TV Review: “Hell Toupee”




When Amazing Stories debuted on NBC on September 29, 1985, hopes were very high. Because this series was being produced by Steven Spielberg, the network had taken the unusual move of ordering two seasons’ worth of episodes, anticipating that the box-office magic accompanying Spielberg’s name would translate into a ratings bonanza for this science fiction-based anthology series.

Such was not the case. Although initial ratings were good, they quickly dropped, and Amazing Stories was not renewed beyond its original two-season commitment.

As an anthology series, Amazing Stories had no regular cast or setting, and so one never really knew what might pop up from one week to the next. Toward the end of the first season there appeared an episode titled “Hell Toupee,” which is of some interest to the hair loss community.

Directed by the late Irvin Kershner (who also helmed The Empire Strikes Back, among many other films), “Hell Toupee” opens with a very young and notably nervous lawyer named Harry Ballantine (Tony Kienitz) arriving at the prison cell of his new client, Murray Bernstein (E. Hampton Beagle). Murray is miffed that such a novice has been assigned to defend him in his murder trial, but as Harry explains, because Murray is accused of ruthlessly killing three lawyers, the firm’s leadership would send only someone they felt was expendable.

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Harry quickly learns that Murray has no real recollection of the past week. The last thing the bald man remembers is looking in the window of Hair and Now, a toupee shop, and finding himself attracted to one particular toupee. After going in to try it on, his memory is a blank until the point that he was arrested for his triple homicide.

After pulling an all-nighter trying to get to the bottom of the case, Harry is distressed to see a morning newspaper headline announcing that yet another bald man has been arrested and accused of killing lawyers. The neophyte attorney quickly arranges to interview this new defendant and discovers his story is strikingly similar to that of Murray’s. Further, upon reviewing the evidence boxes for each man, Harry discovers that in both cases the envelope that is supposed to contain a toupee is empty.

Harry makes his way to Hair and Now, but the killer toupee has already been sold to and gained possession of a new victim. Having learned that the piece was made from the hair of a woman who had suffered at the hands of an avaricious lawyer claiming “reasonable rates” and that all of the murdered lawyers had similarly made such a claim in their ads, Harry deduces who the next intended victim will be. He arrives in time to save the man, but the hairpiece escapes into a toupee convention and it is only after a titanic struggle that the vile piece is subdued.

The episode ends with the toupee safely in police custody — until the balding officer assigned to guard it decides to try it on himself …

Since episodes built around bald characters don’t come along every day, it would be nice to report that “Hell Toupee” is a really good show. Unfortunately, it’s at best adequate in terms of its dramatic quality, although it is perhaps of some minor sociological interest.

As drama, the episode suffers from the creators’ decision to treat it as comedy. Granted, the idea of a killer hairpiece is inherently silly, but it’s not impossible to use the innocence behind a silly concept to create true horror. But, having opted to go the humorous route, the writers should have found genuine humor in the story. Instead, the humor is forced and obvious, and almost all of the intended gags fall flat.

Matters are not helped by Kershner’s direction, which for the most part lacks subtlety and which therefore only points up how lame the writing is. The cast tries hard, but only Cindy Morgan, as Harry’s long-suffering secretary, really stands out.

Sociologically, “Hell Toupee” at least has a bit more value. Considering that it was made for mass-market television in 1986, it’s slightly more enlightened than might be expected in terms of its treatment of bald characters. Granted, there are some laughs at the expense of the hairless men, but it’s not taken as far as might be expected. One could certainly quibble with the way in which the bald men are physically presented — a ridiculous checked jacket for one, a prissy bow tie for another, and so forth — but there’s less of this than there could have been, and many of the bewigged men at the hairpiece convention look just fine.

More importantly, there is a slight but noticeable hint of understanding concerning the fact that the bald characters are considering a toupee. One gets the impression that these men are like millions of bald men — just interested in finding a look that works for them and with which they can be comfortable. The fact that the writers and director didn’t choose to make them pathetic or overly delusional deserves a small nod.

Overall, “Hell Toupee” is not much of a TV show. But as an example of television taking tiny baby steps in acknowledging that hair loss is not comical for those who experience it, the episode deserves a tiny footnote.