's Clive is essentially an overgrown pussycat.
According to this website, Tiger Friends, Clive was played by a leopard named Chance and appeared in a total of ten commercials (although only nine are listed on the site). Most of the ads are linked for download, although I had zero joy in getting a peep out of any of them. Hopefully you'll have more luck in getting them to play than me.
Clive reappeared in a new Schweppes ad in 2010 (this one from UK-based agency Mother), only this time he'd lost his gift of the gab and had discarded all other traces of anthropomorphism. Somehow or other, he'd wound up as the pet in a prosaic suburban household and was throwing his bestial weight around while his adoptive human family stood nonchalantly and sipped Schweppes. It was certainly nice to see Schweppes tip the hat to their old mascot again, although the ad, while sufficiently quirky, didn't quite meet the giddying heights of sinister oddness as those featuring the tonic-drinking feline at the top of his game. Unlike the below print ad from Spain (circa 2000), in which Clive's likeness haunts the appalling image of a dog and a cat caught living together in sin (a gazelle and an elephant are quite unobjectionable by comparison). Here, Clive has become the emblem for all things twisted, off-kilter and delectably transgressive, overlooking the world's most eye-popping impieties as they're laid bare and lapping them up in all their subversive glory. The eyes of Clive are forever watching, so be sure to show your aberrant best.
Sunday, 25 November 2018
I touched on this last time, but whenever people talk about the Simpson family's characterisation during their initial run as supporting bumpers in The Tracey Ullman Show, it's often stated that all of the family were basically the same except for Lisa, who was initially nothing more than a female version of Bart. I would dispute that to a point (for one thing, Homer wasn't quite the same character in the Ullman shorts either), although it's certainly the case that Lisa received very little character development over the course of the 48 original shorts. Back then, Bart was very much the dominant Simpson, and Lisa didn't have much of a purpose outside of being her brother's foil. The two siblings were either mutually bratty rivals or partners in getting their parents' hackles up. Lisa was as prone to misbehaving as her brother, and would occasionally spout dialogue that seems egregiously out of character for her now (the most obvious example occurring in the twenty-fourth short, "The Aquarium", where the ardent animal lover apparently advocates seeing captive marine life pitted against one another in fights to the death).
Lisa was named after one of Groening's own family (as were all of the Simpsons, sans Bart), but it's clear that Groening had no real vision for Lisa at the start. Right off the bat, he knew what kind of character he wanted Bart to be. Groening has cited two key inspirations for Bart - firstly, Eddie Haskell, the trouble-making teen portrayed by Ken Osmond in 1950s sitcom Leave It To Beaver, whom Groening as a child had desperately wished could be the main character of the show, and secondly, Groening's childhood disenchantment with the 1959 series Dennis the Menace, which failed spectacularly to satisfy the young Matt's longing for a series centred upon the kind of rabble-rousing kid he could relate to. With The Simpsons, Groening finally had the chance to make the cartoon of his dreams, and dammit, Bart was going to be the rebellious protagonist he always wanted but was repeatedly denied throughout his own childhood. Groening was clearly less interested in Lisa, who had "Middle Child" as her sole defining character trait during the initial production stages; in her autobiography My Life as A Ten Year Old Boy, Nancy Cartwright recounts how she was originally invited to audition for Lisa but gravitated toward Bart when she realised that Lisa offered nothing for her to work with (Yeardley Smith, meanwhile, was originally invited to audition for Bart, but got the gig as Lisa when she couldn't make her voice sound masculine enough).
I'll profess to having a great fondness for Lisa, who is my personal favourite out of the Simpsons clan (although I do think that Marge is a really great and underrated character, and she certainly merits her own appreciation post some time in the future). At what point did she go from being an ill-defined middle child to one of television's most celebrated and admired young intellectuals? I've previously observed that the major turning point in defining Lisa's character and making her feel wholly distinct from Bart came when they placed a saxophone in her hands and had her wail out the Moaning Lisa blues. That woodwind instrument, and the startling boldness with which Lisa played it, suggested so much about her character that had previously gone untouched upon. She was passionate, soulful, melancholic and a little misunderstood. She had a wisdom and a gusto that were beyond her years. She became a torchbearer for introverted kids the world over who preferred to keep their noses in books and felt perpetually as if they didn't fit in. For me, one of the most heartbreakingly relatable things Lisa has ever said occurs in the Season 2 episode, "Dancin' Homer" (an episode I otherwise find quite nondescript by Season 2 standards), when the family are about to make their ill-fated move to Capital City and Lisa remarks to a group of her peers, "I can't help but feel if we had gotten to know each other better, my leaving would actually have meant something." I don't think there's been a statement that's encapsulated my own childhood social life so succinctly. Sideshow Bob may be the Simpsons character for whom I feel the greatest affinity, but Lisa is the one who most deftly holds a mirror up to my own innermost malaise.
The saxophone may have given Lisa her much-needed boost in terms of branching off and securing her own personality, but one could argue that the really critical turning point occurred in the Ullman short "The Money Jar", a short which went some way toward proving that, even in the Ullman days, Lisa was slightly more than just a carbon copy of her brother. Here, Lisa demonstrates that she has enough of a moral compass to resist the heinous crime of stealing from her parents' money jar when Marge has expressly told her not to, a test which Bart predictably fails. At the start of the short, Bart and Lisa request an increase in their allowance, which Marge staunchly refuses. She then goes out and warns her children not to get any ideas about raiding the money jar in the kitchen - somewhat bizarrely, as neither child had mentioned the jar up until now, meaning that Marge is effectively tipping her children off as to where they can fill up their pockets with ill-gotten change, but perhaps it all makes sense in light of the eventual punchline. Lisa is the first to get lured by the temptations of the money jar (there's a pretty inventive shot in which we approach the jar from Lisa's perspective) but before she can dip her hand in is seized by a sudden, revelatory moment of enlightenment. "I wonder if this is wrong?" she asks. And that was it. The real Lisa was born, and The Simpsons would never be quite the same again.
Lisa may have developed a sense of moral awareness in time to avoid betraying her mother, but not to evade the accusing eyes of her younger sister, who is watching her from the kitchen doorway. Lisa retreats in shame, at which point Maggie is gripped by a momentary avaricious craving of her own, and...you know what, I don't get why Maggie would be tempted to steal money from the jar in the first place. I get that they're looking to establish a clear pattern here, so that it'll be even funnier when Bart caves in to his basest desires, but still, she's only a baby and as such has about as much use for money as does Snowball the cat.
Maggie resists, but surely none but the most naive viewers were holding out any hope that Bart would follow suit. Bart reveals himself to be completely amoral, as demonstrated when his shoulder angel appears, not to appeal to his sense of decency but to give him that final push into degeneracy. Bart raises the lid and discovers that his parents' private stash consists of one measly dollar, prompting him to groan and deliver the short's ironic punchline, "You can't even trust your own mother." Indeed. Either Marge is very protective of that single dollar, or she just trolled her son, knowing full well that he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation to steal from the jar if the idea were planted in his head. Marge, you wily old trickster. I come away thinking that Lisa wasn't the only one to get a healthy dose of character development in this adventure.
Saturday, 24 November 2018
Less than a year before they landed their own series and gave Dr Marvin Monroe an electrifying taste of his limits as a family counselor, the Simpsons had an encounter with another unfortunate therapist in one of their last ever outings on The Tracey Ullman Show, with much the same results. "Family Therapy" plays like a proto "There's No Disgrace Like Home", only here, in lieu of smiting his family by pawning the beloved television set, Homer has lured them to counselor's office with the false promise of Frosty Chocolate Milkshakes (remember when those were a staple of The Simpsons universe)? Tensions within the family have clearly reached a breaking point but, as with "No Disgrace", the Simpsons rediscover their sense of family unity through the joys of redirecting their internal anguishes at an unsuspecting stranger. Like "No Disgrace", there is also the suggestion that Homer's brutish discipline tactics are the root cause of the family's dysfunctionality.
"Family Therapy" is an unsettling Simpsons short for multiple reasons:
- Homer's head disappears at multiple points throughout the short (see above). Pay close attention during any shot where Bart is raiding the mint bowl and you'll notice that Homer becomes momentarily decapitated. Freaky.
- Bart eats too many piss-mints and regurgitates them back into the bowl. This, needless to say, makes for a thoroughly revolting visual gag, albeit not quite as vile as Homer's fishbait sarnie in "Gone Fishin".
- Lisa kicks the therapist in the shins and gets called a "borderline psychotic" for her troubles. Yes, you read that correctly, and you'd do well to remember that Lisa was quite the angry young punk back in her earliest incarnation. Overwhelmingly, the Ullman shorts tended to focus on Bart and his relationship with Homer, and Lisa didn't really get a whole lot of character development in all of that - her primary function was either to butt heads with Bart or to back him up as another rowdy urchin out to undermine adult authority in all its guises. She did come off as the more intelligent of the two older siblings (albeit not in an intellectual sense) and there was the occasional hint that she was more morally-grounded than Bart, but it wasn't until Season 1 of the series proper that the writers actually took the time to establish who Lisa was. The decision to give Lisa a saxophone seems to be the major turning point in terms of defining her character - her passion for blues music paved the way her more artistic, melancholic personality, and the incongruous sight of an eight-year-old girl wailing tirelessly through such an unwieldy instrument revealed her as a powerhouse with hidden depths. In her pre-saxophone days, however, Lisa's only means of self-expression was to violently gnash her teeth and pound innocent strangers in the shins. I think there's a lesson here about the value of encouraging creativity in children.
This therapist, B.F. Sherwood, is less odious than Dr Marvin Monroe, so you do kind of feel sympathy for him in having to deal with the Simpsons' primordial antics (note: his name is an obvious nod to behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, who is famous for his operant conditioning studies on rats and pigeons and is sometimes erroneously thought to have raised his own daughter in a laboratory apparatus - the Simpsons crew clearly have a fascination with Skinner, for they also named series regular Principal Seymour Skinner after him). What's really noteworthy about the character is the vague resemblance he bears to Homer, which may or may not be intentional - he's got Homer's trademark five o'clock shadow, but then it's hard to distinguish between what's a meaningful nod and what's yet another of Matt Groening's generic early character designs. Still, it makes sense in context for him to be another of Homer's doppelgangers. One of the running gags emerging throughout the Ullman shorts, which never really took off in the series proper, was that the Simpsons lived in a universe that was populated by Homers. There are still remnants of this in the series itself. Krusty the Clown, one of the few non-family characters to be introduced in the Ullman shorts, was deliberately designed to look like Homer in clown makeup (a fact that was never exploited or even acknowledged in the series until "Homie The Clown" of Season 6). Similarly, Bart's favourite comic book hero, Radioactive Man, looked like a buffer Homer in superhero garb. The underlying gag was that Bart had a propensity for idolising people in his father's image, unbeknownst to himself. Sherwood could pass for a slimmer, more successful version of Homer (in other words, he's a precursor to Herb Powell). Ostensibly, he's the voice of calm and reason, but it only takes a bit of capering from the Simpsons children to blow that facade and reveal the simian rage lurking underneath. And yet, Sherwood's most withering comment comes when he calls Homer out for his own failings as a parent: "Now you gonna bully me like you bully your kids?" In reaching out into the outside world and finding it filled with like-minded souls, Homer discovers not solidarity, but self-loathing, his every indiscretion reflected back at him in the accusatory glare of his mirror image. Sherwood sees through Homer, because underneath he's a Homer himself. Still, he redresses the problem that the family came to him for, namely that they don't know how to laugh any more. The Simpsons may have grown weary of one another, but finding themselves mutually cast out by authority, they find reaffirmation in each other's company; more importantly, in their shared understanding that the greatest pleasures in life are to be found in exposing the dysfunctionality that underpins every corner of upright society. The wider world rejects them, not because it's above them, but because it's every bit as prone to the same eccentricities, and truly, that is something from which to hone validation.
Monday, 19 November 2018
Crudely Drawn Filler Material: The Simpsons in "Watching TV" (aka The Chattering Cyclops vs Wilson Bryan Key)
If the original Simpsons short that aired on April 19 1987 was all about establishing America's soon-to-be favourite family as a grotesque, if recognisably human subversion of traditional family values, then the second short, which aired on May 3 1987, cut directly to one of the concerns at the heart of their endearing dysfunctionality - namely, just how mutually besotted the family was with the blinkering light box at the forefront of their living room. "Watching TV" saw the genesis of a preoccupation that was to remain prevalent for a significant chunk of the series proper, and which would appear to bear out an argument presented by Wilson Bryan Key in his 1973 pop-psycho classic Subliminal Seduction - that the television set had become such a revered and omnipotent component of family life that it was practically a member of the family now. The TV, which Key identifies as "the one-eyed monster resident in every well-furnished living room", is clearly posited as the authority to which each individual Simpson will ultimately answer. Bart and Lisa time their petty squabbles in order to coincide with commercial breaks; Homer waxes poetic about the joys of family togetherness but obligingly submits when the box is talking. Throughout all of this, the TV screen throbs and pulsates with the sickening energy of a radioactive mutant. Just a typical night within the Simpsons' walls.
At its heart, The Simpsons has always been about the banality of television, and how slavishly our lives revolve around the chattering cyclops, right down to the show's opening sequence, in which the individual family members are depicted rushing home in order to amass before it on the couch (what are we to make of that, exactly? Is the implication that they are rushing home to watch themselves upon the box?). As viewers, our own relationship with the family's tube addiction is two-fold - we recognise the vapidity of their non-stop TV consumption while equally acknowledging the mirror they hold up to our own media-watching habits (after all, are we ourselves not participating in the same activity as these bug-eyed neon demons at this very point in time?). Writes Key: "Television is a major consideration as to when the family goes to bed (after the 11:00pm news), when the family goes to the toilet or engages in conversation (during commercials), when the family eats meals or snacks, what family activities will be on weekends (relative to games, program schedules, and sports seasons), when parents do or do not have sex (who wouldn't be tired after a night's hard work in front of the tube's window, pushing beer and potato chips down one's throat?)" (p.66)
Before we go any further, there is something I should probably clear up - yes, this is the same Wilson Bryan Key who wrote a series of books between 1973 and 1989 proposing that advertisers insert all manner of phallic and vaginal imagery into their campaigns in order to exploit our subconscious sexual desires and convert them into cravings for gin and designer jeans. Because deep down, you're a sexually frustrated dupe who can be aroused by strategically arranged images of ice cubes, and advertisers know exactly how to manipulate that Achilles heel to their own commercial ends. Nowadays, it's tough to encounter anyone who'll take Key's arguments particularly seriously, his body of work having been regulated largely to the slag heap of dubious 1970s pop psychology. Does this make Subliminal Seduction and its sequels any less obligatory reading? Of course not. Dubious or not, they're still entertaining as hell. If nothing else, Key taught me to look at the world a little more closely and to see the hidden smut in everything, and for that much I salute him.
The Simpsons' relationship with the TV, and its indispensability in maintaining the family's entire domestic equilibrium, had a major role in the conflict and resolution of the fourth episode of the series proper, "There's No Disgrace Like Home", which first aired on January 28 1990. This episode sees Homer pawning the sacred television set to fund a family counseling session, an act that seems egregiously out of character for him now but was entirely consistent with his characterisation in the Ullman shorts. Embarrassed by his family's unruly behaviour at a company picnic, Homer grows despondent over his perceived failure as patriarch, but his attempts to promote better conduct only cause his family to regress even further in social graces, to the extent that he transforms them into a legion of peeping toms whose voyeuristic behaviour petrifies the neighbourhood. "Why did you smite me with this family?" Homer laments to the omnivorous man upstairs, and is met with only silence. Instead, it is the all-powerful television that offers up salvation, in the form of a commercial for Dr Monroe's Family Therapy Center*, something Homer explicitly acknowledges when he reminds himself that, "the answers to life's problems aren't at the bottom of a glass; they're on TV!" He later assures Marge that Dr Monroe is reputable because "of all the commercials I saw, his was the best." The TV may have answered Homer's prayers, but paradoxically it also stands between him and his own credibility as family patriarch. Earlier in the episode, Homer had attempted to assert his authority by prying the family away from their TV dinner viewing (albeit an educational nature show, with narration mixing traditional notions of family values with the grotesqueness of nature: "The father of the family has worked all day to find this food for his children...unable to fend for themselves, the baby bald eaglets are dependent on their mother regurgitating food which she has found...") and ordering them to eat a traditional family dinner at the table instead. Homer effectively competes with the TV for his family's respect and attention, so it is hardly surprising, in this context, that he would be willing to sacrifice the TV to boost his own standing.
For the rest of the family, Homer's decision to pawn the TV constitutes a grave threat to their own sense of domestic stability; as such, during their counseling session with Dr Monroe, they are unanimous in identifying Homer as the source of their unhappiness (Marge even accuses him of driving a stake through the hearts of those who love him). By the end of the episode, Monroe has tired of the Simpsons and declared the family a hopeless case, but Homer holds him to his commercial's guarantee that they should expect either family bliss or double their money back. Ultimately, the two go hand in hand, for the final scene sees the family unified in their dsyfunctionality, proud that their eccentricities have proved financially beneficial - as Lisa so disarmingly puts it, "It's not the money as much as the feeling that we earned it." Marge is quick to suggest that they return to the pawn shop and restore that absent member of the family, the TV, to its rightful place, but Homer has other plans - he proposes they use the money to buy a new TV, one with a twenty-one inch screen, realistic flesh tones (ironic, no?) and "a little cart so that [they] can wheel it into the dining room on holidays". Far from wishing to keep the TV and family mealtimes in their respective territories, Homer now goes so far as to extend a place to the TV at the table. Thus, the episode closes with a truce between Homer and the TV, the two warring authorities having reached an arrangement that is mutually beneficial - the television is restored to its spot at the centre of the Simpson household, and Homer gets to claim a stake in his family's affections by facilitating that return in a new and improved guise (noteworthy is that the family's worship of television does not translate into a sentimental attachment toward the set itself, with the Simpsons' older model being left abandoned at the pawn shop). The ending reaffirms Homer as a breadwinner for the modern ages; he becomes the daddy bald eagle who works all day to provide for his family, only in place of nourishment he proves his patriarchal mettle by enriching their lives with the best possible televisual entertainment.
Five years on and another episode, "Homer Badman" of Season 6, would revisit the premise of the television having supplanted Homer as family patriarch, albeit from a much more madcap, sharper-toothed perspective that also satirises the media's tendency to create narratives to suit its own sensationalist ends. Here, Homer is wrongly accused of sexual harassment and undergoes a relentless crucifixion by the media, whom Lisa astutely identifies as being more interested in entertainment than truth. Nevertheless, seeing himself vilified on the tube, whose authority he is accustomed to trusting, proves deeply confusing to Homer. Bart admits to Homer that his own loyalties are divided - obviously, he would like to believe his father, but ultimately TV must have the final say, for it "spent so much more time raising us than you." Homer does not dispute this, agreeing dejectedly that, "TV's always right." In the end, salvation comes from an unlikely source - it's revealed that Groundskeeper Willie has a penchant for secretly videotaping couples in cars ("In this country it makes you look like a pervert, but every single Scottish person does it!") and can provide visual evidence of Homer's innocence. Homer is exonerated in the eyes of the TV-watching world, but he subsequently disappoints his family when he demonstrates that he has failed to grasp the obvious lesson from his experience about not believing everything he sees in the media.** "Homer Badman" ends, once again, with a moment of reconciliation between Homer and the TV, only here Homer goes so far as to physically embrace the set and fondly suggest that they never fight again. That the rest of the Simpsons clan are last seen slinking away in quiet dismay does not seem to matter, for the real hardship from this whole ordeal, for Homer, has come not from his friends and family's loss of faith in him but from his own inability to see eye-to-eye with what the TV is dictating. All Homer wants is return to a state of affairs where he can accept the Almighty Tube's interpretation of reality without question - for him to actually take the lesson suggested by Marge about not automatically taking the media's word for granted would be entirely counterproductive in this regard.
"Homer Badman" echos Key's warning that television, by its nature, does not foster individual thought or perspective; rather it thrives on the substitution of personal first-hand experience for a distilled recreation that has strategically filtered through someone else's lens for all-purpose consumption. He reflects that: "Everyone who watches the screen experiences precisely the same event...when you see a parade, a war, a concert, or whatever on television, you are not perceiving the event but a preprocessed and edited cameraman's, writer's, director's, sponsor's single-lensed version of the event communicated to viewers via only two sensory inputs - the eyes and ears." (p.66-7) Homer is at his most comfortable when allowing television to do his thinking for him; the recognition that the TV's presentation of events is a lie is disturbing enough, but what is really alienating about Homer's experience throughout "Homer Badman" is the knowledge that, in finding himself at odds with the media's image of him, he has been excluded from the overriding perspective that unifies TV viewership as a whole. As Key puts it, "The TV machine regulates time, channelizes or unifies perceptual experience and establishes (all subliminally) an entire range of desirable human expectations, value systems, identities, relationships, and perspectives toward the entire world." For Homer, to go along with the TV's take on events is to be part of a greater shared experience, to see and understand the world as everyone else does, to laugh at and disapprove of whatever the world at large is prompted to laugh at and disapprove of. Otherwise he is truly on his own, and this is frightening. Is it any wonder that he takes such giddy delight in rejecting the message that is explicitly extended to him at the end?
A common charge made against the rise of television, by both Key and within The Simpsons, is that it has led to the death of conversation. When Sideshow Bob launches his one-man crusade to have television obliterated from the face of the planet (or at least all of Springfield) in "Sideshow Bob's Last Gleaming" of Season 7, he explicitly declares his intentions to revive the lost art of conversation (and scrimshaw). Key would certainly agree with Bob, stating that, "With everyone perceiving precisely the same image on a TV screen, there are no unique perspectives for individuals. There is, therefore, really nothing to talk about. Try discussing a program you have seen on TV with someone who saw the same program. You can cover three hours of viewing in a handful of sentences." (Oh, if only that were so. Key passed away in 2008, so he never knew the pain and confusion of overhearing two work colleagues talk at length about the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Many of Key's statements seem charmingly quaint from a modern perspective.) There is a running gag throughout the series where, in order for the Simpsons to sit and reminisce about the old days, the TV must first be removed from the equation - a trip down memory lane cannot possibly hope to compete with the latest episode of Knightboat, after all. In "The Way We Was" of Season 2, Marge and Homer get to regale their offspring with the story of how they first became item, but only because the TV randomly blacked out as the family were watching "the bald guy argue with the fat tub of lard" (and Bart clings to the TV with all the desperation of a cocaine addict, insisting that if you stare closely enough you can still make out an image). In "And Maggie Makes Three" of Season 6, Marge purposely banishes the TV in favour of an hour of family reminiscing, but this has a slow start, for the Simpsons have now spent so many years huddled dutifully around the telly box that their memories are firmly entrenched in it - she opens the family album to find it filled with snapshots of the family watching Knightboat (a thinly-veiled pastiche of 80s action drama Knight Rider). Noteworthy is that the family are not unanimous in their enthusiasm for the show - Homer cheers it on with the excitement of a transfixed six-year-old, but Bart and Lisa are more indifferent and prone to pick holes in the internal logic of series; nevertheless, all three family members cluster around the TV every bit as obediently to watch a man chase starfish smugglers with the aid of a talking boat, as if there were really nothing better to do with their time.
The Simpsons repeatedly returns to the idea, expounded by Key, that the television stifles initiative and individuality, and yet television is an obvious emblem of stability in the Simpsons universe. It is the ultimate unifer (Key would say "pacifier"); take it away and everything crumbles. "There's No Disgrace Like Home" demonstrates just how integral the television is to maintaining relative peace and order within the walls of the family home; Homer's tactic of uprooting the TV in an effort to better his family has only detrimental consequences, and by the end of the episode Homer has seen the light and concluded that the answer to their problems is not to remove the TV but to make it bigger. By "Homer Badman", Homer's relationship with the TV has strengthened to the point that he has effectively placed it at the centre of the universe; his daily dosage of television viewing is more than just a means of whiling away a few hours but a matter of reaffirming the functionalities of the world and his own place in relation to this. By the time we get onto Sideshow Bob's attempt to eradicate television in Season 7, the gag has been expanded so that TV is no longer a family ritual or personal habit but the entire institution upon which modern civilisation is founded. "Would it really be worth living in a world without television?" queries Krusty the Clown, in contemplating the demands of his former sidekick. "I think the survivors would envy the dead!" Clearly, a perverse worship of the televised image pervades the entire culture of the series. Those who do not fall in line with this Springfieldian religion are posited as being deeply nefarious threats to society (like Bob) or doomed to a life of solitude and ostracisation (as was Homer during his brief rift with television in "Homer Badman"). And yet, The Simpsons is equally at pains to remind us that, by tuning into the show on a regular basis, we are participating in that very same culture. The Simpsons may be freakish little monsters, but so long as their adventures continue to occupy a place in our weekly schedules, they become objects of our own habitual TV worship.
To Key, part of what makes TV such a destructive tool is its practice of creating idealised models of human relationships, with which the viewer is expected to identify and emulate, often for the purposes of making product placement more persuasive. Key calls the television families of the early 1970s - My Three Sons, The Partridge Family, Doris Day and their ilk - "superbly designed products of the merchandising imagination" (p.69), although he acknowledges that there are limits to just how much utopian fantasy an audience is prepared to swallow, noting that divorce and family discord were now so prevalent in American consciousness that the traditional two-parent family was already becoming a threatened species in the contemporary sitcom. Key proposes that "The real-life parent, passively stretched out before the tube before a nightly sunbath in stereotyped imagery, must appear to any child as the opposite polarity of all that is good, worthwhile and meaningful in the night's program schedule." It is a description that seems eerily befitting of the Simpson family's own would-be patriarch. Over its remarkably long lifespan, the animation in The Simpsons has become so clean and standardised (I would say plastic, were I in a less charitable mood) that it is easy to lose sight of just what grotesque little freaks the family were in their earlier incarnations. The characters were gross, ugly and flat-out unpleasant to look at, and yet there was something strangely engaging about their visual crudeness. In that regard, they were very much the subversion of what Key condemns as the impossibly idealised TV families masquerading as the real thing. The early Simpsons barely looked human and, being animated creations, are immediately recognisable as the products of fantasy, but a lot of the early acclaim they garnered was centred upon how much more authenticity they boasted over their flesh and blood sitcom counterparts. The series struck a chord in part because it was fixated on ugliness to the point where viewers were encouraged to feel an affinity with it. The characters are caricatures of the crudeness and vulgarity we fear are unshakeable facets of our own human conditions, and they are given a warmth and familiarity that makes us more at ease with the messiness of our own lives. Imperfection is much more fun when we have our favourite cartoon characters there to validate the perks of not being a demigod.
For all of the furore that originally arose over their so-called dysfunctionality, there is an extent to which the Simpsons embody a very traditional, old-fashioned model of the family unit, one that was already starting to look outdated by the early mid-90s. Indeed, there is little about the basic family structure that would appear to challenge more conservative notions of how a family should function. Homer may be an oafish slob who cannot possibly hope to compete with the television set for his kids' admirations (and by "Homer Badman" he had effectively regressed to being one of the kids himself) but he has held his position at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant for long enough to remain the family's sole breadwinner. By contrast, Marge's main purpose within the family is to be its nurturing, emotional centre. Homer and Marge are still married after thirty-one years, despite numerous challenges to their relationship (and would anyone really have faulted Marge if she'd dumped Homer as far back as the series' ninth episode, "Life on The Fast Lane", instead of going all Officer and a Gentleman with him at the end?). Key proposes that we are genetically predisposed to respond to certain family archetypes, which he sees as being symbolically coded all over the media, writing that, "The human need to project into or identify with the symbolic family structure is used by writers, directors, and other media technicians as a subliminal device to hold an audience's interest and attention and to an effect identification between media content and audience." (p.63) The archetypal family, according to Key, consists of four members: the Father (the family's political leader), the Mother (the family's spiritual/moral leader) and their two children, the Craftsman (who supports the family in a technical and/or artistic sense) and the Clown (who provides comic relief). Key argues that such archetypes are not restricted to actual biological families, nor are they restricted to their associated genders, and goes so far as to identify the pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles as an example of an iconic foursome that the public found it easy to embrace because they rang so true of the archetypal family, with John being the Father, Paul being the Mother, George the Craftsman and Ringo the Clown. It is easy to see how the Simpsons fall in line with this model - Homer and Marge's roles are self-explanatory, Lisa is the Craftsman and Bart the Clown (appropriately, he worships a TV clown) - although that does leave us with the problem of where to place Maggie in this equation.
As per Key's model, Maggie is a fifth wheel, and perhaps she is quite an easy character to ignore (as Homer does, for much of the time) because she gets no dialogue (in the conventional sense) and she is seldom the focus of a Simpsons adventure. What purpose does Maggie serve in the series (other than to provide the punchline to the heavily-publicised mystery of Who Shot Mr Burns)? I think back to Key's description of the TV as "the greatest pacifier of them all" - in his words "a total substitute for thumbsucking and toying with one's genitals" (p.67) - and I am inclined to consider this in relation to Maggie's oral fixation and her attachment to a literal pacifier. For the most part, Maggie sits on the sidelines of the Simpson family, passively sucking at her beloved mouthpiece while the rest of the family fixates on the TV. Maggie is an addict of a different nature, although the object of her addiction is a double-edged sword. The pacifier is Maggie's weapon, and she uses it in lieu of any actual communication. Maggie's non-stop sucking has become her characteristic means of expression - she suffers terribly when deprived of it at an authoritarian daycare centre in "A Streetcar Named Marge" - and yet her need to have that pacifier in her mouth at all times is stifling to her personal development, denying her the incentive or physical capability of developing any genuine language. In that sense, the pacifier keeps her permanently an infant. On occasion Maggie will attempt actual language, eg: the ending of "Lisa's First Word", where she can be heard gurgling "Daddy" (courtesy of Elizabeth Taylor), but she is clearly contented with the status quo (as is Homer, who advises Maggie to never say a word). It is not hard to read a parallel between Maggie's pacifier addiction and her older kin's preoccupation with the television set. On the one hand, TV is a peacekeeper and a unifier, but in keeping its viewers sedentary and constantly feeding out of its paw, it has them stranded in a limbo where nothing much ever changes. TV is status, but it is also status quo. Episodes consistently end by reaffirming the formidable dominance of television as an institution - for example, episodes focused on Itchy and Scratchy might test the cartoon cat and mouse's prevalence in the lives of young Springfieldians, but will inevitably end with the characters right back where they started, stretched out on the living room floor and laughing themselves silly at what are essentially variations on the same ultra-violent antics. Characters can either accept television's place at the top of modern life's food chain, or risk ending up like the show's perpetual rebel with a cause, Sideshow Bob, as he laments about how his latest crusade came to an end so formulaic it could have spewed from the power book of the laziest Hollywood hack.
The Simpsons has been on the air for just shy of three decades now, and within that time relatively little has changed about the content of the series, for better or for worse. But then the media landscape has changed considerably since Key and The Simpsons' respective heydays. What with the advent of catch-up TV and online streaming, "appointment television" of the nature depicted in the series' opening sequence is no longer such a prevalent facet of day-to-day life. Why on earth would the Simpsons be in such a rush to get home for their show when they could watch it a few hours later on demand, at their own leisure? We still turn to our favourite electronic toys for our endorphin fixes, but these days the tablet and the iPhone have replaced the television as the main objects of our affections. Key's Sideshow Bob-esque assertion that television is a threat "every bit as disastrous for the future of mankind and what we have come to call civilization as is pollution, overpopulation, or atomic and biological warfare," (p.68) might seem hopelessly naive to the reader living in the age of social media. As a love letter to the age of television, The Simpsons was slow to catch onto the rise of personal computers and the internet - the Johnny Cash-voiced space coyote was at pains to point out to Homer, in 1997, that he did not have a computer - and perhaps it's not a coincidence that the series' evergreen touch started to be called into question at around the point that interest started to shift away from the television screen and onto the PC Monitor. Nevertheless, in the era of Fake News, etc, some of The Simpsons' teachings about the media's role in dictating our world perspective (as in "Homer Badman") may remain as relevant as ever. Perhaps instead of fondly embracing our TV sets (or tablets and iPhones) it wouldn't hurt to call the little light boxes out on their nonsense sometimes. Or to go out and run a marathon or something. Life is short, kids.
* I used to think that the dysfunctional family depicted in Dr Monroe's commercial were hilarious, but now, no way, they just hit too close to home. That's not funny, that is my life.
** It is a little hypocritical for the family to get as hung up on it as they do, mind. Given that they themselves were at one point prepared to believe the TV over Homer.
Thursday, 8 November 2018
"10. That "Twilight Zone" episode in which the woman gets locked in a department store after closing, and the mannequins come to life."
~ "49 Things That Frightened and Disturbed Me When I was a Kid", Matt Groening (Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror #1, 1995)
Here's an installment of STSMG which didn't require an arduous amount of background research on my part. Matt isn't specific enough to provide the title, but I knew exactly which episode of The Twilight Zone he was talking about the instant I read his synopsis. It's "The After Hours" of Season 1, an episode which, alongside "Time Enough At Last" and "To Serve Man", would be a strong contender for the series' most well-known and celebrated of all-time. "The After Hours" first aired on 10th June 1960, and proved such an iconic component of Rod Serling's legacy that it was later remade in 1986 as part of the 80s Twilight Zone revival. This classic tale delves into a relatively new concern that was haunting mankind as we edged ever deeper into consumerist culture - what if those unnatural doppelgangers we encounter on our daily shopping excursions, store mannequins, have minds and wills of their own rattling away inside their fibreglass forms and are secretly observing us with envious eyes? Are these uncanny beings harmless props, or unpleasant reflections of our own hollow materialism?
"The After Hours" sees its ingenuous protagonist, Marsha White (Anne Francis), head up to the ninth floor of a department store, on what Serling's opening narration describes as "a most prosaic, run-of-the-mill, ordinary errand" - namely, she intends to purchase a thimble for her mother. We all know that "prosaic", "run-of-the-mill" and "ordinary" are not terms that nestle readily with the Twilight Zone, and sure enough, Marsha begins to sense that something is awry early on when she deduces that the elevator attendant (John Conwell) looks to have been lying in wait especially for her, ignoring the countless other shoppers in the store in order to give her a private ride up to floor nine. It gets even spookier when Marsha reaches the ninth floor, which looks empty and disused, and is served by a hair-raisingly curt sales clerk (Elizabeth Allen), who appears to have a personal bone to pick with Marsha, despite Marsha's insistence that this woman shouldn't know her from Adam. Marsha gets the thimble she seeks, but finds it suspicious that the ninth floor had no hint of any other people or merchandise in sight. Later, Marsha realises that the thimble is scratched and takes things up with a sales supervisor, Mr Armbruster (James Millhollin), who informs her that the department store does not have a ninth floor. Marsha spots what she takes to be the sales clerk who sold her the thimble but discovers, to her horror, that it is actually a mannequin with the sales clerk's exact likeness. Marsha becomes faint and is taken into a back room to recover, but the staff forget about her and leave her locked in the store after closing. Marsha comes to and attempts to escape, but finds herself back on the mysterious ninth floor, where she is besieged by the store mannequins, who become increasingly animated and speak to her, imploring her to drop the pretense. Finally, Marsha is met by the sales clerk from earlier, who asks her to think back and remember who she really is. With some prompting, Marsha recalls that she too is a mannequin who was permitted to live the life of a normal human for a month (as is a customary aspect of mannequin culture, although only one mannequin is allowed to do so at a time and they each have to wait their turn), but forgot her true identity and did not return to the store when her time was up. The sales clerk was next in line for a month-long getaway and was frustrated that Marsha's amnesia caused her to lose some of her own allotted time, but she forgives Marsha and goes her merry way. Marsha is left in the company of the elevator operator (also a mannequin), who asks her if she enjoyed her time in the outside world. Marsha responds that it was "Ever so much fun" and becomes inanimate. The episode closes on a punchline involving Mr Armbruster, who is wandering through the store one day and spots Marsha in her mannequin form, causing him to double take.
A key factor in why The Twilight Zone has remained such an enduring classic over the decades, and the gold standard by which all subsequent paranormal anthology series are inevitably judged, lies in its penchant for a well-crafted twist ending. Not every single TZ twist worked or holds up today, but when they did hit home, they ripped in with such spine-chilling ferocity that the teeth marks they left embedded in popular culture remain throbbing and raw (the ending of "To Serve Man", for example, is still shocking, despite being such an iconic twist that most viewers have ample chance to steel themselves up for it in advance). Still, it's fair to say that a high percentage of Twilight Zone twists were variations on what was effectively the same basic formula - ie: the protagonist thinks they're one thing, but they turn out to be either ignorant or deluded and by the end of the episode must come to terms with the fact that they're something else entirely. On paper, "The After Hours" hinges on such a whimsically hokey scenario that it could easily read as a parody of this kind of twist. Serling appears to be leaning upon the tongue-in-cheek in his closing narration, when he poses that, "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?" It's all very well to suppose that the random stranger you pass on the street may be a deeper or kinkier soul than you perhaps take for granted, but Serling cannot seriously be suggesting that they might secretly be animated shop mannequins masquerading as humans. Most Twilight Zone scenarios are obviously quite out there, but they resonate because they have something to say about human nature (occasionally, you will get an episode that attempts to supply a rational, down-to-earth explanation for its strange phenomena, such as the psychoanalytical "Nightmare as a Child" and the series opener, "Where Is Everybody?", but let's face it, we like our TZ best when it's spooky and a little inexplicable). In the case of "The After Hours", it's not immediately clear if there is a deeper message, beyond the very basic (and very versatile) one of "Things are not always what they seem", and yet the story is an immensely affecting one. It is a ludicrous outcome, and yet it works beautifully, chiefly for the haunting line it evokes between the real and the artificial, between energy and inertia, between living and merely observing. It's hard to overstate just how invested we become in the plight of this audacious mannequin who wanted to be human. Consider Serling's final words on Marsha - "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" - and notice the curious dual mention of "normal" therein. Here, Serling appears to be commenting on the superficiality of outer image, with the troubling inversion that Marsha's flesh and blood human exterior is exposed as the synthetic veil and her inert, wooden state as "normal and natural". In order to be truly real, Marsha must abandon all pretensions of being human and become the artificial other. Much like a consumerist who assumes that donning a new jacket can make them into a whole new person, Marsha's attempts to reinvent herself holistically by changing her outward appearance amount to little more than a frivolous game of play-pretend, one that is brutally undercut by the fellow mannequin who asks her who she supposes she's fooling.
Mannequins make for persuasive horror antagonists, not least for the strong vibrations they tend to give off of the uncanny valley - we created mannequins in our own image, so there's a subconscious level on which they inevitably register as a threat to our own identity - but, nevertheless, it is integral to the success of "The After Hours" is that the mannequins, while sufficiently spooky, are not villains. This is in stark contrast to the 1986 remake, which plays the same scenario as a straightforward horror and has the mannequins harass Marsha relentlessly (here played by Terry Farrell) as her body slowly reverts to its mannequin state. In both cases, the mannequins' rationale is the exact same - Marsha has used up her permitted month in the outside world and must now surrender the privilege to the next mannequin in line - and yet the remake abandons all sense of camaraderie among its plastic people, presenting them as mindless, pitiless drones who'll use whatever means necessary to restore the status quo. The remake also diverges in that Farrell's Marsha does not willingly accept her true identity as a mannequin and opposes her supposed brethren every step of the way; her motivation, this time, has less to do with her being overly enamored with the human way of life than with her aversion toward the horrors of subsisting as a motionless object. The 1986 version works as an exercise in pure suspense, but compared to the 1960 original it feels emotionally and thematically rather shallow. The 1960 version is enigmatic precisely because it resists courting more straightforward chills. There are some extremely unsettling sequences, notably those extended, near-silent shots of Marsha treading through the empty department store, which assumes a very different aura during the titular interval, when all of the human souls have gone home and unwittingly abandoned it to the unearthly forces that have free reign in their absence. It is a classic exercise in making the mundane appear nightmarish (there is also a moment in which Marsha is startled by her own mirror reflection, which provides a nice bit of foreshadowing as to her human exterior being the real intrusion). In the end, though, the mannequins themselves are not malevolent, and as such the episode only needs to make them so scary, yet they are consistently otherworldly - even when they assume their human forms and line up smiling at Marsha, there's something eerily stilted and artificial about their mannerisms. We are confronted by the fundamental wrongness of this world, and yet for Marsha, and for narrative purposes, it signifies truth and authenticity, the stripping away of all that is fake and cosmetic. Once Francis's Marsha has been exposed for what she is, she realises that there is little point in fighting it.
Francis's Marsha finds acceptance among her fellow mannequins, if not esteem (there's something very revealing in how they noisily abandon her, save the elevator operator, to bid farewell to the sales clerk as she heads off for her own month of masquerading). She is rendered an observer twice over, for even among mannequin society she is swiftly forgotten and left stranded on the sidelines (we learn very little about how Marsha has been occupying her allotted month as a human, other than convincing herself that she has a mother who needs a thimble, yet it is the quiet solitude in which she is left to resume inertia that makes her insistence that it was "so much fun" so heartrendingly convincing). The greatest irony of "The After Hours" is that it is when Marsha becomes the other that we truly recognise her as one of us. She is an eternal observer who longs to be a participant, and who, forever taunted with a lifestyle unattainable to her, finds fulfillment only in the realm of dreams and fantasies. What could be more authentically human than that?
Does it frighten and disturb ME?
"The After Hours" is a superb piece of television, and its reputation as one of The Twilight Zone's strongest installments is well-deserved, although I would hesitate to rank it as the series' scariest (for my money, you can't beat "The Hitch-Hiker" in that regard, even if the twist there is fairly predictable and telegraphed early on). There's some detectable horror to be had from the notion that mannequins are supernatural beings who come to life and patrol our public spheres when our backs are turned. The fact is, though, that these particular mannequins are all so delightfully genteel. They're not out to hurt or punish Marsha for her transgression; they simply want to remind her of who she really is so that their own way of life can be restored to them. The ability to live as a human, just for a month, means as much to them as it did to Marsha, and you can't fault them for demanding it back. Ultimately, this is one of those TZ scenarios in which something that appears threatening turns out to be quite benign (I'd cite "The Hitch-Hiker" as another example, only Leonard Strong's character frankly does remain sinister to the finish, even when his true identity is made clear).
Is it more frightening and disturbing than the 1987 movie Mannequin? That's a discussion for another occasion.