In 1959, Hollywood’s own Angry Young Man, Rod Serling, launched one of the most memorable anthology series of television history, The Twilight Zone. It’s a science fiction series, but it’s never been all spaceships and alien encounters, as most assume of the sci-fi genre these days, but more often dystopia, time travel, extreme natural disasters, and a lot of times plots or even elements that others might consider more fantasy –common themes in stories explore the fine line between insanity and different realities, or science fiction and ghost stories. An entire episode is even dedicated to the idea of reality as experienced by five dolls in a charity’s donation bin.
Having watched most episodes over the last six months, I feel confident in saying this: Rod Serling was one pessimistic curmudgeon. Among the common themes of most episodes includes “people are horrible to each other” and “humanity will damn itself before anything else could”. He was also a fan of cosmic irony, one of the most famous examples in The Twilight Zone being the episode “Time Enough at Last”, about a man who, at first on the verge of losing his job due to reading, suddenly finds himself the sole survivor of a disaster that otherwise destroyed the city, because he had been locked in the bank vault reading; toward the end of the episode, he realises that, though alone, he now finally has time enough to read everything he wants, without any fear s of having to do anything else that could get in the way of his reading —only to accidentally step on and destroy his glasses, after carefully arranging the first stacks of books he wanted to read. In Serling’s world of dubious reality and aliens planting just the tiniest seeds to let humanity destroy itself, there is clearly some divine force at work to make sure that no-one is ever happy.
Serling totally earned his nickname of “angry young man of Hollywood”, which was likely drawn from both the similarities between himself and the vague collection of British writers the term had been applied to across the Atlantic (practically none of whom liked the label, and only just barely could tolerate each-other) and the high amount of criticism he had of the industry, especially earlier on in his career, though by the time of The Twilight Zone, he had claimed to have “outgrown” that moniker, and by the age of 34 in 1959, was simply “petulant”[link], and claimed that his waning anger was due in part to his own success affording him freedoms he previously didn’t have. To be frank, I simply cannot envision a Mod scene without an appreciation for not only crime dramas, but also a deep appreciation for Rod Serling.
Though his next major anthology series, The Night Gallery, suffered in quality which he later blamed on himself, it’s still worth seeing, in this humble (p)op-art-culture junkie’s opinion. To address the wane in quality, Serling said he had grown weary of the pressures associated with the kind of creative control he had on The Twilight Zone, so agreed to less control over The Night Gallery (with his only contributions to some episodes being his introduction sequences). While I generally enjoy the themes of classic science fiction and even horror (one of the major differences between The Night Gallery and The Twilight Zone is that the latter was dominated by themes common to science fiction, fantasy, and were often philosophical –The Night Gallery primarily focused on horror, including psychological horror and its overlapping with science fiction, the macabre and “supernatural”, and often aimed for black and dark humour), the quality of The Night Gallery, when compared to The Twilight Zone, is very apparent. While Serling certainly had a handful of other writers and directors contributing to The Twilight Zone, the quality was constant, and one typically needs to check the credits to know whether it’s a Serling-heavy episode, or whether the writing and/or direction was taken on by others. The Night Gallery, in contrast, has the inverse true: If you’re familiar with The Twilight Zone, it’s generally pretty easy to pick out which stories showcased on The Night Gallery were Serling-heavy, while many others very clearly were not. But even on his major contributions to The Night Gallery, he stuck to the reality that he knew best: Humans are horrible to each-other, humans are all doomed at their own hands, and the Fates have a sick sense of humour.