Rod Serling—Requiem for a Television Heavyweight

Rodman Edward “Rod” Serling (December 25, 1924–June 28, 1975) was an American dramatist, novelist, television producer, and media personality best known for his work writing for and hosting his phenomenal science fiction anthology series The Twilight Zone.

The name of Rod Serling is accorded a unique status in the history of television. From his earliest work, he established himself as a first-rate storyteller and a purveyor of challenging drama for the infant medium. With his best work, he challenged us to examine social concerns and to take a stand in an age of marginal morality. All of his landmark dramas—Patterns, The Rack, Requiem for a Heavyweight, A Town Has Turned to Dust, and The Rank and File—exhibit his deep concern for the human condition. With these, Serling took his place among the other representatives of the “golden age of television”—Robert Alan Aurthur, Paddy Chayefsky, Ernest Kinoy, Reginald Rose and Gore Vidal—as an entertaining goad to the public conscience.

In the space of eight years, Serling won the Emmy Award six times for best teleplay writing, a record unmatched by any other writer to date. He was the first playwright recognized by the George Foster Peabody Awards. And in the aftermath of The Twilight Zone, he has become one of the most recognized writers on the planet. Serling’s most enduring legacy, however, stretches beyond the special qualities of the numberless fine teleplays he left behind, our fascination over his gifts, or his fame. On a far greater scale, he acted as gadfly to the television industry, fighting against the threats of censorship, mediocrity, and the medium’s gradual drift into a fat and lazy complacency. Serling well understood the medium’s power and potential, and his struggles to keep television relevant and provocative have repercussions to this day. Those he inspired with his imaginative gifts have carried this spirit of dissent and enlightenment forward within the industry, and as such Serling’s influence is as broad as the mass media, as far-reaching as the most distant satellite transmission.

Night Gallery on DVD—the Fans Rejoice!

Fans have rightly hailed the long-awaited release of the final season of Night Gallery on home video, and the series is now finally complete on DVD, including all the favorite episodes, some rarely seen footage, and long-missing episode segments.

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In August 2004, Universal Studios released a three-DVD set of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery that included the 1969 pilot film and the first season. November 2008 saw the release of the second season, plus some special features: a 30-minute documentary on the history of the show; a menu featuring close inspection of 33 of the second-season paintings, with commentary by artist Tom Wright; audio commentary on three episodes by NG fan Guillermo del Toro (director of Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Pan’s Labyrinth, and The Devil’s Backbone); audio commentary on three episodes by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson (authors of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour); and some NBC commercials, promo material, and act-break bumpers.

On April 10, 2012, Universal released the third and final season. For the Night Gallery Season Three DVD release, Universal Home Entertainment hired TV Time Machine Productions and Jim Benson and Scott Skelton to restore four rarely seen segments of Rod Serling’s classic horror series, assembled and reproduced on the DVD set as a “lost episode”—essentially a missing 23rd episode from the second season.

Jim Benson, the owner of TV Time Machine Productions, had previously worked with Universal Studios Digital Services and colorist Skip Martin on the restoration of selected episodes of I’m Dickens . . . He’s Fenster for that series’ DVD release. TV Time Machine Productions also produced audio commentaries for Night Gallery’s third season, featuring commentary by Skelton and Benson for the “lost episode” and the premiere episode, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”

Night Gallery aired on NBC from 1970 to 1973. When the series was syndicated in 1973, several of the individual segments that composed the show’s original hour-long versions were either shortened or lengthened to create new half-hour episodes. Three story segments were produced that either never aired in the broadcast version of the series or only appeared once and never repeated. These three segments later showed up in the syndication version—heavily padded with extra footage, in most cases, and all of them requiring restoration to bring them back to their original state.

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Once Universal green-lit this unique project, the job of finding missing and original elements began. Because of the fragmented nature of the series, the process was similar to putting hundreds of jumbled puzzle pieces back together to create a coherent, complete picture. After two months of mining the vast archives of Universal Studios, most of the missing elements were found.

“Die Now, Pay Later,” an episode never aired on NBC, was lengthened for syndication in 1973 and has never been seen in its original form. This segment was painstakingly reconstructed from original 35 millimeter elements, and the majority of the episode was brought back to its original state.

“Room for One Less,” a one-minute vignette that never aired on NBC, was restored using original elements, including original optical titles. Rare, behind-the-scenes footage of Rod Serling shooting his introduction for this segment is included as an “Easter egg” on the DVD set.

“Witches’ Feast” was beautifully remastered from original 35 millimeter elements. This segment ran only once on NBC in the original airing, was replaced by another segment for the repeat airing, and has been seen rarely since.

“Little Girl Lost” originally had six minutes of footage excised before the segment aired on NBC in 1972. Working with colorist Skip Martin, existing 35 and 16 millimeter elements were meticulously matched, reinstating the missing six minutes.

Since “Die Now, Pay Later” was never fully completed in 1971, a new slate of music cues (taken from existing episodes) were assembled for the segment. “Room for One Less” also received a revised music track.

After the restoration process, the four segments were edited together and, using the familiar second-season main title, a “new” hour-long Night Gallery episode was created. New end title credits were also designed, and the classic NBC commercial-break bumper that had not been seen in decades (featuring a series of horrific faces) was reinstated.

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Night Gallery had a very unique history, and this unique DVD project reflects that fact. Over the years, fans have been vocal about having the entire collection of Night Gallery tales made available on DVD. Through the good offices of Universal Studios, this wish has finally been fulfilled.

Click here to purchase Season 1 from Amazon.com

Click here to purchase Season 2 from Amazon.com

Click here to purchase Season 3 from Amazon.com

The Twilight Zone versus Night Gallery

An excerpt from Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1999):

Serling’s lectures on television writing at Sherwood Oaks are valuable in a number of respects. As examples, he chose to screen for his class episodes of both The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery. While at least one of the Gallery segments, “Clean Kills and Other Trophies,” got the expected trashing, it’s instructive to note that he also savaged the classic Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance,” which is among the finest dramas the earlier series produced. Serling, defending his harsh judgment of “Walking Distance,” said, “All this proves to me as a writer is that I’ve matured. I’ve grown a couple of miles, and I think I’m a better writer since I wrote that, infinitely better, as we all do. That’s part of the natural process. We become better, much more discerning, and after ten years you can strip away some of the desperate personal attachment you have for your own work and try to analyze it with a perspective that is reasonably impersonal.” Proving, perhaps, that the writer is not always the best judge of his work—or those who interpret it.

As a further illustration, during the interview that would turn out to be his last, Serling was asked to review his successes: “God knows when I look back over thirty years of professional writing, I’m hard-pressed to come up with anything that’s important. Some things are literate, some things are interesting, some things are classy, but very damn little is important.” Of his enormous body of work, he named only two produced plays that he felt would stand the test of time: Requiem for a Heavyweight and “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar.” He ignored Patterns and singled out nothing from The Twilight Zone. At the end of the day, Serling was his own harshest critic. Perhaps it better serves posterity that we’re allowed the luxury of viewing his output with a more temperate eye than did the author.

Serling’s point about achieving a “reasonably impersonal perspective” may hold at least part of the key to his response to Night Gallery. There is little doubt that his painful experiences behind the scenes may have colored his view of the series. The quick-tempered Serling saw Night Gallery through the prism of his perceived humiliation by those in control of the show. He would naturally be predisposed against admitting that it had any quality, regardless of the fact that he was, on many occasions, well interpreted by it.

For Serling, it was as natural as breathing to take a stand and fight. He was certainly never timid about voicing his distress publicly, and in the entertainment industry his profile was distinguished enough to make his disputes newsworthy. The scrappy Serling’s response to his loss of control on Night Gallery was to run the show down, privately and publicly, despite his stated pleasure over the treatment a number of his scripts received. Sensitive that his high visibility as host of Night Gallery would be misread as his being responsible for its irregularities, Serling’s defensiveness was working overtime. He beat others to the critical punch by denigrating Night Gallery first and often.

From the beginning, comparisons between The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery favored the former. Although the later series developed a devoted following, some viewers who felt Night Gallery didn’t match their glamorized memory of The Twilight Zone have wielded the writer’s harangues like a cudgel on the series, as if Serling were the final arbiter and his general unhappiness with the show somehow doomed it to some outer circle of rerun Hell.

Admittedly, The Twilight Zone, because of its cultural importance as the first intelligent, skillfully produced show of its genre on television, will rightly always come first—it has, after all, had enormous influence. However, it is clarifying to discover that, as executive producer on Zone, Serling shepherded as many duds into production as winners. The Twilight Zone was no more immune to the occasional flop than was Night Gallery—a premise that may be greeted with skepticism by those who characterize Night Gallery as hackwork and The Twilight Zone as unalloyed genius. To clear up that little misconception, one merely need screen such Zone disasters as “The Mighty Casey,” “The Chaser,” “The Man in the Bottle,” “Mr. Bevis,” “Twenty Two,” “I Am the Night, Color Me Black,” “Cavender is Coming,” “Come Wander with Me,” “The Fear,” “The Mirror,” “Black Leather Jackets,” “The Brain Center at Whipple’s”—the list, unfortunately, goes on. Even Serling allowed that he and his associates had scored modestly, not spectacularly, with the first series. Taking stock of The Twilight Zone, Serling once commented, “In the words of the great American pastime, I think we batted about .300 on Twilight Zone. We had some real turkeys, some fair ones, and some shows I’m really proud to have been part of. I can walk away from this series unbowed.”5 In Marc Scott Zicree’s critical overview of the series, The Twilight Zone Companion, one can find an objective verification of Serling’s analysis. On a story-by-story basis, Night Gallery’s success rate is fully equal to Serling’s estimation of The Twilight Zone. Yet Gallery is still too often overlooked, lost in the shadows of its predecessor.

Serling had hoped to create a series that was an extension of The Twilight Zone; Laird had taken the idea and run in a different direction, making Night Gallery a showcase for mood and aesthetics. Serling had wanted a stronger moral focus; Laird, however, was never interested in polemics. The inevitable comparisons between The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery gave critics the impression that Night Gallery was soft-centered and insubstantial, but the model for the series from Laird’s point of view was closer to the pure entertainment of Thriller or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. All the Zone episodes had a collective similarity of purpose to instruct; Laird, though not opposed to moral tales, wanted the individual stories to stand on their own, distinct from each other and from an imposed series style. This deliberate diversity made Night Gallery far less cohesive and, for some, less satisfying than The Twilight Zone. Judged as Laird intended, however, we can come to a much fairer view of the series.