Season 1, Episode 9
Original Airdate: June 9, 1961
Writer: Irving Gaynor Neiman
Director: Boris Sagal
Producer: Jacqueline Babbin, Roald Dahl
Cast: Don Keefer, Charlotte Rae, Heywood Hale Broun
Okay, let’s get to the elephant in the room. I cannot, for the life of me, comprehend why there is an apostrophe before the word “Way” in “’Way Out.” Though when I first heard the title I assumed it was an anthology focused on folk trying to find a “way out” of their problems, horrifying situations or lives, I discovered that the real meaning is that the stories themselves are “way out.” As in, “that’s way out, dude!” Were the creators and producers trying to be hip? The psychedelic intro where host Roald Dahl (yes, THAT Roald Dahl) has three heads seems to underline this theory. But still, what the hell is up with that floating apostrophe? Ah well, like the last third of “Mulholland Drive” and where Jimmy Hoffa is hidden, there are some things we are never meant to know.
“’Way Out” is a little seen, barely-available anthology series that was paired with “The Twilight Zone” for half a season before being cancelled. I had never heard of it until recently and sought it out because I simply had to see what the author of “The Witches” and “Matilda” (two books that really screwed me up when I was younger) did as a “presenter,” writer and producer on a television series. And I’m so happy I did. I’ve genuinely seen anything quite like this before – its tone is utterly different than “Twilight Zone,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” or any other anthology I’ve ever seen. The storytelling is like a Rubik’s Cube, transitioning tonally from dark comedy to horror to mystery, all the while keeping its viewers on their toes because we genuinely don’t understand where its authors are taking us. I was never bored, always entertained and, by the end, picking my jaw up off the floor.
“Death Wish” opens with an introduction by Dahl, who rambles on for minutes in a rant that both fascinates the viewer and serves as a pretty damn good pitch for “Six Feet Under.”
“I’ve often wondered, haven’t you, what sort of man an undertaker really is. Is he a gentle, sensitive, generous person who undercharges madly because he cannot bear to profit from misfortune? Or is he a more sinister individual, who reads the obituary columns in bed at night and broods all day about the price of caskets? One doesn’t know. And none of us are in any hurry to find out either, because we all figure, quite rightly, that we are all bound to meet up with him in the end, just once.”
The episode opens in a funeral home, with George (Don Keefer) and his wife Hazel (Charlotte Rae) attending calling hours for someone or other. Hazel is blunt, brutal and addicted to the television, but not in an adorable way like I am. She seems genuinely unable to comprehend a life outside of sitting in front of the box, memorizing actors and storylines and considering the stories proof that Native Americans got what was coming to them, among other things. This woman is so dense that she can’t even fully comprehend a commercial. And so, of course, George decides to murder her.
Up until this point, “Death Wish” could fit into any anthology series easily, but that is when the really interesting stuff happens. An unseen narrator tells us that George is deciding what way to murder Hazel, but then stops at the problem of how to dispose of the body. At that moment, a wonderful twist of fate, he is passing the funeral home he was at earlier, and the Mortician (Heywood Hale Broun) is putting out a sign that reads: “Let Us Dispose of the Body.”
George can’t help himself. He goes inside to see the Mortician has a special sale on pine boxes and a “Do-It-Yourself Burial Kit.” It’s here that the audience is thrown for a loop. How serious exactly are we supposed to be taking the situation? Is this just a really dark comedy with no connection to logic? Or is writer Irving Gaynor Neiman just teasing us to throw us off balance?
The rest of the episode continues to toe that line beautifully, with the viewer unable to take any of it very seriously, but still remaining oddly invested in the goings on. The final twist is a doozy: George finally signs some forms to allow the Mortician and his assistant to “take care” of his wife, only to discover that he was literally signing his life away. His wife came in earlier and ordered the same package for him.
The dialogue has such ingenuity it almost feels like the characters are dancing around one another more than communicating. And the actors (none of which I’m familiar with) are well cast and fill their characters beautifully without turning into caricature (with the exception of Rae, who is purposely over-the-top). This is what makes the episode work, because it certainly isn’t anything else.
To call the sets cardboard would be an insult to cardboard. As far as I can see, the funeral home doesn’t even have walls. There are some creepy horror series candelabras in the funeral home that were obviously borrowed from the next set over, and the science lab is laughable. This entire production probably cost $50 in total. The camerawork makes soap operas seem creative in their storytelling.
But because the story is there, “Death Wish” works beautifully. There are only four episodes available on YouTube for view, and I can’t wait to try the others. I can fully understand why the series was cancelled after so few episodes – the humor is too adult for kids but the series was too much of a farce for adults. I’m pretty shocked that it has not gained the same cult reputation that shows like “Thriller” have managed to, because if this episode is any indication of the writing quality, it deserves to be.
The “Death Wish” episode of “’Way Out” is only available on YouTube.