By Tony Albarella
The Loner has always been one of Rod Serling’s “lost” works, in nearly every sense of the word. This 1965-66 Western follow-up to Serling’s classic series The Twilight Zone featured Lloyd Bridges as William Colton, a post-Civil War ex-Calvary officer on a philosophical journey to bury his wartime experiences in the past and discover his future in the West. Serling’s dialogue-heavy morality tales did not fit the shoot-‘em-up action formula and The Loner struggled to run a single season. The show languished in television obscurity for decades, and, when it did resurface in 1998, did so in only as an incomplete run of sporadically aired, trimmed-for-time reruns on the cable channel TV Land.
Then a wonderful thing happened. Home video and music company Shout! Factory acquired the rights, and a budget-market release of the complete series breezed into town like Bill Colton on horseback. The DVD set is currently a Walmart exclusive, being sold in stores and online, but future plans apparently call for a more widespread release. This reviewer can report some difficulty in locating a set – my local Walmart stores did not stock it, and two online orders resulted only in “pending” shipments that never arrived – but I was overjoyed just to see an official release. (Eventually, eBay rode to the rescue in securing me a copy.)
Happily, I can report that The Loner: The Complete Series is not only complete but of excellent quality. All 26 black-and-white half-hour episodes are present and accounted for, and look and sound about as crisp as one can expect from non-restored prints of a show from this era. Unlike many low-rent DVD releases, the content is not compressed into dual-side, double layer discs that compromise on video quality. The packaging includes interior cover art and disc labels, making for a very professional-looking presentation.
The Loner’s lone extra is a roughly half-hour documentary on the show, custom produced for the set, and is the source of perhaps my only gripe about this release. “The Wandering Man’s Burden: Making The Loner” is a bit of a lightweight affair that focuses primarily on Lloyd Bridges and quickly skims over the development and demise of the series. (A more in-depth and well-rounded treatment can be found in the Loner segment of the excellent 1995 American Masters episode “Rod Serling: Submitted for your Approval.”) This complaint, however, is very minor, as it’s a pleasant surprise to see any kind of extra in an affordable DVD release of an obscure TV show.
I won’t belabor those unfamiliar with the series with an episodic blow-by-blow; suffice to say that with its moral-dilemma plotting (featuring humble, down-on-their-luck protagonists and brutish, blowhard, bigoted bad guys), The Loner is all Serling. He personally wrote 15 episodes and all of them drip with his signature style. In fact, the episodes not penned by Serling stand out in such stark contrast that no writing credit is needed to tell which is which.
I do, however, feel compelled to comment on two of the Serling-written “lost” episodes (those absent from the broadcasts that made the bootleg rounds). “The Mourners for Johnny Sharp” is a well-cast two-parter that starts off with a slow and fairly pedestrian first episode but finishes strongly with an offbeat, deliciously dark second half. There are no supernatural elements in the story, but Twilight Zone fans are sure to recognize the four titular mourners as mirror images of the Harper family in “The Masks.” “The Sheriff at Fetterman’s Crossing” provides further proof that comedy was not Serling’s forte, and that broad humor is even more misplaced in a brooding, philosophical Western than it was in The Twilight Zone.
On the whole, The Loner is a unique and intriguing series that deserves more recognition than it has yet to receive. This “Thinking Man’s Western” is a far cry from the average escapist oater, and while The Loner is a welcome treat for fans of Serling’s writing and Bridges’ acting, there’s little mystery as to why a show about a preachy, war-weary veteran failed to resonate with an audience seeking respite from nightly-news reports about civil unrest and Vietnam.
In a 2001 article chronicling the series, I remarked that “There are no Loner comic books or lunch boxes, no William Colton plastic cap pistols, and none of the merchandising that accompanies the successful Westerns of the period.” While nostalgic merchandising is a very hot commercial commodity these days, it revolves around marketing memories of only popular shows, so we still will never see those Loner lunchboxes or cap pistols. But half a century after the birth and death of the series – and well after Bridges’ and Serling’s time – we finally have what is essentially the greatest merchandising item of all: an affordable and quality means of viewing and preserving The Loner.