Season Three, Episode Fourteen
Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Five Characters in Search of an Exit is one of the most incredibly silly episodes of The Twilight Zone, even though the eponymous characters, for the most part, act very seriously throughout, and its plot description sounds like the set-up of a bad joke: a clown, a ballerina, a hobo, a bagpipe player and a military officer find themselves inhabiting a tall cylinder, rather than walking into a bar, with no memories of who they are or how they got there. It's an intriguingly simple and mysterious premise, and the episode plays out as one of the series' most self-conscious and autocritical; as the audience watches and begins to hypothesizing as to what might be going on, the characters join in as well, ticking off the various theories, including the obvious and the more complex, and quickly dismissing them, frustrating the audience by relentlessly teasing them as their attempts to make sense of the episode are smarmily discarded by a playful Serling. "We don't actually exist"; "we're characters in a dream"; "we're on a spaceship"; etc. until the clown declares there can be no other reasonable explanation other than that they are in Hell.
I suppose he's not too far off; the suspense builds right up until the end (although like many episodes of The Twilight Zone it'd be more effective, particularly on repeated viewings, at an abbreviated running time) as the newly arrived officer, played with desperation by the notable William Windom, passionately inspires his resigned fellow prisoners to attempt escape; they stand on one another's shoulders, and when Windom finally gets over the canister top, he slips and falls into a mound of snow. It's revealed that they are all dolls, thus their cartoonish archetypes, inhabiting a charity toy collection drive barrel. Oh. I guess you could argue the episode is a metaphor for the way that human beings find themselves trapped in a prison of their own complacency, how our world is a narrow loveless hell populated by people defined by nothing more than their profession, but it's hard to shake the feeling that this isn't anything more than a half-assed concept Serling got while staggering home drunk past a bell-ringing Salvation Army major. It's cleverly done, but deliberately so absurd as to surprise even the most hardened Twilight Zone veteran that the twist feals cheap and unduly snarky.
For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 21 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.