The Twilight Zone: “Mr. Bevis”/“The After Hours”
A

The Twilight Zone: “Mr. Bevis”/“The After Hours”

“Mr. Bevis” (season 1, episode 33; originally aired 6/3/1960)

In which a guardian angel is disappointed with his assignment

I kind of expected to hate “Mr. Bevis.” I watched it a couple of years ago for our backdoor pilot inventory—it was reportedly the first time Rod Serling got it in his head to try making a show about a bumbling guardian angel, an idea that would reach full fruition in a couple of seasons—and I didn’t think much of it at the time. I found it too obsessively goofy and trying too hard to be wacky, in that way where you know Serling really thought this was just funny as hell and nobody around him had the heart to tell him that he was forcing the issue. It doesn’t help that the episode starts with Mr. James B.W. Bevis trying to slide down a bannister at the behest of a little kid, then flipping off and tumbling down the stairs to the building outside as goofy music plays. We were in the land of forced pratfalls, and I wasn’t gonna smile, dammit.

But a weird thing happened as “Mr. Bevis” went on. I started to get into it—to a degree that I hadn’t before. The more I watched it, the more it struck me as a Twilight Zone version of something like a Wes Anderson movie. The odd framing. The strange props. The stilted line readings. The over-the-top characters who play everything naturalistically. You could very easily see Anderson directing a big screen version of this tale, though he’d ideally do so only after his career had fallen apart so far that he was taking studio work for hire. Mr. Bevis remains an irritating character—a TV writer’s vision of what an affable nutball might be like and not actually an affable nutball—but the episode somehow makes that work for it. Or perhaps I was feeling charitable because the next episode is such a corker.

I think the reason this episode works is because the guardian angel, J. Hardy Hempstead (as played by Henry Jones), just has no patience whatsoever for Mr. Bevis’ shenanigans. As played by Orson Bean, Mr. Bevis becomes the kind of guy where you can sort of see what other people see in him, but to you, he’s just an irritating buffoon. (I’m counting this as a credit to Bean’s performance.) If you’re the little kid who lives in the building and only has to put up with Mr. Bevis for a few minutes of every day, you probably think he’s pretty fun. If you’re his boss, and you have to put up with this idiot ruining your bottom line all of the time, you probably can’t wait to find an excuse to fire him. And if you’re his guardian angel and have to watch him all of the time, well, you’re probably just as irritated with him as the viewer probably is.

That’s a tough line to walk in an episode like this. Bevis has to be believably idiotic and silly, but he also has to be the sort of person whose silliness feels weird and charming, instead of forced, so that we root for him to return to the original Mr. Bevis when he’s stuck in his “Normal Bevis” persona. I’m not entirely sure this episode nails that dichotomy, but it comes damn close, which is more than I can say for some of the show’s other efforts in the comedic category. Serling was never terribly good at writing these kinds of broad, comedic scripts. He could do a one-liner or a good joke under pressure or a great closing gag, dark with portent, but he couldn’t really string a bunch of them together into a whole episode. Twilight Zone comedy episodes are full of forced whimsy and shenanigans, and you always expect everything to be scored by a calliope.

To a degree, that’s true of “Mr. Bevis” as well. In general, any moment when Bean is playing drunk, and we’re watching the world react to him talking to a man nobody else can see is probably a little too broad to really work. These are some of the oldest, hoariest jokes in the book, and Serling doesn’t really bother updating them. But Hempstead is such an irritated presence, constantly bitching about how he’s had to watch over Bevises for ages, and now, he’s got to watch over this galoot that it makes all of this funnier than it has any reason to be. For those who watch the episode and just love the whimsical Mr. Bevis, here’s an unexpected villain: an angel! For those who watch the episode and find him tiresome, here’s somebody to share our opinion of the central character.

In particular, I like that this episode subverts what we expect the guardian angel to normally do. Yes, he points Bevis toward the path he should be on, and yes, he helps the guy out in the end (by first returning his clunker car to working order and then moving a fire hydrant so Bevis doesn’t get a ticket). But you get the sense that he really does think as soon as Bevis gets a taste of being a normal adult—wearing a nice suit and getting promotions at work and driving a little sports car—he’ll come right ‘round and stop dragging kids by the office to sing Christmas carols and decorating his desk with taxidermy projects and racist clocks. Instead, Bevis is really sad about everything he’s lost, and Hempstead begrudgingly has to return him to the life that was, but not without still making a few small improvements. It’s an It’s A Wonderful Life scenario, but it doesn’t happen in any way you might predict.

It’s this subversion and this willingness to let Bevis be both someone a certain portion of the audience will just despise that makes the episode work. In fact, even if the episode started out in such a way that I wasn’t a big fan of Bevis, I was quite fond of him by the end, and I was glad he got another shot at completing his model ship and starting over again. This is an episode that accomplishes perhaps the hardest trick of all: It takes someone who would be all too easy to dislike, then makes them likable without really changing them at all. Instead, we’re taken on a journey with someone who more or less shares our point of view—why don’t you just grow up?—then made to realize that he’s already living the life he wants, and who are we to take that away from him, especially if it brings others joy? “Mr. Bevis” isn’t a perfect episode, but it manages the neat trick of going from annoying to heartwarming, and few other episodes in the Zone catalogue can claim that.

What a twist!: When Bevis is given the life he’s always wanted—cool car, promotion, nice clothes—he rapidly realizes he’d rather be a well-loved goof.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • Favorite Wes Anderson-y moment: the use of portraits throughout, whether it’s the pan down from the portrait of the boss to the boss’ face or the use of the changing portrait of Bevis’ ancestors. Director William Asher has a lot of fun with this script, and it adds to the whole thing.
  • That Bevis just loves playing the zither is somehow the most salient detail about him. That tells you absolutely everything you need to know, and it’s no wonder Serling keeps returning to it.
  • No, seriously, that clock on Bevis' desk: What was up with that?

“The After Hours” (season 1, episode 34; originally aired 6/10/1960)

In which a woman gets locked in a department store

There are few things creepier to me than being in a public space after hours, when you know you shouldn’t be there. I once worked a job for a political campaign, where our office was on a solid Main Street of the sort you might see in a Frank Capra movie, and my coworker and I would be there until 1 or 2 in the morning some nights. And the lights all up and down the street would go off, and the cars would gradually drift away, and eventually, it would just be us, hurrying to get done so we could get to sleep, all alone in the middle of nowhere America. We’d come out, and the whole world would be empty, and it would feel somehow like a violation, like we shouldn’t have been there.

But that’s true of any big, public place in the middle of the night. If you’ve ever been in a church or a hospital or a school after hours, you know. There’s something weird and unsettling and magical about finding yourself in a place that should be filled with people and being one of the only ones. And then, of course, you start to hear noises, start to see things moving, start to wonder if you’re really so alone. Your brain’s trying to fill in the phantoms that should be there—the fellow members of the congregation or the other people waiting for news or the students—but it can’t find them. And so it constructs them out of whole cloth, and a poster or a picture or a mannequin comes to seem like an actual human being until you realize it’s not.

“The After Hours,” which is just a terrific episode, makes great use of this unease. In terms of pure scares, this might be the strongest single half hour of the first season. Really, only “The Hitch-Hiker” comes close. There were better episodes this season, but I don’t know that there were scarier ones, and once the episode closes our heroine, Marsha (a fantastic Anne Francis), up in the department store by herself after hours, this thing is set. That long, weird sequence where she wanders among the mannequins, and you wonder if they’re moving, and you know they can’t be, and then they start to speak… that’s just terrifying stuff, especially once director Douglas Heyes starts diving right at their faces in tight dollies and zooms. Heyes gets that there’s something awful and unearthly about a mannequin, and he makes maximum use of that, as well as all sorts of other odd visuals, like those odd men in ski masks standing as sentinels as Marsha slowly realizes who she really is. (He also gets great use out of Bernard Herrmann’s score, which originated in “Where Is Everybody?”)

The episode itself is fairly easy to predict. Honestly, just the summary of the episode suggests that the mannequins will be up to something, and once Marsha realizes that the woman she bought the gold thimble from is actually a mannequin, pretty much anybody who’s seen this show before will start putting two and two together. But to the episode’s credit, it doesn’t really belabor this point where other episodes might have. In another episode, we might have wasted much more time with the department store employees, trying to track down the mysterious employee who helped Marsha, and we might not have gotten to the after hours material until the last five minutes, and it all would have felt rushed and unsatisfying.

But Serling’s script for this one is just about perfectly paced and pitched. He’s already playing off our sense of unease about empty public places when he sends Marsha up to that weird, abandoned ninth floor—the one we later learn shouldn’t be there—and he rockets along from there, taking us through his very favorite “Sure, she seems crazy, but she just might be on to something” tropes and tossing one terrific idea after another at the audience. What’s more, once you know the closing twist, all of this becomes even more poignant, making it an episode that works almost better on a rewatch than on a first watch. Once you know that Marsha doesn’t have a mother, her search for a gift for that mother becomes all the more poignant. And once you know the people she encounters in the department store have had something very precious to them robbed from them by her absence, it adds a kind of tension and weight to the scenes where she talks to the elevator operator or the saleswoman.

But that’s all prelude to the episode’s masterful last half, in which nobody remembers to let Marsha out of the store so she can come back tomorrow and get a refund for her thimble. She’s trapped inside with the shadows and the voices and the mannequins that keep rocking back and forth. (None of whom, I might add, are Kim Cattrall.) Once she passes out, you half expect the episode to gradually lose steam, but it pivots elegantly from outright horror to extreme weirdness, as we get a funny little look into the lives of mannequins after hours in a department store. That procession where Marsha is being carried toward the place where she will resume her true status as someone who never moves or speaks during the day is both eerie and beautiful. It’s exactly what you expect to be happening behind the scenes of a department store after hours, too, exactly what your lizard brain tells you those mannequins get up to when you’re not around.

The resolution is kind of silly, but I love the idea of Marsha having to be reminded she’s not normal, that she’s someone who only pretends to be and will have to return to her “real” life now that her sojourn among the living is over. Serling’s closing narration—about wondering who, exactly, you’re passing on the street when you walk by them—is also very silly, but there’s something weirdly poetic about this notion of someone getting one month to be what they want to be, then having to give it all up for the other 11 months of the year. It feels rather like a fairy tale, and it’s not hard to see this sort of a story being turned into a story of wishes granted and hopes achieved for little kids.

There’s something in this episode I can’t shake, even quite a while after watching it. I don’t know if it’s the quiet of the store after hours or the way Marsha eventually relents, even though you can tell she doesn’t want to. I don’t know if it’s the way the next woman on the schedule heads off to happy applause or the way Marsha hangs back, only to be frozen the next morning. Or maybe it’s the smiles of sheer delight on the faces of the other mannequins once they’ve been reanimated, the way that they seem to be thrilled to have this one moment of life. Or maybe they’re just happy to see Marsha again. Maybe they missed her. Maybe they want her to suffer just as much as them. There’s so much mystery here, and it’s hard to shake.

Or maybe it’s this creeping fear I think we all have, this sense that on some level, we’re all frozen in place, watching people who have everything we could ever want and don’t know it walk by. And they recede further in the distance, blithely unaware that we’re stuck here, waiting for the doors to close, that we might breathe again.

What a twist!: Marsha’s a mannequin!

Grade: A

Stray observations:

  • I love the way the episode suggests that Armbruster recognizes Marsha when she’s been re-mannequined. I like to imagine that this leads to him realizing that one of his mannequins goes missing every month, and he gradually goes insane.
  • I love how little explanation we get for the thimble. So much of this story feels like it exists beyond the edges of the screen, and I think that’s what I’m responding to.
  • One of the things I love about this show is seeing mid-20th century America again, and here, it’s the big city department store that gets resurrected. These aren’t long for this world in most American cities, if, indeed, they haven’t been bought out by Macy’s or Target or Wal-Mart, and it’s nice to remember a time when these giant stores took up whole city blocks and were pillars of their communities.

Next week: Zack reaches the end of season one with robot baseball players and magic playwrights. 

Filed Under: TV, The Twilight Zone

More TV Club