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Rod Serling’s Time and Space Craft

February 16, 2012Print This Post         


Rod Serling

by Christopher Cappelluti

The name Rod Serling is associated with mind-bending narratives and imaginative tales of science fiction. This reputation is largely due to his magnum opus, the Twilight Zone, which has guaranteed his status in the canon of significant American television writers. However, Serling’s career did not begin with the launching of his Twilight Zone brainchild. He was already a seasoned, three-time Emmy award winner who had mastered the 90-minute teleplay by the time he decided to venture into unknown regions. Instead of producing what he knew would sell, in a massive gamble, Serling turned away from the mainstream into a noir underground, towards his own creative vision, and blazed a trail for future science fiction programming and imaginative television.

When considering the Twilight Zone as art, it is crucial to remain within its natal historical context, specifically speaking of the early Cold War years in America; a time of post-atomic hysteria, paranoid McCarthyism and bi-polar morality. These dark days spanning 1946-1964 have been dubbed the “long 50s” by M. Keith Booker. [1] Art produced during the ‘long 50s’ was heavily censored and preoccupied with being ‘normal,’ lest it catch the eyes of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). During this time, the pervasive panoptical censors could ruin a career before it ever left the ground. The skies were dark when Serling boldly launched his time and space craft.

Serling’s beginnings as a writer were modest. He began honing his skills freelancing and writing for radio in 1946, following service in the US Army Paratroopers. By 1950, he switched to television, working at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati where he contributed scripts and wrote bogus testimonials for sponsors. His last testimonial was for Geritol, which allegedly “could cure everything from arthritis to a fractured pelvis.” [2] From these early days, Serling learned how to push a product. Disappointed with this lackluster livelihood, he quit for full-time freelancing and survived an impoverished stint filled with struggle and rejection slips. Eventually, he gained America’s attention, and an Emmy, in 1955 with his teleplay, “Patterns,” produced by Kraft Television Theater. It was his seventy-second script. Serling then went on to win another Emmy in 1956 for the Playhouse 90 production, “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” which also earned him the first Peabody Award ever given to a writer. Serling continued to write well received teleplays, such as “The Velvet Alley,” and played a vital role in building television as an artistic medium during these years of its infancy.

However, since its inception, television has primarily been a marketing tool to control and manipulate consumer spending. While television can provide socially probing and thoughtful entertainment, the primary purpose of the medium is to generate money. In an interview with Mike Wallace, Serling had stated, “the sponsor has to push a product, and in many ways, I can relate to that.” [3] However, as sponsors took a heavy hand in the editing room, Serling and his contemporaries found it challenging to pursue their art to the fullest creative limit. He had to fight (and not always successfully) over edits ranging from preserving minor, throwaway lines to preventing major setting, character, and plot alterations: edits that essentially changed the script into something entirely different. It grew increasingly difficult for Serling to get his original vision produced on the little screen.

For example, during the production of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” written for Playhouse 90, the sponsors decided to delete mention of ‘gas chambers’ from the soundtrack. The reason for this censorship was that the sponsors sold kitchen appliances and did not want the audience to associate their ranges and stovetops with the horrific memory of Nazi gas chambers. No matter how unconscious any connection would be, if indeed there would even be one, this preemptive censorship is indicative of the conflict of interests between artists and corporate sponsors. [4] Particularly during the ‘long 50s,’ art would have to suffer in the name of capitalism. However, Serling’s writing had always been exceptional in its penchant for social commentary and he loved to attack relevant contemporary themes such as prejudice, power, corporate conformity, stifling the creative individual and so on. He fought censorship tooth and nail and earned a reputation for being television’s ‘angry young man.’ “How can you put on a meaningful drama,” Serling asked, “when, every fifteen minutes, proceedings are interrupted by twelve dancing rabbits [selling] toilet paper? [5]

Then in 1957, television underwent a shift and the 90-minute live teleplay was replaced with taped 30-minute shows. This meant the television writer’s craft needed to change and Serling had to make a decision. Tired of fighting corporate censors, he decided to invest his time and money into his personal creative vision; a vision that was initially received with disbelief among big names in showbiz. Serling made a move from the mainstream to an American underground inhabited by writers, filmmakers and artists that produced noir. This turn in Serling’s career was a subterranean journey, one that traced the footsteps of past masters such as Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. He put together a team of brilliant writers who shared his dark vision; writers such as Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, Earl Hamner, Jr. and Ray Bradbury.

The underground noir scene sprouted up during a time when literature, television, and other art forms walked a tightrope between the realms of kitsch and the avant-garde. Following World War II, there was a battle over who would dictate the future of art between the left and the right—‘idealists’ versus ‘realists’—and a consensus was achieved by underground artists in an ambiguous middle ground. [6] Amid conformity and normalcy, a thriving underground culture of artists challenged the status quo by dissolving the clear binaries integral to the de facto morality of Cold War America. The binaries that fueled this sensitive era in American history included not only right versus left and American versus Un-American, but also high versus low culture. This is the essence of where the Twilight Zone is located in the American zeitgeist: “the middle ground between light and shadow—between science and superstition”. [7]


“People Are Alike All Over”, Twilight Zone, Season 1, 1960

As noir, the Twilight Zone provided hardnosed criticism but presented it in a form that was culturally debased. Instead of using the dramatis personae of Democrats and Republicans or capitalists and communists, Serling used Martians and Veusians or robots and workaday men and women. Though shrouded in allegorical science fiction and fantasy, Serling was able to get his message across under the censors’ radar, because they failed to delve into the deeper meaning of his scripts. Indeed, the history of an art form echoes the history of a nation. However, it is a slanted history—if not outright pessimistic—in that the sensitivities of noir artists fed their attunement to the harsher qualities of political duplicity and the absurdity of moral convention. Serling dwelt on the margins to meld the worlds of high and low culture in a critical art form that refused to fit in any one particular genre. By bringing opposites together he and other noir artists attempted to dissolve the boundaries that keep opposites apart. However, as a product of mass consumption, the art form depended upon popular opinion and support.

Serling’s move away from the mainstream was received by his peers in Hollywood as a foolish mistake. To sum up their opinion, Mike Wallace asked in an interview if Serling’s new scripts were “potboilers” and suggested, in a fairly confrontational way, “in essence… you’ve given up on writing anything important for television.” [8] Serling replied, “this is a semantic thing… (but) if by ‘important’ you mean I’m not going to try to delve into current social problems dramatically, you’re quite right, I’m not.” [9] He went on to defend his product claiming that Twilight Zone episodes could not examine the underbelly of social issues like a 90 minute script could and that they were meant solely for entertainment value. Serling was cagy in packaging his product and he knew exactly how to sell it.


“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”, Twilight Zone, Season 1, 1960

One sparkling example of the Twilight Zone at its best is “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” An idyllic, anywhere USA neighborhood experiences strange electrical outages; malfunctioning lawnmowers, cars, lights, etc. When people start questioning, a boy suggests it might be the work of aliens—aliens disguised as one of the neighborhood families. Although his theory is taken from a comic book—a culturally debased art form—eventually, everyone buys into the hysteria. In time, a witch hunt ignites and the whole suspicious mob is thrown into a chaotic swirl of accusations, death, destruction and misery. In the end, we find that aliens had indeed staged the incident by causing the technological malfunctions. They reflect on how easy manipulation is:

Just stop a few of their machines… throw them into darkness a few hours, then sit back and watch the pattern…. They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves. All we need do is sit back and watch. …Their world is full of Maple Streets, and we’ll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves. One to the other, one to the other, one to the other…. [10]

Although the episode was a caricature of McCarthyism, corporate censors allowed the script to pass unedited. They must have assumed, as Mike Wallace had, that the show had no higher message; that it was not ‘important.’

By taking socially relevant commentaries and donning them in the garb of science fiction or fantasy, Serling slipped his controversial art right under the censors’ noses. From his early days of testimonial writing at WKRC-TV, Serling learned the ropes of capitalism. Not only did he sell his program, but he beat the sponsors at their own game and launched a brand that would stand the test of time and remain a monolithic contribution to American art. Serling and his team of writers contributed an anthology of morality plays; of parables that uphold the value and dignity of humanity. Far from being a series of unimportant potboilers it at first appeared to be, the Twilight Zone has been more appropriately signified by George Clayton Johnson as “wisdom fiction.” [11] Serling’s series is a television program with unquestionable artistic merit and humanitarian conscience, and it persists not only as an inspiration for modern television writers but also as a challenge to do better.

What does one find on television today, over forty years later? Certainly, corporate sponsors are still producing programming that will advertise their agendas and manipulate consumer spending. This is nothing new. However, is there any substance to their programming? Do modern television shows contain wisdom? I suggest that modern writers and producers can learn a great deal from the Twilight Zone both artistically and ethically. Serling believed in his creation and felt that television is rich with potential and promise, that it could become a significant art form. He was a man of conviction who lived up to his ideals in a real world and, with his time and space craft, Rod Serling proved that a 30-minute television show can be a truly meaningful work of art.


Works Cited:

Booker, M. Keith. Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Cochran, David. American Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Engel, Joel. Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989.

Grams, Jr., Martin. The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic. Otr Publishing, LLC, 2008.

“Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval.”American Masters. PBS: Thirteen/WNET. Oct. 1997. Television.

The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection. CBS. Oct. 2006. DVD.

References:

[1] M. Keith Booker, Monsters, Mushroom Clouds, and the Cold War: American Science Fiction and the Roots of Postmodernism, 1946-1964,

[2] Joel Engel, Rod Serling: The Dreams and Nightmares of Life in the Twilight Zone, Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1989, 90.

[3] “The Mike Wallace Interview,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval,” American Masters, PBS: Thirteen/WNET, Oct. 1997, Television.

[6] David Cochran, American Noir: Underground Writers and Filmmakers of the Postwar Era, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000, 6-8.

[7] Season One: Introduction, The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.

[8] “The Mike Wallace Interview,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection, CBS, 2006, DVD.

[11] Martin Grams, Jr., The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic, Otr Publishing, LLC, 2008, vii.

About the Author:

Christopher Cappelluti is a Brooklyn native and has lived in Berlin, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; Portland, Oregon; and the Finger Lakes Region of New York. He has worked as a travel writer, editor, teacher, carpenter and organic farmer. As a master’s candidate at New York University, his research interests include James Joyce, Dante Alighieri and Rod Serling. Christopher has contributed to American Book Review and his fiction has appeared in Anamesa. He also has a review forthcoming in ABR and a short story forthcoming in BigCityLit.com.

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