When a Golden-Age Writer Decided to Go Commercial

After countless battles with advertisers, Rod Serling showed them How It Was Done.

THE television writer and producer Rod Serling died 23 years ago, but watching him in action today is as engrossing as taking in one of his fanciful dramas. Maybe more so. “There is a fifth dimension,” he says at the start of many episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” the famed science fiction series that ran from 1959 to 1965 and was his signature. “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.”

That the words still stand as one of the more memorable utterances of American popular culture is largely because of the way Serling spoke them: smoothly and resonantly, with the smug yet winning assurance of a man with absolute knowledge of a product and how to sell it. In fact, when he was talking to potential advertisers about The Twilight Zone, that was exactly how he referred to it: “product.”

As caught in “Treasures of the Twilight Zone,” a new pair of digital video disks from Panasonic Interactive Media, Serling is a man of both artistic and pragmatic dispositions. On the disks are six half-hour episodes, including the pilot (“Where Is Everybody?”), biographical material about Serling and the show, and several features with the man strutting his stuff, so to speak, in front of tough audiences.

In one of these clips, called “Pitches,” Serling talks to Madison Avenue about his new show. In honor of the audience, presumably Oxford wing-tipped corporate types, the little address begins behind a desk but soon repairs to props arranged around the set. Serling, all faintly condescending brilliance and speaking with that renowned punchy articulation, strides to a bucket of sand, which he spills dramatically across a table. Slowly he sifts some through his hand. Viewers are to imagine a desert on an asteroid in space and the nightmarish loneliness of a man stranded thereon.

The presentation moves on, with Serling leaning jauntily against a huge camera. Lightning flashes and thunder rolls. Serling puts on that little grin. Imagine a little Faustian tale.

Perhaps the best part is that Serling remains rather likable. For a fuller picture, the disks include an interview with Mike Wallace in 1959. Mr. Wallace asks Serling, the writer of epic television dramas like “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” if he is selling out by undertaking a popular series, which will inevitably mean concessions to advertisers and mass tastes.

SERLING replies that throughout his career, he has acquiesced in only a few minor instances. Mr. Wallace notes that both Paddy Chayevsky and Gore Vidal left television when it became too oppressive. Has Serling thought about becoming a novelist? Serling disarmingly replies that he’s not sure he could make it outside television, then defends his decision succinctly.

“Calling something commercial isn’t putting a tag on it that it stinks,” he says.

This article appeared in the June 6, 1998 New York Times