The Twilight Zone: “I Sing the Body Electric”/“Cavender Is Coming”
C+

The Twilight Zone: “I Sing the Body Electric”/“Cavender Is Coming”

C+

The Twilight Zone

“I Sing the Body Electric”/“Cavender Is Coming”

Season 3, Episode 35
C+

The Twilight Zone

“I Sing the Body Electric”/“Cavender Is Coming”

Season 3, Episode 36

“I Sing The Body Electric” (season 3, episode 35; originally aired 5/18/1962)

In which grandma is a robot

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and CBS.com.)

It’s a bit of a wonder that Ray Bradbury and The Twilight Zone only connected for this one episode. To be sure, the fingerprints of the science fiction master are all over the series, in its focus on short-form stories and its love of juicy twists, but this is the only script the author ever came up with for the series, and it’s obvious throughout that Rod Serling and company are treating him with kid gloves. For instance, when Serling’s narration popped up out of nowhere with about five minutes left in the episode—the better to speed things along to the point where the kids are going off to college and no longer have need of Grandma—it feels unprecedented. Indeed, the last time something like this happened was early in season one, which indicates the show had eschewed this possibility from its formula for a while. A show’s writing staff doesn’t switch up an ironclad foundation for just anyone, but if Ray Bradbury wants to write a script, well, you’ll be happy to bend a few rules, particularly for the episode that airs as your 100th.

According to Marc Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion, this was actually Bradbury’s third attempt at a script for the program, with his adaptation of two different short stories for seasons one and two, neither of which was actually produced. (The one in season two came very close, while the one in season one was rejected, possibly for being too expensive to shoot.) “I Sing The Body Electric” is unusual in the Bradbury canon in that it started life as a television script, became one of the author’s short stories in 1969, then became a television script again when it was reimagined as the special The Electric Grandmother (starring Maureen Stapleton and Edward Herrmann!) in the ‘80s. So in some ways, this can be considered a first draft of what Bradbury was going for, and like most first drafts, it’s not as good as it probably could be, which is a shame. More Twilight Zone Bradbury episodes would have been a good thing, but, as Zicree says, this will have to do.

There are plenty of good things in “I Sing The Body Electric,” but its ultimate failing is that it’s built on an absence the show never does a good enough job of showing to us, rather than telling us about. We know that these children have recently lost their mother, and we know that their father is at wit’s end as to how to have someone to provide a warm, maternal caregiver in their lives. But we’re rarely shown how the household is struggling in that absence, or how the children are forlorn without the woman who gave them birth. Perhaps because of the half-hour running time or perhaps because that’s what really interests everyone involved, Bradbury’s script races right past the mourning and straight into the grandmother construction, with Vaughn Taylor as our guide.

To be fair, the scene where Taylor, playing the salesman for robot manufacture emporium Facsimile, Ltd., guides the children and their father around his strangely darkened warehouse to show them all of the spare eyes and ears and arms he could append to their new robotic grandmother is a doozy. Taylor is clearly having fun with the role, and there’s a certain unrestrained glee in the idea of being able to construct a person, who will eventually become a vital part of your family and a trusted companion. This scene is also useful for delineating the differences between the younger sister Karen and brother Tom—who have fun with the idea of building an electric grandma—and older sister Anne—who is still reeling from the death of her mother. Directors James Sheldon and William Claxton (much of the episode was reshot) capture so much of this in smooth, fluid camera movements, rather than cutting between stations, giving the whole thing even more of a macabre vibe, particularly when it’s obvious that the various arms hanging from the wall (seen above) are just actresses sticking their arms through holes in the wall.

No, the problems arise in the scene after, when Grandma (ably played by Josephine Hutchinson) shows up on the scene to charm Karen and Tom and gradually worm her way into Anne’s heart. Many of the best Bradbury stories have an enchanting playfulness to them, and this episode aims for that with the scene where Grandma makes various toys appear for the children to play with (including string for a kite that appears to dispense from her finger), but something about the tone is just off. Maybe it’s because this is an episode of a show where the audience is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for somebody to reveal their true monstrousness, but there’s something about the wholesomeness of this sequence that feels weirdly predatory.

Oddly enough, it gets worse. Bradbury is known for his luxurious sentences, pieces of prose that ring with gorgeous words and vivid images. But that’s hard to put in the mouths of actors, and his dialogue here is often stiff and unconvincing (particularly when it comes from Karen and Tom, who are not played by the world’s strongest actors). Veronica Cartwright fares better as Anne, but what the whole thing is building toward—the idea that Grandma can never die, and that will be a good thing for the kids—just ultimately seems kind of dark. I’ve read the short story based on this and mostly enjoyed it, so maybe it’s just something in the performances, but Grandma occasionally seems to be present solely to get the kids to forget their mother entirely, rather than ease the mourning process. When she shoves Anne out of the way of the approaching car then bears the brunt of the blow, it seems like Anne might be about to learn a lesson about self-sacrifice from the robot she clearly despises. Instead, what she learns is that everything can be wonderful all of the time, which is a decidedly strange premise for a Twilight Zone episode.

I don’t want to get too down on this. The idea of preserving an emotion or a moment in amber is rampant in Bradbury’s work, so it makes sense that it would crop up here. And when the episode is dealing with the scenes that move the plot along—like that salesman scene or the car scene or the final scene where Grandma heads back to the factory to be repurposed—there’s a weird, beautiful efficiency to it. And Bradbury’s narration and dialogue is frequently beautiful, especially when it doesn’t strain too much for the profound. But one is also left with the sense that this could have been so much more. Somewhere in here, the emotions got tamped down. The opening could have had so much more sorrow, the middle so much more joy, and the end so much more sad sweetness. Instead, the episode feels about half finished, a draft of something that will become something better along the line but isn’t quite there just yet.

What a twist!: There isn’t one, really. Grandma just goes back to the factory once the children are off to college and have no need of her anymore.

Grade: B

Stray observations:

  • It feels weirdly appropriate to bump into Cartwright over here, since she also played a role (and a somewhat significant, Emmy-nominated one) over on the other TV Club Classic this alternates with, The X-Files.
  • I love the little box that the children hit buttons on to hear the various potential voices of Grandma read Whitman quotes. It’s such a Bradburyian device, at once warm and goofy and also shot through with literary pretension.
  • If you haven’t read it already, I’d love if you read my Nerd Curious piece on the works of Bradbury. It got buried on a busy week, and not very many people found it, but I’m really pleased with how it turned out.

“Cavender Is Coming” (season 3, episode 36; originally aired 5/25/1962)

In which Rod Serling really wants to get a show about angels on the air

(Available on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and CBS.com.)

For whatever reason, Rod Serling really, really thought he needed to get a broad comedy about helpful angels on the air. It sort of makes sense. The ‘60s was the era of the fantasy sitcom, the gimmicky shows that took really broad premises—I married a witch! My new friend is a Martian!—and turned them into at least somewhat involving grist for laughter. Though many of these shows weren’t on the air when Serling first attempted to make an angel-based comedy with season one’s “Mr. Bevis,” he must have been around Hollywood enough to know what was in the air and have some ideas of his own in that regard. The problem, as you’ve probably guessed, is that Serling isn’t a very good comedy writer, always aiming for broad shtick when more subtle gags might have been better, and his idea of an angel-based sitcom didn’t really have anywhere to go once, say, Mr. Bevis has met his guardian angel or once Cavender has helped out Carol Burnett. That’s not to say that ‘60s sitcoms couldn’t be wildly repetitive, but the fantasy sitcoms also best thrived when there was an element of surprise to how the magic powers would come in handy that week. It’s hard to imagine that happening with either of these episodes.

I sort of want to link to my review of “Mr. Bevis” and simply say, “That,” but I went back and reread it, and I was perhaps too charitable to that episode. (I continue to think it’s well-directed by William Asher, but it’s hard for me to remember much else about it beyond that. It’s also possible that the glow of “The After Hours”—a legitimate classic episode—had a halo effect.) Suffice to say that “Cavender Is Coming” is almost the same story, only here, the protagonist is the angel, instead of the human being said angel helps out. As a premise for a TV show, that makes more sense than a bumbling human being who’s constantly helped out by his guardian angel (the premise of the proposed “Bevis” series), but it really requires a light touch. Instead, “Cavender Is Coming” uses almost exactly the same story as “Bevis,” with the angel giving the woman everything she wants, only for her to realize it’s not what she wants. There’s no real conflict here, because we basically know where this is going from the first, even if we haven’t seen “Mr. Bevis.” The idea that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone is an old one in storytelling, and it seems to crop up in wish fulfillment stories a lot in particular. So there’s nothing remotely surprising here.

If “Cavender” has something to recommend it, it’s probably the performance of Carol Burnett, who does her best with Serling’s clunky comedic rhythms. As Agnes Grep, Burnett makes clear just why she loves the life she had and why she’s sad to see it go when Cavender takes it from her to give her everything he thinks she wants. There’s a lot of mugging here—Burnett never met a bit of broad comedy she couldn’t play to the hilt—but that tends to fit with Serling’s comedy stylings, which are over-the-top and goofy. Burnett also makes Agnes very sympathetic in the early dealings with her boss, making the moment when she loses her job that much more of a pressing concern. And, indeed, if this had been an episode about how Cavender helped her find a meaningful life that still allowed her to keep all of the things that made her happy, it might have been worthwhile.

Instead, the story becomes an up-and-back, with an extra layer of backdoor pilot for added fun. If you don’t get those TV writer terms, don’t worry. I’ll explain. The up-and-back is a story where a character confronts a problem, then solves that problem, returning to the status quo with nothing having changed. Usually, the character learns a lesson, at least, but in “Cavender Is Coming,” the lesson Agnes learns is that she likes her life the way it is. She doesn’t have a believable path forward to better her life, nor does she seem to have realistic feelings at all about the fact that she’s unemployed and struggling. She’s one of the happy poor, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but the only thing that frustrates her, really, is having stuff, which doesn’t feel all that realistic.

The backdoor pilot stuff, meanwhile, crops up in the scenes in Heaven, with the angels having the little wings that look like lobster claws. There’s a lot here that feels ripped off from It’s A Wonderful Life, from the twinkling stars seeming to be angel stand-ins to the idea of needing to earn one’s wings, and that’s not a bad idea for a series, I guess, particularly when one considers the way the final scene builds in a weekly episode premise, with only Cavender as the returning character from week to week (though I guess the other angel could have been his version of Orson from Ork). But the elements that exist solely to say, “Oh, goodness, think of the adventures we’ll have on a weekly basis with you, Cavender!” are particularly ham-fisted, much more so than anything in “Mr. Bevis” (perhaps because that was rethought once Burgess Meredith passed on starring in it). All too often, a backdoor pilot feels incomplete without a series to back it up, a failed evolutionary branch on the TV family tree. “Cavender Is Coming” doesn’t quite feel like that, but it certainly has a sense throughout of not fitting easily within The Twilight Zone.

Why was Serling so intent on getting a series about angels onto the air? I have no idea, and “Cavender Is Coming” didn’t suggest anything inherently exciting about the premise, either. But even if Serling had licked that particular problem and written the greatest backdoor pilot script ever (hugely unlikely, given his comedic deficiencies), the performance of Jesse White almost certainly would have buried the thing anyway. White’s a good actor, but his work here is all wrong for the part of a bumbling, well-meaning angel who stumbles toward the right answer in spite of himself. He seems too gruff, too ready to be frustrated with Agnes for not understanding that he’s giving her all of this cool shit, and she should just like it. In some ways, Cavender’s attitude seems to extend to the project as a whole. This is Serling’s second try at bringing you an angelic sitcom, America! Why can’t you just get with the program and like it? It would make things a whole lot easier for him if you did! Sadly, Serling never nailed the idea, and nobody ever picked up either of these series. But we have these two weird Twilight Zone footnotes to remember them by, and that makes them, in spite of Serling’s best efforts, immortal.

What a twist!: When Cavender gives Agnes everything he thinks she wants, it turns out she actually doesn’t want any of it. She wants her old life back.

Grade: C

Stray observations:

  • Apparently, this episode originally aired with a laugh track. All of the versions you can find airing now, including the versions on DVD and on streaming services, don’t have the laugh track, and I can’t find any video evidence of it. But I’m assured it exists.
  • According to Zicree, much of the stuff that happens to Agnes in the early going at her job was based on stories from Burnett’s real life, which may be why it’s the best material in the episode.
  • I liked the character of the terrified bus driver, magically transported to all sorts of vehicles but always fated to be the driver.

Next week: Zack wraps up season three with “The Changing Of The Guard.”

After that: The woeful, misbegotten fourth season of The Twilight Zone. You may remember it as the one with the one-hour episodes.