When Television Challenged America (Rod Serling)

Around this time of year, I’m often prone to recall Rod Serling, who was born on Christmas Day. I’m helped along by the fact that PBS ran their “American Masters” portrait of Serling over the New Year’s weekend even as the Sci Fi Channel ran a “Twilight Zone” marathon. It makes me wonder: Where is Serling — or today’s Serling — when you really need him?

My interest in Serling is professional as well as personal: For the last several years, together with writers Ron Magid and Paul Clemens, I’ve been trying to produce a Serling biopic in partnership with producer Steve Rubin and Serling’s widow, Carol.

What I find so compelling about Serling is this: It’s 1950s Eisenhower America and the country has been lulled into a false sense of comfort by Betty Crocker images of the happy and prosperous American middle-class family. But Serling knows different.

Raised in upstate New York, one of the few Jews in Binghampton, he served as a paratrooper in the Pacific, and returned home suffering from nightmares about his service there. A driven writer, he wanted to wake up America to another reality: He wanted Americans to know about lynchings in the South, about the Holocaust, about the possibility of nuclear destruction. TV networks and their advertisers didn’t want controversy, they wanted audiences. But Serling conceived a way to get his message across, using science fiction. Serling created “The Twilight Zone,” transforming the medium and its viewers.

Over the course of five seasons, Serling poured out his heart and soul, driving himself to near creative exhaustion. As host and narrator, he kept the show on the air by being its pitchman, gaining fame but almost selling his soul in the process. By the time “The Twilight Zone” went off the air in 1965, a different America was dawning — an America that had witnessed nuclear tests, the Bay of Pigs and President Kennedy’s assassination. An America that would soon be marching in the streets to protest civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

Prior to Serling, neither news nor entertainment programming exposed America’s real crises. Now that the news was finally conveying the reality that Serling wanted to reveal, Americans sought refuge from those darker truths in sitcoms, escaping to “Gilligan’s Island.”

To some extent we’ve been escaping since. Despite the nomenclature of “reality” TV, current programming has little to do with reality. The one-hour dramas that I so enjoy are as escapist as sitcoms. They, too, provide comfort, in their way, from today’s realities. “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and its offshoot tell us that evidence prevails, that O.J. to the contrary, forensics trap criminals. And, as Saddam exits his spider hole and Osama continues to bedevil us, “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace” (one of my favorite shows) let us know that evil-doers will be caught no matter how long it takes, and that the missing will be searched for — all antidotes to the fear trafficked in by local newscasts and tabloid headlines.

Some shows provide windows into our fears and neuroses: “24” is particularly adept at taking our greatest fears and heightening them beyond a point we ever imagined; “The O.C.” reports on teenage angst; and “Joan of Arcadia” brings God, if not spirituality, into the conversation. But these shows, as good as they are, do not challenge us to improve the world we encounter. That is what “The Twilight Zone,” at its best, accomplished.

This is not to say that no shows have tried to reach Serling’s standard. The “Law & Order” franchise boasts plots “ripped from the headlines,” but they are exploiting facts, not deepening our understanding of them. Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing” certainly had the passion and the will to tackle issues but somehow those efforts appeared, even while watching, quixotic. In recent memory, perhaps “The X-Files” came closest, but while they occasionally walked up to the line of truth and provocation, they never dared to cross it as Serling did over and over.

I won’t argue that every episode of “The Twilight Zone” was transcendent — many were just gimmicky. Serling, however, set a precedent — that television could be subversive — it could entertain, inform and take on the status quo, all the while asking us to be better than we are. It was ambitious.

Maybe that’s no longer possible. Perhaps television has changed too much. Perhaps there are too many channels chasing too segmented an audience. Maybe it is the audience that has changed into a country that thinks politics are too personal a subject to discuss out loud — except as entertainment on talk radio and other quasi-news programs. If television can manage to comfort us, distract us and even entertain us, isn’t that more than enough? Serling said no.

At the start of a new year, it’s a good time to remember Serling and to recall that one driven man could, by the mere force of his writing, wake up America.