Rod Serling Documentary

I have two DVRs. One is from Comcast. Its strength is being able to record digital cable channels. As DVRs go, it’s not very good.

The second DVR is self built. It runs MythTV software – a totally free Linux based application. I claim to have installed it on old throwaway hardware, but there were enhancements as I went along. It’s not totally reclaimed from scrap.

MythTV’s strength is its software. It is elegantly programmed and takes full advantage of a MySQL database. That means I can search for TV shows by title, genre, actors. You get the idea. It even knows how to record a show once, no matter how many times it airs or how many channels carry it.

I can also program what Tivo calls a ‘season pass.’ Every episode of a single show gets scarfed up on my hard drive.

That’s what I did with PBS’ American Masters series. OK, I’ve only watched a few, but they’re on my drive, just in case.

Tonight, after Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, I decided to delve into the episode on Rod Serling. Good move.

As a kid I watched Serling’s Twilight Zone. I remember having the crap scared out of me by some episodes. They were genuinely scary without being violent and with no special effects – none!

I knew they were good, because I heard they were good. I was too young to make that kind of value judgment on my own.

Now I understand more of what Serling was about. His work seen today, some of it fifty years old or more, is very impressive.

Rod Serling worked in the Golden Age of Television. You could make the case he was an integral reason it was the Golden Age.

Black and white clips of The Twilight Zone, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater and other dramatic anthologies present TV as a different animal. Writing and acting were critical. Production values were an afterthought.

Nearly every clip has featured actors I recognized from appearances long after the 50s. Many, like Robert Redford, Mickey Rooney, Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith and Jack Klugman had distinguished careers beyond television. There were also quirky scenes with actors out of place, like Ed Wynn, normally a slapstick comedian, playing a fight trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight, or 14 year old Mickey Dolenz in The Velvet Alley, part of the Playhouse 90 series. Mike Wallace is even there, lit cigarette in hand, interviewing Rod Serling one-on-one.

Today’s episodic television looks for quick payoffs. TV shows have multiple plots going simultaneously. We no longer have the attention span to absorb ethereal writing. Serling would be quite unhappy. Serling’s type of television isn’t done today.

There’s no way to go back in time. That’s a shame. I’m just glad there are moments like this when I can take another look at why television became such an influential medium and why, even today, so many clearly remember these shows.

Messing With An Iconic Moment

Let me recommend PBS’s American Masters profile of Walter Cronkite. I watched it last night and was fascinated.

To see Cronkite in review is to see CBS in review, because they were inseparable.

There was one part of the show, unfortunately, that disappointed me. It’s a misportrayal I’ve seen many times, but didn’t expect to see from such an esteemed program. It’s Walter Cronkite’s ‘call’ of the astronauts’ landing on the Moon.

As Cronkite speaks, and the astronauts and mission control chatter back and forth on the radio, you see the shot of the lunar lander skimming the surface and finally touching down.

It might have happened that way in real time, but it didn’t happen that way on real time TV. The film (yes, it’s film) of the lander’s touchdown wasn’t processed until Apollo 11 was safely back on Earth.

We saw Neil Armstrong take his “one small step” live, but not this critical landing. We only had audio for the landing.

What difference does it make to insert this “B-roll” over Walter’s stentorian tones? Part of the amazing power of Cronkite on the night of July 20, 1969 was his ability to guide us through this sightless occurrence.

Showing it now, with pictures, changes the context of his words and visible emotions.

On that night, I was on my way to work in Fall River, MA. I listened in a service area along Route 24. To this day, I’m not 100% sure what was shown on TV before Walter took off his glasses and let out a sigh of relief. It just wasn’t video of the landing.