(Edward) Rod(man) Serling Essay - Critical Essays

Serling, (Edward) Rod(man)


(Edward) Rod(man) Serling 1924–1975

American scriptwriter, short story writer, dramatist, and producer.

Serling was one of television's most respected writers. He has been recognized for bringing the maturity and quality of stage drama to television during its early years and for offering provocative entertainment throughout his career. Serling's diverse works address a wide range of controversial issues, including prejudice and political corruption. Critics contend that Serling's iconoclastic attitude, which compelled him to tackle social topics neglected by his peers and to create memorable stories around them, helped move him to the forefront among writers of television's Golden Age.

Serling began selling scripts to radio as a college undergraduate. Like many other radio dramatists, he began to write for television during the early 1950s. In 1955 alone, twenty of his plays were produced on such acclaimed live television drama series as "Playhouse 90," "Studio One," and "Kraft Television Theater." It was on the last-named program that Serling's drama Patterns was first aired. A story of the inhumanity and ruthlessness involved in big business, it made Serling an instant success and won an Emmy Award. It was also the first drama to be repeated by a network in response to popular demand. Serling's best-known teleplay, Requiem for a Heavyweight, was broadcast on "Playhouse 90" in 1956. An account of the descent of a physically and spiritually defeated prize fighter, this drama was awarded an Emmy and, like Patterns, was later adapted for film. Serling won a Peabody Award for outstanding service in broadcasting for Requiem for a Heavyweight, the first time this award was given to a television writer. He won a total of six Emmys during his career, as well as several other awards for outstanding television writing.

Throughout the mid-1950s and 1960s, Serling impressed most critics with the consistently high quality of his work. He was less popular, however, with network managers and sponsors, whom he publicly criticized for their censorship of television scripts and writers. Serling believed that in order for television to function as an art form as well as entertainment, writers had to have the freedom to explore attitudes and draw conclusions regardless of whether the entire audience shared these views. Serling became known as television's "angry young man" for his zealous dedication to his beliefs, gaining the admiration of many of his contemporaries and helping set the tone for future television drama.

When the demand for live drama died at the end of the 1950s, Serling was among the few writers who successfully adapted to television's new demands. His series "The Twilight Zone," which aired from 1959 to 1964, exemplifies Serling's imagination and versatility. Combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, suspense, and horror, "The Twilight Zone" was the first show of its kind to adapt individual dramas to a series format. It was also unique in its significant concentration on the quality of the writing, rather than on the acting or the production aspects, although these too were highly praised. Narrated by Serling himself, the show was generally hailed for its innovations. A later, similar program, "Rod Serling's Night Gallery," which was broadcast from 1970 to 1973, shared "The Twilight Zone"'s eerie tone, but critics contend that it lacked the high quality of its predecessor. Both programs, however, were popular with their audiences, and especially with young people, who continue to appreciate the shows through reruns. Serling's popularity was further enhanced with his screenplays for the films Seven Days in May (1964) and Planet of the Apes (1968), which he wrote with Michael Wilson. Twilight Zone—The Movie (1982) is an adaptation of four favorite "Twilight Zone" scripts, including Serling's classic "It's a Good Life."

Some of Serling's detractors have charged that his works were too slick and overly didactic, concentrating more on their messages than on plot and characterization. It is also noted, however, that Serling brought a strong moral sense to his art and that his creativity and craftsmanship helped shape television during its formative years.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 65-68, Vols. 57-60 [obituary] and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 26.)

Robert Lewis Shayon

Murder was brilliantly done on the (NBC) Kraft Television Theatre in January and repeated "by popular demand" early in February. The unplanned second performance of an original television drama ["Patterns"] so soon after its first showing is an unusual video event. The notability is doubly compounded when the play pyramids its prestige almost exclusively by word of mouth. Of even sharper interest to this viewer is the fact that the "murder" which climaxes the drama is unwittingly (I hope not deliberately) condoned by the author and producer in subtle yet painful violation of commonly honored and deeply cherished moral principles….

In the years I have been viewing television I do not recall being so engaged by a drama, nor so stimulated to challenge the haunting conclusions of an hour's entertainment.

"Patterns" is the story of murder in the executive echelon of a typical big-business corporation. I call it murder; in the story the victim [Andy] dies suddenly of a heart attack, but the fatality comes stunningly on the heels of an executive conference in which the company's president [Ramsey] plunges an invisible dagger, tipped with the poison of fear, hate, and resentment, into the life-urge of an unwanted member of his high command….

"Patterns" is the kind of a script that strikes a match to production talents. Director, cast, even stagehands suddenly become aware they're touching a piece of uranium in the TV desert. You're inching open a curtain on truth…. Rod Serling's lines are spare, measured out with intensity, precision....

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J. P. Shanley

Rod Serling, whose compactly constructed television drama, "Patterns," was acclaimed three months ago, turned to a different kind of theme in "The Rack."

In "Patterns" Serling dealt with high pressure business tactics and their effects on a group of executives. In "The Rack" he borrowed from contemporary history and told the story of an Army captain charged with collaborating with the enemy in North Korea….

["The Rack"] was not written with the expert conciseness that distinguished "Patterns," nor was it so flawlessly presented. There were some uneven moments in "The Rack," but its principal theme was controversial and compelling.

It posed a question that has been asked recently in similar non-fictional situations: Shall a repatriated prisoner of war be punished for acts he has committed under duress while in captivity?…

"The Rack" was particularly effective when its author, probing beyond normal codes and standards of conduct, considered the complex human factors that operate when the minds and bodies of men are subjected to cruel and relentless pressures. Serling was not willing to settle for superficial melodrama. His play was intelligent and provocative.

J. P. Shanley, "Trial for Treason," in The New York Times, Section 2, April 17, 1955, p. 15.

J. P. Shanley

Since Mr. Serling also wrote "Patterns" and "The Rack." two of the outstanding television plays of this year, there was reason to look forward with some anticipation to his latest script.

But "Strength of Steel" was a dreary potboiler…. No word has been received about just when Mr. Serling wrote it. It may long have antedated his better creative efforts. It seems hard to believe that the same writer had been responsible for them.

"Strength of Steel" is the story of a young Air Force wife. Her husband packs off for Alaska, leaving her to wait for him in Pittsburgh. They say good-by stickily and then the undaunted bride moves in with her father-in-law.

The old gent … is a nasty type who wants no part of his son's wife. He treats her shabbily, even after they learn that his son is overdue from a patrol flight.

Dad blames the girl for the whole thing. He tells her unequivocally: "You married him so you could get yourself out of the gutter."

The wife takes understandable umbrage at this kind of talk, but she stays around until she learns that her husband has died.

Mr. Serling resorts to a tired device to end his drama. The widow lets the old gent know that he soon will be a grandfather. Then she tells him off and that does it. They fall into each other's arms blubbering heavily as a camera dollies in for the climactic scene.

J. P. Shanley, "TV: 'Strength of Steel'," in The New York Times, June 17, 1955, p. 47.

Tod Raper

Don't look for any green-headed monsters or rattling skeletons, or Shirley Temple fairy tale atmosphere [in "The Twilight Zone"]. Each episode is set up in the context of the plot to be shocking, unexpected, but at the same time, in retrospect, valid and honest….

We watched the pilot film, "Where Is Everybody?" this morning and in the half-hour felt the hair on our neck rise, the skin on our back cringe, and our heart flop at the finish with a feeling of relief. Here is presented the situation of a man walking into town in a state of amnesia, and nobody is in town. A cigar butt in the chief of police's office is smoking; the coffee is perking in a cafe. But nobody is there. Serling puts over a...

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Rod Serling has fashioned a stark drama of an imaginative nightmare [Where Is Everybody?] that puts [Twilight Zone] in orbit with an auspicious takeoff. It may well turn out to be one of CBS-TV's strongest entries, generic in its appeal and with the arresting quality of skirting the current cycles. It gives tv a new and much-needed dimension, far off the beaten path of westerns and private eyes. If the word hadn't been abused, it could be honestly labelled adult drama.

Serling has stood for qualitative writing and here, in his own venture, he is inspired to heights corresponding with the moon phase of the story. If the title is mystical, all the more in its favor, it is not a detached...

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Brendan Gill

"Requiem for a Heavyweight" is a real movie, dominated by a camera that, like our own eyes, picks its way through a profusion of helter-skelter objects to see clearly, as if without effort, precisely what it needs to see. It's a picture so nearly perfect of its kind that my temptation is to dwell on the "perfect" and forget the question of kind, but I mustn't lose my head; what we have here is a prizefighters-and-gangsters melodrama of exceptional humanity and finesse…. The script, by Rod Serling, is a sentimental pastiche, as the soft-hard title indicates. No matter—the sources from which it borrows being first-rate, the end product is a distillation of the first-rate…. (p. 216)


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Stanley Kauffmann

[Requiem for a Heavyweight] combines sportswriter's sentimentality with "common-man" portentousness (the heroic concealed in what you and I are silly enough to think is small-scale or vapid). The plot is incredible: a top-rank boxer is desperate for a job a week after he quits boxing, and a mousy State Employment Agency woman changes character and chases him after one meeting. When Serling's dialogue is not trying for dumb-brute poetry, it slips into scriptwriter's hand-me-downs. ("I love that guy like a brother." "Now you listen and listen good.") (p. 27)

Stanley Kauffmann, "The Rise of Jane Fonda," in The New Republic, Vol. 147, No. 21, November 24, 1962, pp....

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Philip T. Hartung

You don't have to believe "Seven Days in May," but, except for the confusing opening scenes showing riots in front of the White House and then introducing far too many characters in a hurry, it proves to be one of the most exciting films in years…. "Seven Days" succeeds in giving its far-fetched story an it-could-happen-here tone. Rod Serling's well-written script … is mainly concerned with a Pentagon plot, under the leadership of Gen. James Scott, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to kidnap the President of the United States and take over the government. The plotters are particularly unhappy now (the time is set in the not-too-distant future) because the cold war has ended with President Lyman's plan for...

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Brendan Gill

"'Seven Days in May' is an almost perfect thriller"—such was the opinion I was about to set down when my conscience intervened; the wary cravenness of that "almost" struck me as patently unjust, for, in fact, there wasn't a single moment of this high-flown melodrama that I didn't enjoy, or a single aspect of it that I would have liked to see changed, and gratitude alone should suffice to make one generously incautious. With a sense, therefore, of having provided no handy trapdoor of qualification through which to escape, let me paint myself into the tight corner of total praise: "Seven Days in May" is a perfect specimen of its kind….

[The] plot of the picture,… like that of any good thriller,...

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Jack Behar

In Requiem for a Heavyweight Serling's gross intention is to write a television play in something of a celebratory mode: to represent a good if witless man—submerged in the stereotype of the prize fighter and treated as an object—who becomes the victim of the prize-fighting racket and the soft-hard mindedness of those who run it, especially Maish and the mob behind him. (p. 36)

In Requiem for a Heavyweight … the question is: Can Mountain be saved from the stereotype that already has all but consumed him? Or: Can Mountain be saved from Maish, the father-figure who has all but unsexed him? The answer the television play gives is somewhat evasive, since although Mountain cannot quite...

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Philip T. Hartung

[There is a lot of action in "Planet of the Apes"], but more vital are the arguments between apes and man, and, as presented in the screenplay …, they are fascinating. Man does not always come out best. Surprisingly enough, the film has some good humor, thanks, among other things, to the script's putting clichés into the mouths of those apes who think they're so damn smart. The finale of "Planet of the Apes" will make your blood run cold. I can't remember when a science-fiction film like this socked you in the face at the end with a warning to mankind. (p. 625)

Philip T. Hartung, "The Naked Human," in Commonweal, Vol. LXXXVII, No. 20, February 23, 1968, pp....

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Robert Lewis Shayon

The new Rod Serling teleplay, Certain Honorable Men,… presented no acts of physical violence. But an uglier form of violence—the suppression of the truth—haunted its ninety-five minutes of plot dealing with the mask and the reality of Congressional ethics, much as Banquo's ghost cried out in the empty chair at Macbeth's table….

Viewers had no difficulty relating the author's fiction to the real life material of the 1967 Senate censure of Senator Thomas J. Dodd for "conduct which is contrary to accepted morals, derogates from the public trust … and tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute." Some viewers, however, did have difficulty—reconciling Mr. Serling's necessarily...

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Cleveland Amory

We've learned through short experience to beware of any show which is titled Somebody's Something. It's inclined not to be anybody's anything. And Rod Serling's Night Gallery is no exception. Mr. Serling was one of the giants of "The Golden Age of Television." Now he is more of an endangered species….

Most episodes contain three separate stories, so if you don't like the first, you can always look forward to the next two. On the other hand, if you don't like either the first or the second, you can always look forward to the third. By the same token, if you don't like the first or the second or the third—well, look at it this way, it's over. They are the kind of thing that [Alfred]...

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Mark Olshaker

The voice was unmistakable. The stories were "weird" and "spooky," the twist endings intriguing. But there was an added element that happened to be a rare commodity in television entertainment—a moral point of view. Rod Serling … was always trying to get a point across.

The format was pop science fiction, but the themes were the basic operatives of the human mind. The characters either rose to their situations or were destroyed by them. While other shows portrayed World War II as an epic of brave men in combat, Twilight Zone gave us "Death's Head Revisited," the story of a Nazi commandant returning to Dachau and there confronted by the ghosts of the inmates he slaughtered. And Serling's...

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Lawrence Venuti

Near the end of his life Serling was little more than a background voice in the mass media, yet during the fifties and early sixties he was one of the loudest and most outspoken critics of American society and the television industry. His stark, realistic screenplays, produced on such live dramatic programs as Playhouse 90 and Kraft Television Theater, subjected American institutions and values to close scrutiny, confronting controversial issues like the fierce competition in corporations, corruption in labor unions, police violence, and racial prejudice. Not surprisingly, he soon incurred the wrath of the television censors. (p. 354)

Yet when Serling developed The Twilight Zone...

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