Friday, February 14, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "From Agnes - With Love" (2/14/1964)

Season 5, Episode 20 (140 overall)
Originally aired 2/14/1964
Cayuga Production # 2629

50 years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone presented a love-themed tale for Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, it’s the equivalent of handing your sweetheart a box of shit instead of chocolates.

“From Agnes – With Love” starts somewhat promisingly: Agnes, the world’s most advanced supercomputer, is in complete disarray, and Fred Danziger, the programmer assigned to maintain her, has gone off the deep end. Fellow programmer and über-nerd James Elwood is called in to take charge of the situation. And it’s here, roughly 57 seconds in, that things go straight to hell in a painfully sharp vertical drop… unless you’re a big Wally Cox fan, that is. I am not. He is so horrendously annoying that, before the prologue ends, he’s already managed to displace James B.W. Bevis as the single most irritating character in the entire series.


Agnes begins coaching Elwood on wooing Millie, a coworker he’s crushing on. However, it becomes apparent very quickly (well, to us anyway) that Agnes is actively undermining his attempts by giving him bad advice. However, the oblivious and socially awkward Elwood somehow still manages to get Millie into his apartment, where she kills the lights and cuddles up to him… but of course he cluelessly fucks it up. Of course he does.

Agnes then instructs Elwood to introduce Millie to an “inferior” male in order to repair things. That “inferior” male is Walter Holmes, another programmer who would probably give Don Draper some serious competition in the bedding-all-the-ladies-in-the-office-pool department. Of course Millie immediately falls for him, and Elwood’s chances--- slim as they may have been--- are completely dashed. Of course they are.

“What did I ever do to you?” Elwood demands of Agnes, who reveals that there’s a better woman available to him: her! Elwood’s already-frazzled mind comes completely unhinged, forcing his supervisor to bring in yet another replacement: Walter Holmes. Repeat cycle ad infinitum.

“From Agnes – With Love” is the single worst episode of the fifth season. It’s not quite the worst of the entire series, but it resides squarely near the bottom of the barrel with other failures like “Mr. Bevis” and “Four O’clock.” It’s just awful. Stupid. Pointless. I could go on hurling negative adjectives at it for several paragraphs, but my goal is to waste as little time as I can on this (I’m already close to 400 words). 

So when we boil it all down, we have a supercomputer meddling in the lives of humans. Sound familiar? It should. We just saw this a few months ago in “The Old Man in the Cave.” I deemed that episode mediocre at best but, compared to this dreck, it suddenly looks like first season quality. 

Season five is peppered with man vs. technology stories beyond the two already mentioned. “Steel” and “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” are variations on this theme, as are (less obviously) “Uncle Simon” and “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” Five different writers are responsible for these six scripts, so it’s not a simple matter of Serling going overboard with the self-borrowing. It seems that, at least around Cayuga’s offices, man’s relative lack of control over his own technology was a very real concern. And it’s certainly a marvelous topic for exploration… it’s unfortunate that, more often than not, this potential is squandered by lazy, half-baked teleplays.


“From Agnes – With Love” inexplicably was deemed worthy of an original musical score, so Nathan Van Cleave was brought in. Van Cleave can usually be counted on for greatness (“Perchance to Dream”; “The Midnight Sun”), but there’s nothing of value here--- just more comedic crap along the lines of Fred Steiner’s “The Bard” or Van Cleave’s own “A Kind of a Stopwatch” from earlier this season. Like all fifth season original scores, it’s never had a soundtrack release; however, unlike most of them, it’s NOT available as an isolated track on the DVD and blu-ray releases (just like his “Black Leather Jackets” two weeks ago). This means the only way to listen to Van Cleave’s score (if you wanted to, that is) is to watch the episode. No thanks.


An actor like Wally Cox isn’t likely to have much in the way of sci-fi/horror/fantasy on his résumé, but Cox actually surprises with stints on Lost in Space (“The Forbidden World”) and Kolchak: the Night Stalker (“The Night Strangler”). Cox would cross paths with Rod Serling again in 1971 on Night Gallery (“Junior”).

Ralph Taeger (Don Drap--- er, Walter Holmes) may have gotten this gig based on his past work with director Richard Donner, whose 1961 film X-15 he co-starred in (along with TZ alums Charles Bronson and James Gregory). If the lovely Sue Randall (here playing Millie) looks familiar, it’s because we met her in season one’s “And When the Sky Was Opened” (incidentally the episode I attribute to making me a lifelong fan) playing a nurse. Is she a TZ Babe? Why yes, I’d say so.

Elwood’s unnamed supervisor is played by three-time TZ alum Raymond Bailey (we saw him previously in season one’s “Escape Clause” and season two’s “Back There”). Bailey has another very dear connection for me: he had a minor role in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece Vertigo (he played James Stewart’s doctor), which is my favorite film of all time. He also played doctors in 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man (written by frequent TZ scribe Richard Matheson) and 1958’s The Space Children (which was scored by--- yup, Nathan Van Cleave).

Don Keefer returns for his third and final Twilight Zone appearance (he was the travel agent in season four’s “Passage on the Lady Anne” and, more famously, the ill-fated Dan Hollis in season three’s “It’s a Good Life”). But his TZ connection goes even further back: he had a minor role in “The Time Element,” a 1958 production on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse that was written by Rod Serling and is considered by many to be The Twilight Zone’s true pilot.

Nan Peterson plays an unnamed secretary in her third and final TZ appearance (she played two similarly unnamed characters in season one’s “Walking Distance” and season two’s “The Whole Truth”). Incidentally, “From Agnes – With Love” was her final acting gig… maybe she was sick of going nameless. If it makes her feel any better, she qualifies as a TZ Babe with ease.

“From Agnes – With Love” is directed by Richard Donner (yes, that Richard Donner), who should’ve known better even this early in his impressive career (The Omen, Superman, and five other TZ episodes: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Sounds and Silences,” “The Jeopardy Room,” “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” and “Come Wander With Me,” all from this season).

With irredeemable crap like “From Agnes –With Love” being produced, even a diehard Twilight Zone fan like me is starting to look forward to the end. I get no pleasure out of saying that, but there you go. There are still a few decent efforts to come, but it’s mostly subpar from here on out. Gauge your expectations accordingly.

Next week:
Horseback chases! Time warps! Love triangles! Sounds awesome, right?  Um.... 


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that the TZ producers used a neat trick to get around the problem of (the lack of available) outsized text or video displays for Agnes's responses (the hidden answer area that opens its flaps). I had to admit, that was clever.


esvoboda said...

Regarding the score for this episode, if the electronic music & rhythms were created by Van Cleave, then I have to disagree that there is "nothing of value here". This has to be one of the - if not the - earliest example of electronic percussion in a soundtrack (about 21 minutes in). As a fan of early electronic music, I have to say that this is one of my favorite TZ episodes!