Back in the early 90’s, I was just over 20 years old and would spend the weekends with my friends. We started out most Friday nights with a movie then we’d grab dinner and hang out all night often with video games or board games and lots of discussion about whatever movie we saw. In 1993, we saw a movie about a man who had just about as much as he could stand. Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas, was a powerhouse. In almost every respect, we could relate to the things he encountered and we were only in our 20’s. I can’t help but reflect on that movie more and more as I get older. From traffic, lying merchants, dishonest salespeople, crass people, rude people… the list goes on. Ironically nearly all of those things are about the bad stuff people do! Then after nearly 2 hours, Douglas delivers a chilling line: “I’m the bad guy? How’d that happen?” I remember Douglas, who played a guy named Bill, telling the cop, Prendergast (played by Robert Duvall) that he was lied to. Prendergast asks if that’s what his whole issue was about. He says, “…they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish!” And that’s what makes it such a weird movie. The good guys lie and it’s ok. The bad guy stands up to the liars and somehow he’s doing the wrong thing! I get it: the writers couldn’t condone Bill’s actions; they had to play him as the bad guy while simultaneously sharing the frustrations we all feel with an audience who could relate.
The thing about that movie is that we get 2 hours to get to know the characters and follow a descent into insanity – if that’s what you want to call it. Serling is a master at crafting a good name for the character but I question his ability to tell a strong narrative. Archibald Beechcroft starts off as a miserable man and he ends in a very slightly improved state of misery. He’s annoyed with life in Manhattan (or whatever overcrowded city we had as our Manhattan stand-in) because he doesn’t like the hustle and bustle, but let’s face it: that’s life in a busy city. I hate it too! I worked in Manhattan for years and it sucks being on crowded subways being jostled by everyone on the platform with you, but I don’t hate people for it. When I’d had enough, I looked for another job and moved to a nice, quiet area of New Jersey and a job that I love working with some of the best people on Earth! Archie dislikes people so much that he learns to concentrate to the point of making people go away. My own personal hell, though I know some people who see that idea as heaven sent. When he feels lonely within less than 24 hours, he creates a race of himself and gets a good look at what a jerk he is, so he finally makes people come back. He never really learns, he just settles. He never grows!
The 25 minute format could be an issue, but I think the director could easily have shown a calendar, then show it again moments later on a different date, thus indicating a passage of time. Had Archie been living though this nightmare for months, I might have bought into his misery and loneliness. I love being around people but when I get home to a quiet house, I do enjoy it. But if that was the norm, I’d be a wreck. This guy hates being around people so one would think a few hours would be heaven for him; it should take months to get to the point he gets to in just one day. Then he really demonstrates his asinine behavior when, as a “diversion” he creates an earthquake and an electrical storm. That’s a diversion? How about bubonic plague? Covid-19? Give me a break! A diversion is a one-player game! A person to play a quiet game of chess with! A good book!!! No, that’s too intellectual for this guy! He draws a mustache on a picture and laughs which just show us what a dope he is!
Serling is such a good storyteller, it’s heartbreaking to see so much of the season being about really hard-to-like people. Each episode I want to like. My feelings about this show were so positive when I was a kid, but there’s a difference to the way I view things now; I don’t sit back and turn off my brain. When I watch today, I actually think about what I’m watching and notice when things fail. Take that subway after all the people vanish… how did the train move without a driver? For me, unlike Bill in Falling Down, Archibald Beechcroft was the villain from start to finish and I don’t need to wonder how that happened. But maybe that’s just me and I’m living in The Twilight Zone! ML
The view from across the pond:
I’m sure many of us can sympathise with the frustrations of Archibald Beechcroft in The Mind and the Matter when he feels like there are just too many people around. We are an overpopulated planet, and “jamming into an elevator like part of a herd of cattle” or squeezing into a busy train is a part of the daily commute to work for a lot of people, particularly in busy cities. But I don’t think many people would go as far as Mr Beechcroft:
“I’d eliminate the people.”
This could have been such a gloriously sinister episode. It would have been so easy to make it really disturbing, but the only times that happens are by accident: the jarring view of an empty street from an office window, and the sight of a bunch of people wearing Beechcroft masks, in a failed effects shot that plays havoc with the uncanny valley response. Elsewhere, the idea of Beechcroft interacting with himself is achieved very well, with mirrors or a clever pan from one desk to another, each one with a Beechcroft sitting there.
As we have come to expect from a Serling script, especially a comedy one, there are lots of problems with this. The idea could have been much more thought-provoking, but only if delivered with either (a) some attempt at frightening the viewers, or (b) a modicum of subtlety. The latter would have been preferable, but instead Beechcroft is an all-or-nothing kind of guy. He basically turns into a god, and can do anything, so why not try out a world with fewer people? Why does it have to be overcrowded or empty? Not for one second do his actions prick his conscience, either. He behaves in a completely illogical manner, going to work when the work he does has been rendered pointless, and getting bored without trying out any activity other than filing paperwork and making a paper aeroplane. This is a problem that affects several episodes of The Twilight Zone, with the protagonist getting his wishes granted and then either screwing it up or getting bored immediately, when it would make more sense for that process to take months, if not years. Often it seems like the only way Serling can make his scripts work is to populate them with idiots. Just look how Beechcroft childishly draws a moustache on a poster (is that the only form of entertainment he can think of?) and then looks around furtively as if somebody is going to be watching.
I get that this is an attempt at comedy, and comedy doesn’t necessarily have to follow the rules of logic (although it’s almost always better if it does), but that would be a better excuse if it were actually funny. Did people laugh at this kind of stuff in 1961? The things people find funny do change over the years. Look at what Shakespeare thought qualified as comedy, for a start. Or how about the world’s oldest surviving joke, from 1900BC:
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
OK, that is actually quite amusing, but whether or not viewers in 1961 were chuckling at the sight of Mr Beechcroft talking to his zany alter-ego in the mirror, I have come to expect that these comedy episodes are probably not going to raise a smile, let alone a chuckle. If they make us think instead, that’s fine, and this one does… just.
“Solitude is one thing, but loneliness… loneliness is quite another.”
It’s the latest in a long line of Twilight Zone episodes that tell us to be careful what we wish for. It’s a valid moral, but it’s a shame that it wasn’t delivered this time in a way that made a bit more sense. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?
I remember the film Falling Down too and how it similarly impacted me. As a testament to how The Twilight Zone has continually influenced so much in our TV and cinema fiction, it certainly keeps me thinking about how and why we may empathize with specific characters. Even if they may be bad guys who inevitably get their comeuppance in anthology episodes. Thankfully that’s one of the best gifts from our entertainment. It can enable us to see values in the kinds of people through such characters that we may otherwise find too hard in real life. As for one of the most repetitious anthology messages, namely being careful with what we wish for, and how it’s much more relevant today thanks to our education on the Law of Attraction, such TZ episodes may still hold up. But it was better when the TZ could somehow break into the new territory. The last two Season 2 episodes especially qualified and I look forward to your reviews on them. Thanks.
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One of the few TZ comedies that lands more than misses. Shelley Berman, who was a very popular stand-up comedian at the time with his best-selling albums does a good job. If you ever hear a Berman album of the day you’ll get a better sense of why he was cast in this part and how this episode was tailored around his particular style of stand-up monologues.
It’s kind of amusing that Serling gives us a character named “Archibald Beechcroft” and not long afterwards in the Season 3 closer “The Changing Of The Guard” one of the student’s is *Artie* Beechcroft. I guess Serling had a fondness for that name and its similar variants!
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I think most authors with a large output of work do that. As a Doctor Who fan, Terry Nation comes to mind straight away, a writer who loved a Tarrant 🙂
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