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Twilight Zone, Episode 3.36: Cavender is Coming
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by Chris Parry

"Carol Burnett turns a sci-fi series into an absurdist comedy. Great stuff."
4 stars

"Small message of reassurance to that horizontal young lady; don't despair, help is en route. It's coming in an odd form from a very distant planet, but it's nonetheless coming. Submitted for your approval, the case of one Miss agnes Grep, put on Earth with two left feet, an overabundance of thumbs and a propensity for falling down manholes. In a moment, she will be up to her jaw in miracles, wrought by apprentice angel Harmon Cavender, intent on winning his wings. And, though it's a fact that both of them should have stood in bed, they will tempt all the fates by moving into the cold, gray dawn... of the Twilight Zone."

Agnes Grep (Carol Burnett) is a complete goof. Every move she makes results in disaster. Everything she says comes out wrong. And as a result, her life isn't exactly where she wants it to be. Enter one Harmon Cavender (Jesse White), screw-up angel on a last ditch effort to win him some wings. If he can't make Agnes' life better, he's history. But fixing this woman's life is akin to reconstructing Rome.

If you look through the great paperback reference, the Twilight Zone Companion, you'll note that this episode is pretty rounded pounded by the author. He call is "terminally unfunny" and says it should have been retitled "Cadaver is Coming." He adds that Carol Burnett looks lost throughout and remarks that the writing is substandard.

I heartily disagree in every respect, though if the episode fails to be as funny as it could have been, sole blame has to go to the director. Jokes that could have been funny (if not entirely original) are ruined by bad editing and lacklustre pacing. Set pieces that should evoke uproarious laughs are weakened by bad camera angles and a lack of understanding for how comedy works.

But Burnett is perfect. Her every word seems almost adlibbed, every expression is perfect, and the physical aspect of her comedy is good enough to think that it was written for.

Which it was. Rod Serling originally wrote this piece as a pilot called Mr. Bevis, about an angel would would come to earth each week and try to earn his wings by helping someone (Sound familiar?), but the network bosses rejected it. A few years down the line, he decided it would be a perfect vehicle for Carol Burnett, a comedienne he so admired that he actually took some of her real-life experiences as an unsherette and opened the episode with them.

And to my way of thinking, it totally works. Oh sure, there are slow patches in this episode and the supporting cast are almost entirely terrible. Jesse White, best remembered as the always idle Maytag repairman over twenty years of TV commercials for the company, misses most of his marks, and seems to have been still stuck in the Vaudeville mindset when this episode was filmed. But all of that means nothing - two qualities put this among the upper echelon of Twilight Zone episodes for me.

The first quality is a single moment when the driver of a bus stops his vehicle, having seen it just turned into a horse drawn wagon, and then a convertible, then back to a bus again. He then turns to his passengers and says, "When the supervisor comes to claim this bus, tell him I quit." He then puts his hat down and in a fit of freak-out, dives through the driver's side window. Laugh? I nearly killed myself.

The second quality is a far larger part of the recipe - Carol Burnett. We all but ignore Burnett these days, having conveniently forgotten just what a pioneer in TV she was. She had her own show when TV was such a boys club that some wondered if any woman not called Lucy could carry her own series. She brought a new brand of comedy to TV, one laced with irony, sarcasm and a nuanced physical comedy that few could match. Burnett would take a fall if it sold a joke, and she mixed good looks with goofy grins to the point where you could never really count her out as a sex symbol, but never truly call her one either.

And Cavender is Coming proves all of the above and more. Forget the corny effects and weak production values (for some reason the theater that opens the show is more intricate than the 'Heaven' that so much of the show is located in). Get past the pauses where punchlines should be and side characters so weak they'd break in a decent breeze. Cavender is Coming is where comedy meets the Twilight Zone and shows it a thing or two. And I for one loved it.

Quick side note, while the original idea for this episode came from a TV pilot idea that was rejected, this episode was also put forward as a pilot for a new series, where Cavender would help a new Warthling every week. This idea too was rejected, and perhaps wisely. If the series didn't have Burnett to carry it, there really wouldn't have been enough to build a series around.

"A word to the wise now to any and all who might suddenly feel the presence of a cigar-smoking helpmate who takes bankbooks out of thin air. If you're suddenly aware of any such celestial aids, it means that you're under the beneficient care of one Harmon Cavender, guardian angel. And this message from the Twilight Zone: lotsa luck!"

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originally posted: 09/20/03 10:24:46
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This episode of Twilight Zone has been reviewed as part of an ongoing retro TV series. For more in the Twilight Zone Episodes series, click here.

User Comments

1/02/16 Fulton Street Adequate, worth seeing. Burnett is capable & up to the task. Besides, Jesse White pulls a l 3 stars
1/24/13 Helen Weathers The worst piece of TV I have ever seen. 0 stars. You can only give a minimum of 1 here. 1 stars
1/17/07 David Pollastrini not great, not terrible 3 stars
7/28/06 David Cohen Canned laughter!? Burnett is lost in an episode that doesn't even feel like the TZ 1 stars
11/19/05 BrendaS918 Angels and fools 3 stars
4/04/04 Matt Vandermast Throughly incompetent; a famous turkey 1 stars
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  25-May-1962 (NR)
  DVD: 28-Jun-2005



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