Mr. James B. W. Bevis is a likable man who is perhaps a little too genuine for the modern world. He’s lost six jobs in a year and eleven in a year and a half. He’s just lost his car, and been evicted. Things are going wrong for Mr. Bevis and while taking the edge off at the local bar, he finds he has a guardian angel.
I found myself teetering between liking this episode to being really upset by it before coming back to actually loving it. Hey, sometimes, it’s a rollercoaster! Bevis is loved by children and his coworkers, has a youthful heart and a smile on his face for all he encounters, spreading joy wherever he goes. So when things start going wrong for him, it felt like he was being punished for being so real. I could not help but be reminded of Marcus in Babylon 5 who said that “I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?’” James B. W. Bevis doesn’t deserve the bad things that happen to him so why does Serling write him into that scenario and then top if off with the notion that to succeed you have to be a cold business man? Someone who dresses as “an undertaker” and shows no joy in life? Is it because that’s what people expect in the real world? Bevis believes in the “magic of a child’s smile, the magic of liking and being liked…” yet we’re told that to succeed means to put all of that away. “They won’t play with you. Not anymore.” That’s a heartbreaking realization and rings depressingly true today.
Then Bevis has an epiphany; one that should serve as a reminder to us all. He realizes that success comes in all shapes and sizes and one doesn’t have to be on a corporate ladder to be a success. He is the embodiment of Emerson’s definition of a success, happy in the idea that he can make people smile. He’s failed time and again on the traditional path to success, but is indomitable on the path that brings happiness to those around him. And this is where the episode took on such meaning for me. Bevis gets rewarded for staying true to himself. His car magically reappears, but when a police officer comes to ticket the car for being parked near a fire hydrant, the hydrant magically moves to being next to the police vehicle. It was as if Bevis’s guardian angel was saying, “good job for staying the course and not giving in. Being genuine counts for something!”
This is one of those wonderful episodes written by Serling where he creates characters with believable, complex names (J. Hardy Hempstead, Peckinpaugh, James B. W. Bevis) and personal shortcomings that are quiet endearing. “Oddball” may be the right term for Bevis, but who wouldn’t love to have that happy chappie beaming a smile to everyone he passes? This is Serling doing what Serling does best: making us care about someone and then giving us a positive message at the same time. This isn’t the bleak message that is often associated with The Twilight Zone, but a positive one where something good happens to a good person. It might not be considered a classic of the series – in fact, one website I found puts it at 147 out of 156! – but I loved it. It made me want to find a banister to slide down, just as the guardian angel almost does. Perhaps it is a bit cliched though I don’t know if I’d say it’s predictable since it has a happy outcome, unlike so many Twilight Zone episodes. Above all, it reminds us to appreciate what we have and make the most of it; to never give up, even when the world tells us we have to change. As the Bard himself reminded us, to thine own self be true; a valuable lesson even in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
After a weirdly inferior opening title sequence, we meet James Bevis, a man who likes stuffed animals (fair enough), zither music (ok), professional football (idiot), Charles Dickens (how childish), moose heads (erm…), carnivals (who doesn’t?), dogs (all the best people like dogs), children (yeah… well, ok), and young ladies (how young?). His life possesses “all the security of a floating crap game”. I have no idea what that is, but I absolutely refuse to play it.
That’s our description of Bevis, which doesn’t sound particularly odd, so how about what we actually see? Well, he’s a man who slides down the banisters, gets given an apple a day by a street vendor, and thinks it’s a good idea for children to breathe in as much of his toxic exhaust fumes as possible. He has lost 11 jobs in 18 months. Normally the word for that is “loser”, but here writer Rod Serling is clearly going instead for “quirky” and maybe a bit childish. Bevis doesn’t drive a sensible car, because that would be boring. His home is packed full of fun things, and his desk at work is covered in junk, including a highly questionable clock.
It’s not surprising he gets the sack. His personality is ideal for making friends, especially among the neighbourhood kids, but it’s not well-suited to holding down a job. You can see how his boss (and lots of other people) might find him irritating, and the boring truth of the matter is that life as we know it would grind to a halt if everyone behaved like Bevis. We might want to go on being children forever, but we can’t. In the end, somebody has to be the adult. So when Bevis gets his guardian angel, J. Hardy Hempstead (isn’t Serling great at coming up with names!), the angel recognises that the easiest way to change Bevis’s life for the better is to change Bevis. He gets sensible clothes, a sensible car, and the neighbourhood kids don’t like him any more. It’s hard to see how Hempstead ever thought this was going to be sustainable. Bevis is at work for all of half a minute before he walks right out again. He’s not just bad at his job because he has a racist clock on his desk and a bow tie round his neck, although those are both very bad things indeed. He’s bad at his job because he’s bad at his job. You can change the clothes, but you can’t change the man inside the clothes. By the end of the episode, the angel has realised that he is going to have to work a bit harder at his job, and afford Bevis some lucky breaks without changing him. Good luck to Hempstead.
Henry Jones plays the angel exactly as you would expect him to be played, friendly and likeable, but on a very fundamental level he is the antagonist here. There’s certainly something a bit weird going on when an angel wants to stop somebody from inviting carol singers into an office, whilst grudgingly acknowledging that it went over well within his “organisation”. But I think that’s the point here. Hempstead has simply made the assumption most of us would make about Bevis: he needs to grow up a bit, in order to be successful and happy. That ignores the fundamental truth that success and happiness are not the same thing.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, I learned a lesson that many people learned: you can work less, earn less, spend less, and be much, much happier. So many people realised they were on a treadmill they didn’t even know they were on, until they were pushed off of it by circumstances beyond their control. In this episode of The Twilight Zone, Bevis realises that the most important thing in his life is to be himself and live his life in the way he wants to, and his guardian angel has to reach that understanding as well. More importantly, he makes other people happy the way he is. The kids love him, the fruit-seller loves him (and doesn’t love the businessman), and take a look at how he is greeted on the two occasions he arrives at the office; it’s subtle but very clever, and the other actors do a very good job of managing to convey their affection for their quirky colleague the first time round, and their total indifference to him the second time. So this is an episode that advocates allowing people to be themselves, even if their interests include mindless nonsense like professional football. Live and let live. I wouldn’t give him a job, though. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The After Hours