Homage to Rod Serling, a Great American

By Ralph Dumain

In speaking of my childhood I have often quipped that I got my value system not from the Bible but from The Twilight Zone. This may be an exaggeration, but not by far. The Twilight Zone taught essentially the same humanistic lessons as several other dramatic series of the early 1960s, but it was at or near the top of the list of the greatest and most original and memorable offerings of the “vast wasteland” of my childhood. Over the past half century I have watched these episodes hundreds of times. Naturally, as an adult, I am capable of judging the television of my youth in a wider and deeper context, but not because of age alone.

I have also learned to appreciate highly literate television writers and personalities of that time—of which Serling is one—whose scripts and speech abounded with literary and philosophical references, rather than references to other television shows and pop culture. These people did not grow up on television; they probably went to the movies, but they lived real lives and read books.

Some decades ago I bought a couple of paperbacks consisting of stories Serling himself wrote for the series, but I learned, just from watching those episodes, that Serling’s own scripts were readily identifiable. Serling’s sympathies were on his sleeve in his writing: for the downtrodden, the trapped, the losers, the alienated, the victims of prejudice, the deracinated souls with a misplaced or genuine nostalgia for the past or for the intimacy of small towns. A Twilight Zone episode imbued with any of these themes is a tell-tale sign of a Serling script. Serling’s compassionate perspective is something I learned to appreciate more and more re-viewing these episodes as an adult.

This was Serling’s signature, though much of American television drama of that period reflected a characteristic American moral idealism. Aside from the strict censorship that clamped down on anything smacking of social criticism or flouting convention, there is an inherent limitation to that moral idealism itself. One could criticize the failure to live up to professed ideals and single out specific abuses and injustices, but one could then not address the fundamental structural flaws of American society and American institutions. The institutional structure of American society could be seen as an impersonal machine swallowing up unfortunate individuals trapped in unfavorable circumstances, but the system could not be seen as fundamentally corrupt or malicious. (How the basic assumptions have changed, especially when remakes of old movies and television series are done, with business leaders and government officials routinely opportunistic or corrupt.)

Such were the political limitations of American liberalism, but that moral idealism, paradoxically functioning as ideologically liberating and confining, had one redeeming strength: it was a manifestation of raised expectations: not only could individuals exploit whatever opportunities they could for their own benefit, but society as a whole could be made better for everyone. This was not just the liberalism of the elite, but the liberalism of the masses, so to speak. Because expectations were raised so high, the gap between the actual and the ideal could be made visible, and frustrated liberalism could morph into radicalism. Liberalism raised hopes for a better world, and that’s why it had to be destroyed.

The function of cynicism now is not to stimulate the struggle for a better world, but to foster the lowering of expectations—a manifestation of cultural decadence and a major ideological engine for social control. We cannot return to an innocence we never deserved, but we can measure the contradictions of the social changes connecting then and now.

As a child I didn’t understand the overall context in which The Twilight Zone appeared and the conditions under which it and other series had to operate. I also didn’t know about Serling’s earlier history in the 1950s as a celebrated writer of television dramas and the themes he addressed, or attempted to address while being censored, for example, his concern with racial prejudice. The suits were scared of everything in those days and interfered under premises different from those of today. For your consideration:

Uncensored: 'Twilight Zone' Creator's Script on Emmett Till Case

In directly addressing the public, Serling always emphasized his concern with social issues, though not as a radical. He knew he was a product of an earlier era than the rebels of the ‘60s, but he expressed disgust at the same offenses that they did. Here is a characteristic example:

Rod Serling at Moorpark College in 1968

A friend of mine, now deceased, who was an SDS organizer at Cornell, told me that Serling was willing to extend himself and give student radicals a voice on his radio show to air their issues.

Serling represented the best of American liberalism, now disappeared, and here I intend ‘disappeared’ as a transitive verb.

I was fortunate to see Serling in person once. The only written record of his appearance in Buffalo to my knowledge is in the campus newspaper of Buffalo State College:

Rod Serling in Buffalo, 18 Oct 1972:
“The Twentieth Century and Other Absurdities”

I can find no written account of my own. I remember only two remarks that Serling made on this occasion, one of which is recorded in this newspaper: “biting the hand that has fed me . . .” I recall him saying this at the beginning of his presentation. I'll get to my second remembrance shortly.

The newspaper recounts Serling’s gripes with television's tastelessness, complaints that seem quaint by today’s standards. Serling complained about greed, sexual innuendo, humiliation, and bad taste in game shows—“Let's Make a Deal,” “The Dating Game,” “This Is Your Life,”—and TV commercials, a depraved scenario he correlated with the political depravity of the time. Serling died in 1975. Even in the world of science fiction he could not have conceived of what was to come, and how the world of television and politics of today would make the world of 40 years ago look like a golden age by comparison.

My one other memory of Serling’s speech was not reported in the campus newspaper. Serling said we need to care about one another.

I think this says what needed to be said. What else could I add to this modest tribute?

© 2012 Ralph Dumain