Thursday, October 19, 2017

Book Review: Serling by Gordon F. Sander

Serling: The Rise and Twilight of Television's Last Angry Man by Gordon F. Sander

Rod Serling achieved his lasting fame in the early 1960s when he wrote, produced, and hosted the iconic science fiction and fantasy series The Twilight Zone. The series was wildly popular (and is still in syndication and streaming today) thanks to the intelligent scripts, the visual creativity, the twist endings, and the compelling nature of Serling's introductions and conclusions. The series spawned many imitators and the phrase "twilight zone" has become idiomatic.

Even before The Twilight Zone, Serling was a television celebrity, writing many dramas in the golden age of television, including Requiem for a Heavyweight (later made into a film) and Patterns (his breakout work that earned him his first of six Emmy awards in less than ten years). He wrote about both political and personal challenges of his day. He drew from his life experience as well.

Serling grew up in rural New York. During World War II, he joined the 511th Airborne as a paratrooper, even though he was too short to qualify. He had the personal ambition and strength of will to be a paratrooper. Ironically, he saw very little action for the first few years but then was part of the very intense fighting in the Pacific theater. He returned at the end of the war, as many GIs did, to college. He worked at the campus radio station where he first felt the need to entertain. He worked in radio as a script writer and made the transition to television as it became more popular. The intimacy and the immediacy of television fascinated him and, with a lot of work under his belt, he became a fine writer.

The book starts with his personal life but his writing career becomes the central focus. Serling's wife Carol fades into the background as Serling's television career takes off. Sander mentions that Serling had affairs after the family moved to Hollywood but does not delve into them. Serling was also distant from his two daughters, who are only mentioned occasionally. The real focus of this book is on Serling as an icon of television's golden age and how the collapse of that age played out in his life. Like film auteur Orson Welles, Serling started to cash in on his celebrity, doing parodies of himself and working on commercials. In the last years of his life, Serling's greatest joy was teaching college, where the students were often in awe of him, something Hollywood lost when The Twilight Zone finished. His personal life is at best a secondary theme of the book.

The book identifies Serling as "television's last angry man" in part because of his career ambitions. He wanted to write great dramas about contemporary topics. He especially wanted to write against prejudice, which he abhorred. At first, television was looking for prestige projects to validate the medium as a form of art as well as entertainment. Sponsors and executives eventually became more concerned to avoid controversy, making it a fight for Serling to produce what he wanted. Ironically, starting The Twilight Zone looked like a sell-out for Serling--he'd be making a popular entertainment show. But it really gave him a platform from which to comment on social issues and morality, albeit indirectly through placing the issues in other times or places.  The production schedule on the show was too much, leading to burn out and a drop in quality in the later years. Those factors, combined with increasing challenges with the network and the sponsors, drove Serling away from Hollywood in frustration over what he could no longer do.

I found the book fascinating throughout. I didn't mind the focus on his career (gossipy biographies are of little interest to me). His early life and military service are interesting, especially when they are connected to his writing career.

Recommended, especially for Twilight Zone fans.

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