The high points of Rod Serling’s career illustrate what can be achieved in commercial television, even under conditions of heavy-handed censorship. Television plays like Patterns (1955) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) proved that entertainment programs could also treat contemporary issues seriously, while his signature series, The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) offered a series of case studies on how to incorporate political and social criticism within standard television genres.
Things went downhill from there for Serling, who found himself increasingly in conflict with the changing demands of commercial television. He stayed away for a while, working in radio, teaching writing, and making a few appearances in TV commercials, then returned with Night Gallery (1970-73), which tried to duplicate the magic of the Twilight Zone, right down to the opening narrations. But times had changed, Serling had aged (he died in 1975, at age 50), and the show achieved mixed results at best. Season 3 consists of 17 half-hour episodes, and while some of them are entirely forgettable, others have that special something that makes them worth watching almost 50 years later.
One of my favorites from season 3 is “Spectre in Tap-Shoes,” directed by Jeannot Szwarc from a screenplay by Gene R. Kearney and series producer Jack Laird. It’s primarily a Sandra Dee vehicle, in which she plays two roles: a middle-aged woman and her sister who died by suicide at a young age. The plot is nothing special, but Dee sells it, the use of offscreen sound is effective (there’s a screenwriting reason little sis did tap, not ballet) and the episode succeeds best when it suggests rather than shows.
That’s a note that I’d like to issue retroactively to all for many episodes in this series—things are usually scarier if you turn the lights down so the audience isn’t entirely sure what they are seeing. That approach also has the benefit of disguising cheapness in the set and props, a problem otherwise intensified when shooting in color. The saying that electric lighting was the death of ghost stories has never had a truer demonstration—what seems silly or lurid when lit like a soap opera can take on a mysterious tone with the addition of shadows. I have the same criticism of the storytelling in many of these episodes—way too much focus on providing explanations for everything, rather than leaving things a bit mysterious—so maybe the visual style deliberately reflects the storytelling ideal for this series.
“Something in the Woodwork, directed by Edward M. Abroms from a script by Serling, stars Geraldine Page as Molly, a divorcee who has been hitting the bottle pretty hard, a fact that may be related to her discovery of a spirit in her attic. Her ex-husband Charlie (Leif Erickson) has moved on to a younger woman, and considers Molly something of an inconvenience in his life, particularly when it comes to her boozy habits. Molly hasn’t gotten over being dumped, and she’s also not interested in Charlie’s meddling in her private habits. Perhaps the spirit in the attic could help? Unusually ambitious cinematography by Lloyd Ahern and above-average art direction by Joe Alves complement Page’s committed performance, and this is one episode whose conclusion I definitely did not see coming.
Favorites are subjective, of course, and other episodes also offer much to enjoy. There’s the creepy, swampy atmosphere of “Death on a Barge,” for instance, and the scenery chewing by Vincent Price in “The Return of the Sorcerer.” There’s the inventive use of color in “The Ring with the Red Velvet Ropes” and the Twilight Zone-like twist of “Rare Objects” (written by Serling). Above all, there’s a whole lot of commentary tracks (many episodes have more than one) featuring a variety of voices, including Guillermo del Toro, Kim Newman, David J. Schow, Tim Lucas, John Badham, Jeannot Swarc, Raymond Masset, and Lindsay Wagner. | Sarah Boslaugh
Night Gallery Season 3 is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. The sound and picture quality are great, but the real appeal of this release is the generous packages of extras, including 25 episode commentaries and part 3 of Craig Beam’s featurette on the show’s history in syndication. A four-page episode guide, offering capsule plot summaries and key cast and crew is also included.