01 June 2009

Twilight Zone: Time Enough at Last

Submitted for your approval: arguably the most famous episode of The Twilight Zone. If you only remember a single episode of the show, or are asked to name one off the top of your head, it’s this one.
Episode #8: Time Enough at Last
Directed by John Brahm. Written by Rod Serling from a short story by Lyn Venable. Starring Burgess Meredith.

“Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers. A bookish little man whose passion is the printed page but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He’ll have a world all to himself, without anyone.”

Eight episodes in and we’ve arrived at the show’s most famous half-hour. Amazing that Serling and company managed to keep the quality so high over another four and three-quarters seasons!

This is “the one with the nuclear holocaust and the prescription glasses.” Burgess Meredith plays Mr. Henry Bemis, a anti-social little fellow with eyeglasses the thickness of a submarine hull who only wants the time to read. His obnoxious wife won’t let him read at home (even going so far as to scribble across every single page of his book of poetry—is this woman OCD?) and when he tries to sneak reading time in at his dreary job at the bank, his boss threatens to fire him.

For the first half of the episode, the action plays like a depressing sitcom: funny from overstatement, but pathetic. Then Rod Serling waves the Twilight Zone magic wand, and a hydrogen bomb wipes out the entire world in only moments. But Mr. Bemis was reading in the bank vault and survives.

There’s a line in a sketch segment of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that confronts the “upside” of the End of the World: “Factor out the unfathomable human loss, and a fellow could really get a lot done.” That observation is a sly reference to this episode (and the sketch ends with a direct reference to it); what if the world ended, and it benefited you? That’s the situation in which Henry Bemis finds himself when he emerges into the post-apocalyptic wasteland. As he wanders the wreckage—well executed on a TV budget, although the inconsistency of what was destroyed and what wasn’t is head-scratching—he feels the depression we might expect if were the last person on earth. But suddenly . . . the Public Library! And mounds of books survived! (Why? I don’t know. I don’t care.) Bemis now at last has the only thing he ever wanted: all the time in the world to read, read, read.

Then the Universe Plays a Cruel Trick.

We could argue the message of the episode, since it seems to throw so many possible ones out there for our consideration. “Be careful what you wish for.” “Try to relate to people in your life more.” “Our culture is losing touch with the printed page.” “Nuclear war is bad.” And, of course, “Buy an extra pair of glasses, idiot.”

But what makes the episode work is the primal emotional punch to the gut it applies. Is Bemis’s fate a humorous tragedy or a plain tragic tragedy? Does it really matter? The weight of the loneliness of one man deprived of the only thing he ever wanted because of a simple slip, and left adrift in forever, is devastating. The strange “magic” of how the story came about—which doesn’t make the least bit of sense if examined—serves only to deliver a tale of the defeat of a simple human desire.

Although there’s a great script and fine technical work here, it’s Burgess Meredith who truly makes this episode one of the masterpieces of dramatic TV. Meredith had a long career in movies and television, and in everything he did he brought an indefinable spark. He could play comedy, villainy, heavy drama—his versatility is astonishing. Just look at his three most famous roles: the Penguin in Batman, Mick in Rocky, and Mr. Bemis here. Bemis is an excellent example of Meredith playing comedy and tragedy at once. His performance is a marvel, from his nebbish goofiness, to his fits of futile anger, to his moment of near suicide, to his joy at discovering himself surrounded by books, to his final cry of “It’s not fair!”

I have a personal connection to Burgess Meredith. He was the first actor whose name I knew as a child, from a combination of Batman, Rocky, and Clash of the Titans. And I got to meet him in person, about eighteen months before his death in 1997. I was working in a video store during the summer of my last year in college. During one nondescript afternoon shift, one of the other clerks dashed up to me and said, “Hey, Burgess Meredith is in the store!” I looked and quickly located him: a bent, short old man in blue sweats walking around with two young women, whom I learned were his granddaughters.

And, my lucky day, he walked up to my station to check out his videos. He reached up and deposited them on the counter, saying in that distinctive gravely (but wavering and low) voice, “I’d like to rent these, please.” I checked his videos out with shaky hands; I really wanted to say something to him, but what?

He started to walk out of the store with his granddaughters, and had to walk right beside the open section of my station. I had to do something. I reached down and tapped him on the shoulder. “Excuse me, sir—”

One of his granddaughters looked at him and said, “Granddad, that man would like to say something to you.” He turned around and looked up at me—I swear I could see those coke-bottle glasses from this episode—and I finally had to blurt out something.

“Sir, I just want to tell you that I grew up watching your work. Twilight Zone and Rocky and Batman.”

He paused for a moment, thinking. (He was dying from Alzheimer’s.) Then he said, slowly, as a smile crossed his face: “Ah yes . . . Batman! Thank you, young man.” And he patted my arm and walked out of the store.

I’ve met quite a few famous people in my life—I live in West L.A. and have worked in the film business—but that was the most incredible celebrity encounter of my life. Just a short moment, but I’ll never forget it. I met Burgess Meredith.

Uhm, so what was I talking about? Oh yeah, “Time Enough at Last.” Is it the best episode of the show? “No,” I would argue. There are a few I could name that I prefer. But the episode’s power is undeniable, and it speaks to people fifty years later without any lessening of that power. And Burgess Meredith left us with one of the most indelible performances in TV history.

“The best laid plans of mice and men and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis in the Twilight Zone.”