Medium of the Golden Age
Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling knew what kept his audience up at night.
In “Walking Distance” (1959), the third episode of the first season of The Twilight Zone, we meet an emblematic modern man. He is Martin Sloan (Gig Young), an anxious and driven executive. Out for a drive, he stops at a gas station. By chance, following the dream logic that was the series’ hallmark, he sees a sign for his hometown. Drawn by some irresistible force, he leaves the car to set off on foot. When he arrives, he finds that the town is just as he left it. Indeed, he has gone back in time, to a summer from his own boyhood. He meets his parents; he confronts his childhood self, riding a merry-go-round. He tries to speak to the boy, but frightens him, causing him to fall off the ride and break his leg. His father tells him that he must go back to where he came from. “There is only one summer to every customer,” he implores. “Don’t make him share it.”
The episode closes with the series’ signature voiceover, spoken by its creator, Rod Serling:
Martin Sloan, age thirty-six, vice-president in charge of media. Successful in most things but not in the one effort that all men try at some time in their lives—trying to go home again.
You might have guessed by now that in “Walking Distance,” Serling was telling his own story. He was 35 when the episode appeared, and he had come a long way from a charmed boyhood in Binghamton, New York. Like Martin Sloan, he had good reason to be tired, and good reason, despite his considerable success, to want to go home again. As his success grew, that desire would grow stronger, too.
It’s easy to forget now that television was once regarded as a creative nullity, good only for selling product. In the medium’s early decades, the programming was mostly quiz shows, Westerns, and police procedurals. Corporate sponsors had considerable creative control, and in tone and style, the industry was not unlike Madison Avenue, slick and a bit shameless. At the same time, because the medium was so new, conventions hadn’t yet hardened, and barriers to entry were lower, especially for writers. Serling, with his early work for two important live series, Kraft Television Theatre and Playhouse 90, became one of a handful of creators pushing television forward. Even so, he accepted that it was a second-rate form, inherently inferior to theater and film. Interviewed by Mike Wallace in 1959, shortly before The Twilight Zone debuted, Serling argued that he was writing “serious, adult” scripts, but he didn’t claim the privileges of an artist. “I’m a dramatist for television,” he said, by way of apology. “This is the medium I know.”
By then, Serling was the most recognizable writer in the country. The face he showed to the public was an appealing one, and very much an American face—principled but modest, industrious, courageous. Beneath that there was a different man: vain, self-indulgent, needy. And underneath that there was a sensitive artist, and a traumatized war veteran, and a young man who lost his father too early. The inmost Serling was perhaps ever that eager boy in Binghamton, standing on his tiptoes to be seen. (As an adult, he stood just 5’5”.) As a writer, he sought to integrate these different selves, to find the sense of coherence that evaded him in life. He would never quite feel that he had done so.
We have been taught to think of the postwar period as one of conformity and complacency. Having defeated radical evil, the GIs were content to come home, buy houses in Levittown, raise families, and seek stable employment. The literature and drama of the period, however, tell a different story, of roiling discontent and anomie beneath a placid surface. Serling’s early television scripts fit into this dissident tradition. He typically placed a single decent person in opposition to the state or the impersonal forces of corporate life. Patterns (1955), his first major success, asks whom the protagonist, a young businessman, is willing to trample to get the job he wants. Requiem For A Heavyweight (1956) dramatized the brutal exploitation of a washed-up boxer (played by Jack Palance; the later big-screen version starred Anthony Quinn). The totalitarian impulse was the theme of many successful Twilight Zone episodes, including “Eye of the Beholder” (1960), in which the state enforces perverse and draconian beauty standards, and “The Obsolete Man” (1961), in which a librarian (Burgess Meredith) sentenced to death confronts the party leader who condemned him.
Unlike some of the writers who would be targeted by Senator Joseph McCarthy, Serling was no radical and no bohemian. Given the chance, he grabbed money and fame with both hands. But he could always see beyond those transitory rewards, and he was always conscious of the failed men crowding the edge of the frame, like Jack Klugman’s suicidal musician in an episode from the second season of The Twilight Zone, “A Passage For Trumpet” (1960). Behind Serling’s optimism and bounce—the qualities that endeared him to Binghamton and carried him through his lean early years—there was a skeptic who believed that one person’s success usually came at the expense of another’s failure. There is sentimentality in this worldview, just as there was sometimes sentimentality in Serling’s work, but his feeling for the forgotten and discarded was real.
Energetic, compulsive, and disdainful of revision, Serling was an immensely productive writer for the first 15 years of his career. He sold dozens of teleplays even before launching The Twilight Zone, and during the series’ five-year run, he was credited as author of 92 of the 156 scripts. Then, at just 40, his output began to decline. He did not go completely silent, but the ideas came less easily. The impatience that propelled his rise became an obstacle to his growth as an artist. Perhaps, too, spiritual exhaustion begat creative exhaustion. Having reached for big statements in his work again and again while seeing little evidence that the world had changed, he began to lose faith in the efficacy of his writing. And as his country entered a turbulent period marked by political violence, some of his own obsessions, with censorship and nuclear annihilation and intellectual conformity, might have struck him as passé. Serling provided network commentary for the Apollo 11 landing in July 1969—another fascination, space travel, had been the subject of several Twilight Zone episodes—but by then he was largely living on his reputation.
Serling suffered from insomnia for much of his adult life, haunted by memories of his paratrooper service in the Pacific. (Several Twilight Zone episodes deal directly with the war’s psychic consequences.) Both his best writing and his worst have the air of having been written on too little sleep and too much commissary coffee. “I have the kind of schedule,” Serling joked when The Twilight Zone was at its peak, “where if I drop a pencil, by the time I bend over to pick it up, I’m two weeks behind.” Serling pretended to resent the relentless demands of episodic television, but that life also suited him; it must have, or he would have done something else. But cooked-to-order writing is rarely the best writing. He wrote and thought like a man on deadline, not with the equanimity and repose of the artist he always wanted to be.
He was essentially a didactic writer, motivated by disappointment with a society that had treated him well but whose anti-Semitism had left early scars. (Twilight Zone villains usually met cosmic justice. Another classic episode, “Deaths-Head Revisited,” is set in an abandoned Dachau, where the returning camp commandant meets the avenging shades of his former prisoners.) Serling’s meanings were very clear—too clear, perhaps, to reward sustained study. Serling greatly admired Arthur Miller, who was about a decade older, also Jewish, and had his greatest stage successes just as Serling was breaking into radio and television. Miller’s Death of a Salesman is didactic art, too, but Willy Loman somehow just goes on meaning. Serling created several memorable static characters, including the alienated boxer of Requiem For A Heavyweight and Ed Wynn’s touching salesman in The Twilight Zone’s “One For The Angels” (1959), but while they leave an impression, they pose no enduring mystery.
In this respect, the shape of Serling’s talent was ideal for the emerging medium of television. He could not have been a novelist; he found writing narrative prose difficult. He would have loved to have been a respected screenwriter like Ben Hecht or Joseph Mankiewicz, but even his best television dramas were stiff and talky; he resisted film’s principally visual medium of storytelling. He was a canny and successful commercial artist who occasionally touched the sublime. That has to be enough.
Serling’s brooding, existentialist Western, The Loner (1965–66), was cancelled by CBS after a single season. Westerns were then a staple of network television, with Rawhide, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke in the middle of successful runs. In a typical gesture, Serling promised the network a conventional genre story and then delivered something that subtly critiqued that same genre. From the beginning of his career, he had goaded the networks and their sponsors. He could not help biting the hand that fed him; he could not help staging moral dramas in which he cast himself as the tragic hero.
The Loner has some interesting elements. Lloyd Bridges makes a strong impression as William Colton, an ex-Civil War cavalry officer carrying a keen sense of personal honor in his saddlebags. But CBS did not want an avant-garde Western; it wanted The Rifleman. The Twilight Zone was strong enough to confound expectations, but The Loner wasn’t. Serling generated intriguing scenarios for William Colton, but many of the episodes simply stop rather than achieving dramatic closure. Serling was only 41, and he had nine more years to live, but his exhaustion had begun to find its way onto the screen.
Serling’s last major creative effort for television, Night Gallery (1970–73), which like Twilight Zone dealt with supernatural themes, was also a disappointment and left Serling bitter. Night Gallery had some gripping segments, including “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” (1971), which echoed the regret and ennui of Patterns and “Walking Distance.” But Serling, despite being credited as the series’ creator and as writer of 35 of its 98 segments, never enjoyed the creative control that he had on Twilight Zone and disapproved of its direction (“Mannix in a cemetery”). The industry he helped build had lost faith in him.
When Serling died at 50 in 1975, he could not have known how long his work would endure. “Momentarily adequate” was his own mistaken verdict. Even The Twilight Zone, while a critical success, never attracted a large audience during its five-year run. But succeeding generations have rediscovered the series. If Serling had lived a normal life span, he would have been vindicated in his belief that his own fears were common ones and that his diagnosis of his ailing society was accurate. His premature death, coming at a low point in his reputation and productivity, adds to the pathos of his life.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).