“The Playground” is one of the most memorable episodes to arise out of the Ray Bradbury Theater series, and a heavy contingent of the show’s fans regard it as the best.
The story concerns Charlie (William Shatner), a widower salesman who refuses to let his son Steven go the playground up the street. Charlie’s sister, who helps look after Steven, protests: Charlie can’t protect Steven from the real world forever, and sooner rather than later Steven must adapt and learn to make friends his own age. As the story unfolds, however, we come to understand Charlie’s avoidance of the playground: as a young boy, he was tormented there by a bully named Ralph. Reluctantly, Charlie visits the playground, only to find it still inhabited by the presence of Ralph. In the end, Charlie confronts his childhood demons and Ralph, with the innocence and safety of his son at stake.
Despite the obvious low budget nature underpinning this and other like-minded anthologies of that era, the production of this episode and the way it is crafted to tell the tale is excellent throughout. Significant credit must be given to episode director William Fruet and his crew. Take the opening shot: the camera slowly panning clockwise through a playground, while a rapid, superimposed counterclockwise pan spins in reverse, creating an overall sense of dreaminess and disorientation as if we were on one of the playground’s spinning rides. The melancholic, glassy music and sepia tone add further to the mood. The playground’s slide, a key fixture in the story, is also used for some key shots. In one, Ralph sails down the slide and disappears in mid-descent. In another, Charlie rides the slide down and through a protracted series of shots the slide seems like it is three stories, rather than several feet, off the ground. There’s also a little bit of dark humor in the “Watch for Children” sign that graces the playground entrance.
One important creative choice that adds to this episode: we never truly see the playground from the standpoint of ‘reality,’ but always through the eyes of Charlie. From the very first time we are introduced to the playground as Charlie walks there alone to survey it for taking Steven, it comes off as a cold and cheerless place: always referenced at twilight or in the dead of night, with creaking, rusted accoutrements and crumbling autumn leaves blowing along its slabs of concrete. That is the way it remains throughout the rest of the story: a neutral territory at best, and a sinister dead-end at worst. And, of course, there’s the coup-de-grace: the nameless children who inhabit the playground. They unpredictably transform from playing innocents not taking any notice of Charlie at all, to suddenly dropping everything they are doing and gazing malevolently at him in silent unison as he enters its confines, like vultures eyeing a rabbit. By seeing the playground through Charlie’s eyes, we share his dread.
Given the necessary limitations of fitting a 30 minutes episode, Bradbury’s teleplay nonetheless gets in some nuance as well, choosing with economy what to disclose and what to hold back. There’s a poignant moment, for example, where Charlie reveals to his sister his childhood trauma involving the playground. He relates how he was chased home from school by Ralph and his cronies as a boy. Arriving at the front door of their home, he ultimately would be trapped because the door was locked and their parents still away at work. As the flashback scenes end with the young Charlie surrounded by the bullies (or, alternatively, poked and prodded at the playground in a manner suggesting merely the prelude to greater violence) and Charlie doesn’t describe in detail what exactly was done to him, our minds are left to fill in the blanks, and of course we imagine the worst. One might even hold as a plausible interpretation that perhaps Charlie was in some way sexually abused by Ralph and his group.
The ending of “The Playground” is unforgettably chilling. Though the final scene might not make a lot of sense to anyone who hasn’t read the short story (and even there, if I recall, the short story differs from the episode somewhat in its underlying thematic emphasis), it works completely on a primal, emotional level that does not require any words and leaves the viewer stunned. I remember the first time I ever saw this episode as a teenager. With the abrupt dissolve to the credits and the reprise of the somber keyboard music, even though I didn’t fully understand what had just taken place, I could only whisper a breathless “wow” to myself, feeling the impact of the closing in my gut.
William Shatner’s work in anthology shows seems to be among his best. Although a bulk of his appearances nowadays are given to an air of light camp and self-parody, it is easy to forget that he has also turned in some great performances. This role is one of them, and “The Playground” marks a classic episode for anyone interested in exploring this series.