(Edward) Rod(man) Serling

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Mark Olshaker

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

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 humanity always showed through, as in a Christmas episode, "Night of the Meek": A drunken loser whose only joy is playing a department store Santa each year, finds the real Kris Kringle's bag of miracles and helps his fellow losers inherit the earth—at least for one night.

Serling's career embodied the entire course of American television. He was the brightest of the Golden Age's "bright young men" and the only one to adapt when live drama died. He became known as TV's angry young man during the 1950s, when he demanded of himself scripts that not only entertained but made a comment. Serling's teleplays confronted the major social and personal issues of the day—the Red Scare, POW collaboration in Korea, the unrelieved tension between black and white—at a time when few others would touch them.

And he confronted these issues head-on, decrying the spineless and chilling fear that caused network execs to quake each time a Serling script suggested there were still problems to be solved….

[Serling's tone was] high-minded, idealistic, if sometimes overly formal and didactic, believing that mass drama could do something. And he did do something: With a staggering artistic stamina during those early days Serling turned out over 100 quality scripts. He sprang upon the public consciousness in 1955 with "Patterns" on Kraft Television Theater—a story of the emotional destruction wreaked by corporate inhumanity that won Serling his first Emmy. A year later he topped himself with his most famous work, "Requiem for a Heavyweight," on Playhouse 90.

When his market dried up, Serling conceived of Twilight Zone, which he produced, hosted and did much of the writing for. With the series, Serling and his magic voice became a part of mass culture and modern folklore. But it also made him a "media person," much in demand for talk shows and commercials. For the rest of his life Serling continued to wrestle with the conflict of the serious artist vs. the public personality….

It is unclear what directions Serling would have moved in had he lived the additional years he had a right to expect. It is doubtful he would have wanted much more to do with television. At the time of his death Twilight Zone was more than ten years old. And the video era he embodied was essentially over—the medium that was half his age had grown old far faster than he had.

Mark Olshaker, "Requiem for a Heavyweight: Final Tribute," in New Times, Vol. 5, No. 2, July 25, 1975, p. 68.

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