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Monday, March 23, 2009


Between last Christmas and now (time considerations being what they are), I spent some of my dinner hours in the same way that I spent a couple of summers when I was in school: Catching up on (or revisiting, in this case) Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

Night Gallery was the series that the creator of The Twilight Zone did on NBC at what would be the twilight of his illustrious career. I remember being truly fixated on this show when it was actually on. Rod Serling was one of my boyhood heroes and I seized on anything and everything about his imaginative stories. Back then you could not have convinced me that Rod Serling was not God Almighty. I was in total awe and hero-worship of him. As an aspiring imaginative storyteller myself, I thought there could be nothing cooler in the universe than to be the person who not only created The Twilight Zone, but wrote it and introduced it on the air! Before I wanted to be Gene Roddenberry (and before I settled on wanting to be Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), I wanted to be Rod Serling. And now, with Night Gallery, he was doing it again!

My misfortune back in those days was that Night Gallery ran at 10 PM on Wednesday evenings for its first two seasons, I didn’t yet have a TV of my own, home video was still in the future, and my parents wouldn’t let me stay up to watch the Gallery for those two years. I truly agonized over this. It was a kind of torture. I used to sneak downstairs to my sister’s room to watch the show surreptitiously (until my mother caught me, damnit, and I think it was right in the middle of “Pickman’s Model”). Some nights I used to lie in bed, desperately listening to faint sounds of the show emanating from my father’s room down the hall. (Such as the night when the episodes “The Phantom Farmhouse” and “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” which got a “Close-Up” in TV Guide as two of the best stories in the series, aired for the first time.) Thus I remember a couple of summers, when there was no school, that I spent glued to the TV every Wednesday evening for the reruns of my show.

What is now a truly obscure fact of TV history is that Night Gallery was created as one element of one of those “rotating series” that TV, and NBC in particular, used to do in the 1970s. Night Gallery was originally part of a rotating series called Four in One, in which one of the other shows that alternated in the time slot was McCloud starring Dennis Weaver. Four in One lasted only one season, but McCloud was imported into The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie where it alternated with Columbo starring Peter Falk and McMillan and Wife starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James. Night Gallery was (I assume) the most popular part of Four in One (and rightly so), and was promoted to a weekly series the following season.

Night Gallery was different in concept and emphasis from The Twilight Zone. The format was that there was a macabre museum filled with disturbing paintings and sculptures, each one illustrating a different creepy story, many of them written (or adapted from works of horror fiction) by Rod himself. Rod would usher us into the Gallery, acting as our tour guide, show us a given painting, and set up the story to follow. Where T. Zone dealt mostly in fantasy and dabbled in unscientific science fiction, Night Gallery mostly concentrated on horror and the occult. (With some exceptions, and we’ll be discussing those next week.)

However, Night Gallery was also a reiteration of Rod Serling’s love/hate relationship with the medium of television that made him rich and famous. It’s at this point that I wish I had gotten round to buying the Night Gallery book (note to self--DO THAT!), for what I have to offer you by way of background comes from the chapter on the show in the book Fantastic Television by Gary Gerani and Paul Schulman. Their Night Gallery chapter begins with a telling quote from the master storyteller himself:

“The way the studio wants to do it, a character won’t be able to walk by a graveyard. He’ll have to be chased. They’re trying to turn it into Mannix in a shroud”. (In one of the earliest Quantum Blogs I remembered that Mannix is a show for which I cared nothing, except that I loved its jazz-waltz theme music by Mission Impossible composer Lalo Schifrin!)

This kind of thing is, I’m sure, the reason why Rod wrote the Twilight Zone episode “The Bard”. (Look it up if you’re not a Zonie.) That story must have been a kind of therapy--and revenge!--for him. Fantastic Television goes on to illuminate Rod’s conflict over what would be his last weekly series:

In sharp contrast to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery was panned by critics. Among those not infatuated with the show was Rod Serling himself. No stranger to the interference of sponsor, networks, and censors, Serling once again found himself locked by contract into an untenable situation. Imagine a clothing company started by a tailor whose name is sterling to his customers--Gluckman, let’s call him. Gluckman’s success and popularity are based on his flawless reputation. His main competitor is Schwartz’s Ready-to-Wear, where everything is done by machine. The day comes when Gluckman produces a few designs and finds that they can’t be marketed because his company, too, has hired machines to imitate the stuff being cranked out by Schwartz. And there is nothing Gluckman can do about it.

That is the kind of situation Rod Serling found himself in. He owned Night Gallery, created it, and it was sold to network and audience on his reputation. The competition on CBS was Mannix, a formula private-eye shoot-and-rough-’em-up. Serling felt that NBC and Universal were doing their best to imitate Mannix, with an emphasis on monsters, chases, and fights. They turned down many of his scripts as “too thoughtful”. Serling lamented, “They don’t want to compete against Mannix in terms of contrast, but similarity.” Not only was Serling unable to sell them scripts, he was also barred from casting sessions, and couldn’t make decisions about his show--he had signed away creative control. As a result, he tried to have his name removed from the title, but NBC had him contract-bound to play host and cordially introduce the parasite to the TV audience.

Being “too thoughtful” was what got Star Trek passed over on its initial pitch, as we’ll remember. Object lesson: Avoid at all costs relinquishing control over something that you have created! If television values your work enough to want to buy it and put it on the air with your name on it, make sure what they’re going to put on the air is your true vision! I can only imagine the grief that my hero Rod Serling suffered over this show.

It is testament to the strength of Rod’s vision and the talent that he put into it that Night Gallery frequently rose above the banality to which NBC and Universal would have consigned it, and produced some stories that more than justified my furtive boyhood efforts to watch it. Most of the best work on the show was in the second season, which I just finished watching on DVD. This is because the second season was a full season with hour-long, multiple-story episodes. The first season, Night Gallery had its hour-long, multiple-story format, but was part of Four in One. The third season (when NBC dumped it on Sunday nights at 10 PM Eastern) was half an hour with only one story a week. In next week’s Quantum Blog, we’re going to take a tour of the Gallery and look at the best of Rod’s ghoulish treats. See you then.

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