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.