'Twilight' of a god in stark tones TV preview: PBS biography on Rod Serling emphasizes his strengths as a writer in the Golden Age of television.

November 29, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You just knew the scriptwriter of "Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval" wasn't going to be able to resist imitating the distinctive Serling style at some point. And there it is in the very first words and pictures of the 90-minute PBS biography airing as part of the distinguished "American Masters" series tonight at 9 on MPT and WETA.

The scene is a hospital operating room filled with doctors and nurses desperately trying to save a patient. It's filmed in black and white.

"The man in cardiac arrest is Mr. Rod Serling -- writer, producer and agent provocateur of a certain electronic medium he helped to create and which, by way of thanks, kindly ushered him out the door," the voice of the omniscient narrator tells us. The camera pulls back and up to establish our point of view as god-like, looking down on the scene.

"Mr. Rod Serling," the narrator continues, "who once remarked that he wanted to be remembered as a writer, is about to get his wish during a short stay in a small town called Yesterday, found on any map, in the Twilight Zone."

The profile that follows this clever homage to "Twilight Zone" is so strong you hesitate to emphasize such matters of style. But producer/director Susan Lacy did such a splendid job of wedding style and substance in her critique of Serling's life that both ought to be celebrated.

The entire film, for example, is done in black and white. This makes for a more perfect union of clips from Serling's voluminous library of television work and those who come on-camera to help place him on the commercial TV timeline.

Most viewers probably know Serling -- who died of a heart attack in 1975 at age 50 -- only by his on-camera persona introducing episodes of "Twilight Zone" and "Night Gallery." But Lacy nevers wavers in her focus on Serling the writer -- the essential Rod Serling.

After some 40 rejections, Serling exploded on the network TV scene in 1955 with "Patterns" for the Kraft Television Playhouse. This, along with "Requiem for a Heavyweight," marked him as a key figure in what's been called the Golden Age of Television Drama.

"Patterns" is an uncompromising look at the cutthroat nature of corporate politics, featuring a naive executive brought from the Midwest to New York headquarters to run an older man off his job. Lacy includes enough of "Patterns" to challenge the pop culture analysis that the 1950s were all "Father Knows Best" and white picket fences. Serling's controversial, socially conscious themes quickly earned him the title of "angry young man," and extra-heavy scrutiny from network censors.

"The Twilight Zone" was his brilliant solution in 1959 to making a living in network television without silencing his social conscience: He'd use the language of fable and fantasy to end run network and sponsor insistence on noncontroversial subject matter. As Serling put it, "I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say."

As well as producing and serving as host for "Twilight Zone" from 1959 to 1965, Serling wrote 70 percent of all teleplays. Not surprisingly, he burned out. The post-burnout period was not pretty.

He did write one good feature film screenplay, "Seven Days in May," but he also embarrassed himself as a frontman for "Night Gallery," a series in which he had no creative involvement. The lowest low came when he shilled for Schlitz beer in the early '70s (artists once held themselves above such behavior -- hard as that is to appreciate in today's commercial-stupefied culture).

Carol Serling, his wife, crystallizes the motives behind the cycles of Serling's life as a writer. The talking heads -- including director John Frankenheimer ("Seven Days in May") to actors Jack Palance ("Requiem") -- generally offer informed analysis.

In fact, the worst criticism that can be leveled is that there aren't enough talking heads. One or two dispassionate television scholars would have helped place Serling historically for us. They might have been more critical than his colleagues, but they could not have been tougher on Serling than he was on himself. At the end of his life, we are told, he considered himself a failure.

But, then, the omniscient narrator returns, while a scene from "Twilight Zone" plays out on the screen.

"Some achievement can be measured in Nielsen points, and some neatly summarized on a balance sheet," the voice says. "A word to the wise: Ordinary benchmarks can't be used to measure artistry.

"Case in point: Mr. Rod Serling. Occupation: writer, a modern-day Aesop who, by tickling our imagination, slipped a little wisdom into our pockets and, then, slipped away too early -- perhaps, for an appointment in the Twilight Zone."

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