Book Review: Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination by Nicholas Parisi
by Eric Gilliland
Few figures have influenced the popular memory more than Rod Serling (1924-1975). His work continues to captivate the imaginations of millions in the decades since his passing. In our current era of uncertainty with a creeping authoritarianism seeping into the political discourse we turn to Serling’s warnings on the dangers of prejudice, demagoguery, and intolerance going unchecked. Nicholas Parisi’s comprehensive study covers Sterling’s wide-ranging work in multiple mediums that included radio, television, theater, and film. A volume of perceptive criticism with valuable biographical insights, Parisi traces Serling’s evolution as a writer and the themes he returned to throughout his career as a writer and public personality.
Serling grew up in in Binghamton, New York and had a rather ordinary childhood, a place he would often return to in his writing (The Twilight Zone episode “Walking Distance” being an example). He served in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War as a paratrooper, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. His war experiences would influence his work which often dealt with the lasting consequences of violence. Shaken by what he saw in the war, Serling dealt with PTSD symptoms for the duration of his life. Aimless after the war he found purpose through creative writing as a student during his years at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.
After college Serling found work writing scripts for local radio and television in Cincinnati. Parisi devotes particular attention to a short-lived anthology TV series Serling authored entitled The Storm, a precursor to The Twilight Zone. The Storm revealed his interest in fantastical storytelling to address current social issues. An episode entitled “As Yet Untitled” dealt with a Chinese-American couple being persecuted after moving into a white neighborhood, which was based on a real incident in San Francisco. Most of his early radio and television work in Cincinnati only exists in script form that’s available at his archives at Ithaca College and it is to the author’s credit for unearthing these key works in Serling’s evolution as a writer.
From Cincinnati he moved on to New York City and began writing for the television networks. He broke in during the “Golden Age of Television” when live dramas were shaping the future of the medium. If movie studios were still relying on big budget star driven vehicles, television was moving in the direction of gritty socially relevant stories that were giving voice to a new generation of writers, directors, and actors. Patterns would be the work that made Serling a household name, a stark tale of corporate intrigue presenting a grim vision of the American dream, in Serling’s words, “an indictment of the supposed values of a society that places such stock in success and has so little preoccupation with morality when success has been attained.” Patterns would be made into a feature film, as would his other teleplays Requiem for a Heavyweight and The Rack.
Parisi also details Serling’s battles with censors during his years writing for live television, with “Noon on Doomsday” being a noteworthy example. Based on the 1955 Emmett Till case, Till was a 14 year old African-American teenager who was lynched in Mississippi while visiting relatives. When Till’s murderers were acquitted by an all-white jury, it became a moment that would galvanize The Civil Rights Movement. Serling was outraged at the triumph of racism and mob justice in America and felt compelled to write a teleplay directly addressing the gross injustices of the Jim Crow system. Sponsors and the network feared that such direct references to the case would offend white Southerners and hurt advertising revenue, so he had to water down the script into a vague story dealing with mob justice set in New England with barely a mention of race. His struggles with censorship led to the creation of The Twilight Zone, the legendary anthology series that would give him complete creative control.
When The Twilight Zone debuted on CBS during the fall of 1959 it would change television forever. Serling’s creative breakthrough allowed him to explore social issues through the lens of fantasy and science fiction. He wrote 92 of the 156 episodes, supported by some of the strongest genre writers of the day including Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, and Ray Bradbury. Serling’s opening and closing narration for each episode allowed him to act as a presence outside of the show’s universe. While the Cold War anxieties of the era are evident throughout the run of the series, The Twilight Zone also dealt with issues of history including The Holocaust in “Deaths-Head Revisited” and mob mentality in “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Noteworthy episodes also looked towards the future and the changing relationship between humanity and technology.
The Twilight Zone shaped the collective unconscious of the burgeoning boomer generation. Everyone who came after, including Stephen King to Jordan Peele, have cited Serling as a major influence. Like most anthology shows, the quality was inconsistent, but so many episodes hold up as classics. It ran for five season and has remained a staple of syndication, 24-hour marathons are an annual New Year’s Day tradition on the Syfy channel. From clever parodies on The Simpsons to multiple reboots, The Twilight Zone has never gone out of style.
Serling’s next TV project was The Loner, an allegorical Western starring Lloyd Bridges that ran for one season on CBS. Still largely unseen, The Loner was finally released on DVD in 2016. Serling wrote 15 of the 26 episodes with the American West serving as a backdrop to explore his recurring themes of intolerance and the consequences of violence. Bridges played William Colton, a Union Captain haunted by his experiences during the Civil War, he searches for meaning, often finding himself in the role as peacemaker. Parisi compares the show’s existential themes to The Prisoner, in any event, The Loner is a must see for fans of Serling.
In the latter half of the 1960s Serling continued to work in film and television. He earned a screenwriting credit for the classic Sci-Fi film Planet of the Apes and the political thriller Seven Days in May. Various TV projects continued, perhaps most famously “Carol for Another Christmas.” The Christmas season was another setting Serling loved to write about. Airing on December 28, 1964, Parisi called it the darkest interpretation ever written on the immortal Charles Dickens novel A Christmas Carol. The stellar cast included Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers (a Dr. Strangelove reunion) and it dealt with heady themes of corporate greed and nuclear war!
Night Gallery would become another notable TV project. An anthology series that ran from 1969-1972, the pilot episode featured an early directorial effort from Steven Spielberg entitled “The Eye.” Night Gallery emphasized horror and fantasy with Serling hosting and writing about 40% of the scripts. But it would prove be an unhappy experience. Without creative control Serling was chagrined to stand by as his scripts underwent significant revision in some cases. Parisi sees much to admire in Serling’s Night Gallery work, including special praise the collection of short stories that adapted his episodes into print form. After Night Gallery Serling remained a presence on television (often as a narrator) and continued to write screenplays until his untimely passing in 1975. In 2013 J.J. Abrams’s production company Bad Robot purchased the rights to one of Serling’s unproduced screenplays “The Stops Along the Way” about a hitchhiker aging from a young to old man as he travels across America.
Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination belongs on the bookshelf of any pop culture devotee. Everything Serling wrote is summarized and critiqued by Parisi, along with supplemental chapters focusing on specific ideas in his work. For Serling, television was never a place simply for mere entertainment, but one to expand the minds of those willing to go along with him on the journey.