by Jonathan Lethem
I’ve never seen a photograph of Rod Serling that wasn’t black and white.
In fact, I seriously doubt that color photographs of Serling exist. Oh, there may have been family Kodachromes, but let me respectfully submit for your approval the notion that if one were to examine the Serling family albums one would discover standing amidst any number of bright-cheeked picnickers or beachgoers clad in Pop-Art-hued loungewear a lone figure in video grey and black, holding a styrofoam cup of coffee and a cigarette. Like Edward R. Murrow and Humphrey Bogart, fellow icons of narrow-lapelled masculinity, Serling just wouldn’t register on color film.
Rod Serling was so many things, and many of them are now hard to keep entirely in focus: Master of a brief, much-lamented era of live plays on television, and paradigmatic figure of that monstrous new medium’s potential and decline. Assimilated Jew whose vision of grey-flannel alienation helped define postwar American discontent, and a writer so distracted by celebrity he never mastered his craft to his own satisfaction. In the end, Serling, much like his big-screen model Orson Welles, was a polymath showboat whose instinct for hamming led him increasingly in front of the camera, to end his days sadly renting out his charisma as a game-show host, documentary narrator, and commercial pitchman for Schlitz Beer and Famous Writer’s Correspondence School.
All these identities have been subsumed and forgotten, needless to say, behind Serling’s one great and defining accomplishment, the one that begins: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man…” I remember very clearly — though perhaps “clearly” is not the word for a memory so freighted with fear, with intimations of an adult world I wasn’t sure I wanted to discover — my first glimpse of The Twilight Zone. In the 1970’s Channel Eleven in New York would show an hour of Twilight Zone episodes at midnight. I must have been seven or eight and I was up alone watching television, I can’t say why. The episode was “Mirror Image” — which in lucid adult retrospect I know as one of Serling’s most pure, stark and dreamlike. I had no such perspective at the time, no perspective of any kind.
In “Mirror Image” the jittery Vera Miles — a favorite actress of Hitchcock’s in the same period — attempts to pick up her ticket and check her suitcase at a bus depot; she’s informed by the ticket taker that she’s already checked in. The situation is shrouded in night and gloom, in low-budget black and white as spare and rigorous as an X-ray. In the washroom mirror Miles glimpses her exact double, outside in the waiting room. She pursues her double, who vanishes. She seeks the advice of another traveller, a man who, first sympathetic, eventually betrays her to the authorities. Miles is dragged off to the nuthatch. By the remorseless paranoiac ethics of The Zone this betrayal seals the man’s fate: his double appears to usurp him. Then Serling passes the magical hand of his narration over the affair: “Obscure metaphysical explanation to cover a phenomenon…call it parallel planes or just insanity…” My eight year-old self called it terror, and I remember fighting to push it out of mind. How could an image be so unresolved and yet so absolute? Of course my double waited somewhere to slip into the world and replace me! And what a dreadful mistake to have watched this television show which was like a missive in the night and by doing so to accidentally have learned the truth — for now I’d have to live with the certainty of doom.
Later it got easier, and a bit more fun, to watch The Twilight Zone.
In America when a writer get famous, not just slightly but truly famous, he or she always seems like something other than a writer. In Serling’s case, it turns out that when fame arrived he seemed like something other than a writer even to himself — a disaster for his morale. Of course, to teenagers dwelling in the rerun Twilight Zone as my friends and I did, Serling was anything but a writer — he was a tone of voice, a raised eyebrow, an attitude of amused tolerance to life’s inarguable strangeness, irony, and danger. He was a semi-fictional creation, an emanation from his own Zone, and we learned to mock his clipped cadences to prove to ourselves that we were as comfortable there as he was, that we were even able to afford to find him a bit silly.
We were only following a trend, late. The Twilight Zone, like other ’50’s pop cultural revolutions – method acting, beatnik culture, and rock and roll – had triumphed and failed simultaneously through the sixties: triumphed by transforming the culture and failed by being absorbed and defanged through over-exposure and parody. Later we might come to take the Zone less for granted, to recognize it — partly with the help of Marc Scott Zicree’s groundbreaking Twilight Zone Companion and Arlen Schumer’s sublime coffee-table-sized Visions From the Twilight Zone – as an outbreak of surrealist invention in the bland, fantasy-resistant center of our culture, as a crossroads where Edgar Allen Poe (by way of E.C. Comics) met Film Noir and pulp science fiction to create a sort of proto-Kubrickian, nihilistically liberal shout against the smug conformity of Eisenhower era. Maybe we’d even pause to wonder at the tragedy this last glimpse of television’s era of the ‘anthology series’ suggested. But by then Serling was dead, his early work and its context long forgotten. It only seemed a faint irony to learn that Serling was the most honored writer in the history of television *before* The Twilight Zone, that when he first announced the series it was seen as a disastrous artistic compromise, a signal of the collapse of his ambition.
It’s easy to celebrate the Zone and still slight the notion of Serling as a writer. We prefer our visionaries to be idiot savants or mediums, to see their wild gifts as outbreaks of zeitgeist or the traumatic subconscious. A Jewish WWII paratrooper from Binghamton N.Y. invented The Twilight Zone? That’s as likely as a tubercular clerk from Prague writing The Castle and The Metamorphosis, or a mathematician from Oxford pushing Through The Looking Glass. In Gordon Sander’s otherwise fine and thorough biography of Serling, that central imaginative leap is never explained, never questioned. But where did The Twilight Zone come from? Who was this guy?
Here’s who: A kid who grew up listening to Orson Welles The Shadow on the radio and then went to war and then returned, like many thousands of others, to an American as strong as it was strongly in need of reassurance against horror, both past and future. A country trying to find a normative middle between a newly-popularized Id within and a newly-invented Bomb above. Serling wasn’t a beatnik, not even a little. He was a striver with a wife and kids in Cincinnati when he began to find his voice, with a clear view from the ground level of the suburban dream — yet Jewish and probably always with that subtle double consciousness of the outsider ‘passing’, ever aware of the possibility of exile and prejudice.
Beginning in radio and quickly moving to television, Serling was from the first a pound-the-words-out storyteller with a passion for controversial social issues and an always startling morbid streak. After Patterns, his riveting, stripped-down diagnosis of the ruthless new business class took the country by storm — popular demand resulted in an unprecedented second run-through, a month after the original (and live television could only be re-enacted, since videotape didn’t exist!) — Serling overnight joined Paddy Chayevsky and Reginald Rose as symbols of serious television’s potential. It was then he became the clench-jawed idol we know as the Zone’s host, depicted on paperback collections of his teleplays scowling in front of his typewriter with a cigarette in his knuckles, an intellectual for the age of McCluhan.
Between Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight, the two Emmy-confirmed summits of his career in live teleplays, Serling battled censors and sponsors over the content of innumerable stories of racism, tortured and brainwashed prisoners of war, neo-Nazism, and corruption in government — a struggle which pointed directly to to the allegory and indirection of the Zone. He struggled as well as with his own tendency to purple speechifying, and a weakness for working too quickly, dictating tales good and bad into his tape recorder and seeing them thrown instantly onto the little screen. The best of this work, though, is startlingly good, in a medium Serling helped invent on the spot — live televised Noir, with Serling’s signature sweaty close-ups written in, and an astonishing compression of means as actors slipped from set to set in the space of what must have seemed like an hour on a tightrope, dodging bullets. Serling was known for his on-set micromanagment of the productions — by his own testimony his diet in those years consisted mainly of “coffee and fingernails.”
Don’t take my word — find Patterns and Requiem if you can, not in their inferior, padded-out Hollywood film versions, but in collections of “Golden Age Television” available on laserdisc, which survive only because the network preserved file copies by pointing a sixteen-millimeter film camera at the screen during the live broadcasts. Especially seek out the lesser-known The Comedian, which was perhaps the pre-Zone Serling’s and the live teleplay’s greatest masterpiece. Serling’s collaborators on The Comedian were Ernest Lehman, who supplied the original story, the young director John Frankenheimer, and Mickey Rooney in a tour-de-force performance in the lead role — a depiction of sadism and ruthlessness as persuasive as James Cagney’s in White Heat.
Long after declining standards and creeping commercialization had driven his fellow Golden Age writers off to Hollywood, traditional theater and other destinations, Serling persisted — “Television’s Last Angry Man” was his biographer’s perfect epitaph. Perhaps it was an instinctive match — there was something in Serling’s temperament and talent that suited him to the crush of deadlines and the shorter dramatic forms that were typical of television. It would also eventually be his downfall, a medium-turned-marketplace that would tempt his worst instincts and wring him dry. But not before Serling, in one breathless three-year rise and a fatigued two-year decline, created his masterpiece, a definitive statement in 156 nightmarish glimpses.
The Twilight Zone might have seemed a capitulation to series television, but in fact the anthology structure perfectly capitalized on Serling’s strengths while sparing him the constant battles for creative control which had come close to driving him away. And in a culture which devalued and marginalized the imaginative and fantastic element everywhere it detected it — save perhaps a Salvador Dali painting or two — the Zone certainly struck critics as a retreat from relevant, serious, adult work. The shift into fantasy spared Serling the censorship battles that had scarred his earlier work, simply because literal-minded censors couldn’t easily parse the Zone’s metaphorical vocabulary. As Serling-esque ironies go, here’s a good one: a strong parallel existed in postwar Soviet Russia, where incisive criticisms of the bureaucratic state slipped under state censorship’s radar in the form of science fiction stories and short animated films.
The truth was that much of Serling’s realist writing was grimly topical, riddled with the sort of lecturing which can make Stanley Kramer’s or John Sayles’s films run suddenly into a ditch. The Twilight Zone episodes wouldn’t prove wholly immune to this weakness. But through the medium of fantasy, allegory, and parable Serling found a way to continue to obsess on the great themes of his times — alienation, the Bomb, conformity, McCarthyism, censorship, racism — but in a timeless voice, and one which captured Serling’s own fatalistic idealism better than he had all but a very few times before.
He also became a master entertainer, a generator of images and tonalities and phrases that embedded themselves in the culture so completely that their influence can be hard to properly distinguish anymore. What Serling created, above all else, was a homegrown vernacular of alienation, identity slippage and paranoia, and he did it right when it most needed doing, when his audience was starved for a vocabulary to express their uneasiness — and he did it on weekly television. Just the titles of his best episodes read like a found poem of All-American dread: Where Is Everybody? Walking Distance. People Are Alike All Over. Time Enough At Last. The Obsolete Man. Eye Of The Beholder. Nervous Man In A Four Dollar Room. The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street. The After Hours. And so on.
Certainly, Serling incurred debts right and left — Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont, in particular, scripted some of the Twilight Zone’s most memorable shows. And Serling himself was a sponge, absorbing what he needed from science fiction and crime movies and the O. Henry-style short story and pouring it into his vision. What’s remarkable is the instinct he demonstrated for distilling the pure communicative essence of his sources and discarding the frills — his science fiction didn’t bother with zero-G calculations or any other nerdish jargon, but went straight for space-age estrangement effects. Well before J.G. Ballard’s, Serling’s astronauts came back to earth weirder and unhappier than when they’d left. Comparisons are rightly made between Serling’s nostalgic/horrible You-Can’t-Go-Home-Again small town stories and those of Ray Bradbury — and, apparently, Bradbury felt the resemblance was close enough to resent it. Serling holds up better than Bradbury, though — the reason, I think, is that Serling’s sometimes overripe and sentimental rhetoric always plays against the scrupulous, cold eye of the televised image, where Bradbury’s plays only against itself.
Lawsuits dogged The Twilight Zone, but oddly enough intimations of fakery and impersonation seem to have haunted Serling long before — both Patterns and The Comedian include vivid but non-essential motifs of plagiarism or disputed authorial credit. And of course, the Zone itself proved that inauthenticity seemed to Serling a constant danger — one might at anytime peel up a strip of skin and discover the android lurking underneath, and any ventriloquist stood in danger of swapping places with his dummy. Serling’s confidence as a writer was always fragile, and it had weathered years in the rough and tumble grind of television. Now he retreated to teaching at Antioch, his alma mater, but couldn’t put down the tape recorder, couldn’t stop dictating scripts in that manual-typewriter voice of his.
Serling never found much success as a Hollywood screenwriter, never really found success in his life after the Zone except as a beloved public figure. His script for his friend and collaborator John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days In May is solid work. (It was Frankenheimer who came the closest to importing the Twilight Zone’s vision to feature-length film in his brilliant Manchurian Candidate and Seconds.) He added the famous, and characteristic, Statue of Liberty twist to The Planet of the Apes. But Serling had somehow fallen out of touch during the Zone years. He spent 1968 researching the new youth culture for a Stanley Kramer film called Children’s Crusade only to see it discarded in favor of a rewrite by Erich Love Story Segal. Then came the awkward lapses back to television – The Loner, an existential Western series which might have become an American version of The Prisoner if Serling had been given half a chance, and Night Gallery, which quickly degenerated into the humiliation of hosting other people’s third-generation Twilight Zone photocopies. When he died from a series of heart attacks at the age of fifty it was a tragedy, but if I rush you past the Jaques Cousteau documentary narrations and heavy drinking of his final years it’s only an act of mercy, trust me.
Flip the dial, though, and he lives again. There’s a signpost up ahead, and standing beside it in a neat black suit is American alienation’s hardboiled auteur, reassuring you that whatever measure of Kafkaesque disjunction you are about to suffer he will be there to guide you back out of it at the end with a few more terse phrases out of the side of his wry, enduring smile.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of several books, including Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, The Disappointment Artist, Men and Cartoons, and Gun, With Occasional Music. He lives in Brooklyn.