Rod Serling’s role as one of the best and most prolific TV writers ever has been somewhat overshadowed by his legendary association with “The Twilight Zone.” His six Emmys included awards for the scripts of “Patterns,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Comedian” and an episode of the “Bob Hope Chrysler Theater.”
“Rod Serling’s Night Gallery” has been unjustly forgotten. Like “Twilight Zone,” it was a weekly anthology with Serling as host and sometime writer, but its focus was on horror and the supernatural rather than sci-fi and fantasy. The pilot premiered to critical acclaim and high Nielsen numbers in 1969; the series ran from 1970-73.
For Serling, who died in 1975, “Night Gallery” was a last hurrah, although he was denied creative control of the series and was often in conflict with Universal producer Jack Laird. Still, while the quality of “Night Gallery” offerings varied wildly, a number of its stories rank among TV’s scariest; Stephen King called “Caterpiller,” a second-season episode included here, “one of the most frightening (shows) ever telecast.”
Universal’s great-looking and -sounding DVD package contains the 1969 pilot and the six 1970-71 hours that constituted the series’ first season. The latter have been restored from the abominable syndication package that saw the originals cut into half-hour versions and combined with similarly butchered episodes of “The Sixth Sense.”
Serling establishes the linking device in the pilot: He roams a darkened art gallery filled with strange paintings, each of which suggests a story. Joan Crawford stars in the most famous of the three half-hour tales, directed by a young Steven Spielberg, about a rich woman who buys a desperate man’s eyes to see for a few hours — only to be plunged into darkness when a blackout hits New York at night.
Among the six first-season hours, the standout is “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” Emmy-nominated as Outstanding Single Program of the 1970-71 season. Among the last of Serling’s truly great original scripts, it stars William Windom in his finest performance, as an aging sales executive whose world is falling apart and who keeps seeing the ghosts of all his old friends at a local watering hole.
It’s a shame Universal chose to add as “bonus material” two extra hours from the series’ second and third seasons instead of documentary material, some of which has already aired on the Mystery Channel. But a complete second-season package containing such gems as “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” “Pickman’s Model” and “The Messiah on Mott Street” would seem to be a must-release. Then, one hopes, Universal can unearth its other TV horror classic: the Boris Karloff-hosted “Thriller” from 1960-62.