(Edward) Rod(man) Serling

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Lawrence Venuti

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1099

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 in 1959, he was in fact criticized for "pandering his work," for evading his avowed moral responsibility as a writer. What was so difficult for his critics to accept was his sudden and bewildering shift from realistic drama, in which social commentary and moral issues were the writer's main concern, to fantasy, which seemed pure escapist entertainment devoid of serious import. The fact is that The Twilight Zone was Serling's calculated response to the growing oppressiveness of television censorship, and in many of his screenplays for this series he continued his critical examination of American society—but in an oblique and perhaps more inventive way. Instead of relying on realism to convey his message, Serling embodied it in fantasy and managed not only to avoid the censorship which had plagued his earlier writing, but also to maintain his integrity as a socially concerned writer. Indeed, The Twilight Zone may be Serling's greatest achievement: its combination of sophisticated dramatic techniques with social criticism has rarely been equalled in the history of television. (p. 355)

In theme and style Patterns is typical of Serling's television scripts during the fifties. Like his other critiques of American institutions, it powerfully dramatizes his oft-quoted observation that "our society is a man-eat-man thing on every possible level." In accordance with the extremity of this view, Serling's pursuit of his quarry is usually relentless and uncompromising. Patterns focuses sharply on the suspect values in American business, exposing the dishonesty inherent in the corporate drive for profit as well as the unethical compromises an ambitious executive must make in order to remain in that bitterly competitive world. The stylistic qualities of the screenplay are appropriate for Serling's forceful exposures: the language is direct and colloquial, with a tendency toward overstatement; the characterizations approach stereotypes and are sufficiently but not minutely drawn …; the structure of the play is quite spare, uncomplicated by an elaborate plot development, and the action moves quickly to a climactic conclusion. Most importantly, Patterns reflects Serling's conviction that realism is the most effective means of social commentary…. Here he asserts that "drama—be it fiction or motion picture or stage play—has traditionally been a vehicle of social criticism. That function would be altogether timely, particularly during this day and age. There is much to criticize: diverse and demanding collections of human anguish that literally scream out for a comment; injustices that so diminish the human condition that one wonders where in the name of God is that school of literary protest that might move and sway public opinion—as [Henrik] Ibsen did, as Harriet Beecher Stowe did, as Clifford Odets did, and as Arthur Miller did." For Serling, writing should be "a weapon of truth, an act of conscience, an article of faith." (p. 356)

The fantastic worlds Serling created in many of his screenplays for [The Twilight Zone ] were a far cry from the realism he had employed during the fifties, and he was quickly accused of conforming...

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with the network commercialism that he had fought for the first ten years of his career. In his writing forThe Twilight Zone, however, Serling did not shrink from the social criticism which had characterized his previous work in television; he rather embodied his examination of American society in fantasy. Of course, his messages were not entirely explicit, and less sophisticated viewers, enthralled by the fantastic plot, might not always perceive its significance, yet his narrations before and after each episode often made his themes more obvious or at least pointed to the intention behind the fantastic surface. Serling, moreover, was quite capable of conveying his themes in an oblique way: he had acquired much experience with this sort of indirection from his numerous confrontations with the censors who often forced him to 'cover the tracks' of his social commentary. Even though television censorship moved Serling to give up his commitment to critical realism, The Twilight Zone shows that he did not surrender his conception of the responsible writer's function in society. (pp. 361-62)

["The Twilight Zone"] is "the dimension of the imagination," and in their exploration of the imagination the screenplays ranged widely through many varieties of fantasy, including science fiction, horror, and the occult. Within this broad framework, however, the area Serling had charted for his more engaging work was primarily psychological, and the fantastic plots of many episodes hinge on some aspect of human psychology. In the Twilight Zone, dreams and hallucinations tend to be prophetic of real events; traumatic experiences which have been repressed for years abruptly resurface and literally come alive; characters who yearn for a more pleasant past, for their childhood or adolescence, sometimes find their wishes fulfilled. Interestingly, this psychological fantasy enabled Serling to deepen his social criticism, and in several screenplays he continued his investigation of the business world and prejudice with greater attention to his characters' personalities. (p. 362)

Serling entered television as a realistic playwright who had dedicated his writing to social commentary, but he was compelled by the oppressive television censors to give up his commitment to realism. Nonetheless, when he developed The Twilight Zone, he was able to adapt his talents and interests to a new genre, fantasy, and he continued his examination of American society in an oblique but effective way. With his fantasy series, Serling could avoid the commercial censorship that had forced many writers out of television and that played a large part in making it the cultural wasteland we consider it today…. [It] remains true that the most influential mass medium, the one which carries the greatest authority with a major portion of the American population and which easily molds viewers' opinions, is essentially controlled by a group that is concerned merely with attracting more consumers. Unfortunately, there are currently very few writers in television who can meet the challenge posed by the sponsors with Serling's dedication and inventiveness. (p. 366)

Lawrence Venuti, "Rod Serling, Television Censorship, 'The Twilight Zone'," in Western Humanities Review, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Winter, 1981, pp. 354-66.


Mark Olshaker