“One for the Angels” isn’t a new idea, nor was it when this Twilight Zone episode originally aired in 1959. Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) makes a deal with Death (Murray Hamilton). Every storytelling tradition has variations on this theme, and most end with everything crashing. So if it’s so familiar, why keep telling this story?
In 1967, John Lennon sang “There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung / Nothing you can say, but you can learn how to play the game.” Lennon paraphrased that from the ever quotable Mark Twain, who wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea.” If the secrets some beginning writers are trying to sniff out do exist, one of them is that good stories, speculative or otherwise, don’t come from original ideas. The premises and plots of stories are recycled constantly. More eloquently put, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” The Exorcist was based on a true story, and the hundreds of movies in the possession genre follow that blueprint beat for beat. Plot is well and good, but audiences come to stories for the characters.
Lou Bookman (Ed Wynn) is a relatable character. Rod Serling’s script and Robert Parrish’s directing start winning the audience over for Bookman from the first shot. He’s hawking a suitcase full of toys and ties. Parrish starts the show with a closeup of a toy robot though. It might be cheap, but he’s shoving a toy robot in the face of an audience who presumably loves scifi. From there, Bookman goes home where he gives free toys to the children who are eagerly waiting for him on the stoop of his building. It’s not a good business strategy, but for getting an audience to like a character, it works.
Rod Serling’s opening monologue also points out Mr. Death (Murray Hamilton) and who he’s come for, which is of course Lou Bookman. The episode needs this because a likable character isn’t enough, nor is it necessary. It’s more important for the protagonist to be in peril. This is especially true in speculative fiction, where the worlds tend to be more dangerous. Star Wars wouldn’t have succeeded if it followed Luke Skywalker as he stayed to help Uncle Owen for another season on the moisture farm.
The other way “One for the Angels” really makes the deal with Death feel original is how it characterizes Mr. Death. He’s not the grim reaper with a black cloak beckoning with his boney finger. In this Twilight Zone rendition, Mr. Death is a businessman, who’s interested in “efficiency.” He’s visibly annoyed that Bookman can’t figure out what’s happening soon, complaining that no one ever understands. Mr. Death as this big company hatchetman is more comical than scary, and when Bookman persuades Mr. Death not to take him because he’s never made a “pitch for the angels,” it feels like a big win. In large part, it feels so good because Mr. Death is so familiar as a representative of the major corporations strangling our country.
Of course, nothing works out the way Bookman wants it to. Mr. Death needs a life at midnight, whether it’s Bookman or neighborhood girl Maggie (Dana Dillway). But Mr. Death refuses to let Bookman take his spot back in line.
I’m hard-pressed to believe that a single viewer doesn’t know what’s coming, but Serling isn’t trying to trick anyone though. Good stories don’t need to trick their audiences. It’s fun to watch Lou Bookman pitch Mr. Death. Death’s hair is rumpled. He’s draped an armful of ties over his arm and he buys every spool of thread that Bookman has. It’s funny. It satisfies Bookman’s request to “make a pitch for the angels” better than the episode lets on, given that Death is frequently represented as an angel. And best of all, it seems like Mr. Death might be playing along because he’d rather spare the little girl. None of it is particularly original, and it doesn’t have to be. Neither do your stories if you write them well enough.