Many people today credit Ryan Murphy with reviving the time-honored anthology series, a genre of television long since thought dead. Murphy has more than confirmed that notion as evidenced by his powerful re-telling of historic events in American Crime Story, his brand of black comedy in Scream Queens, and the still-horrifying terror of American Horror Story. Murphy’s empire has truly done the impossible – hooked viewers on plots, themes, and motifs which most modern audiences wouldn’t have dared to look at twice in the past. While so much of his shows’ success can be chalked up to Murphy’s own talents, none of these titles could have found their way toward ratings gold and critical acclaim without the road paved by Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, which managed to encompass all of the above themes more nearly 50 years earlier.
While home on vacation recently, I decided to throw a little marathon of Night Gallery‘s three seasons. Unlike most other classic TV favorites, the show continues to hold up so well that it inspired me to pay homage to this underrated and truly innovative series.
Night Gallery began life as a television movie in late 1969 in which Serling introduced three stories centered around a trio of hypnotic, yet decidedly chilling paintings. When the TV movie proved a hit, NBC commissioned a series with Serling as host, occasional writer, and producer (along with Jack Laird). The result was Night Gallery, an anthology series in which Serling would appear in a darkened gallery to introduce 2-3 usually horrific paintings or sculptures which would then lead to short vignettes that typically dabbled in the macabre and suspenseful. Acted out by one of the most eclectic rosters of guest stars ever assembled, each story mirrored said artwork and offered up unforgettable themes of the supernatural, the sinister, and the devilishly ironic.
Right off the bat, Night Gallery had a huge shadow it had to surpass in the form of The Twilight Zone, the iconic series which quickly became a household name and turned Serling into one of the most prolific television figures of all time. If Night Gallery never had a prayer of overcoming its older TV sibling, it hardly mattered. The series quickly made a name for itself based on its own highly unusual characteristics. The show’s theme music, which featured synthesizers and other electronic instruments, was considered groundbreaking and even instilled nightmares into young children due to the unsettling sounds it created, while the various pieces of art were truly works of wonder which called on the most grotesque images the mind could conjure.
There were great lines in every one of Serling’s introductions at the start of each episode, which included the host referring to himself as “the undernourished Alfred Hitchcock” and describing the series by pointing out that “you won’t find Monet in a mausoleum or Van Gogh in a graveyard.” Best of all, however, was the seamless way in which show so quickly jumped between genre and tone. A tale involving the supernatural was followed by a darkly humorous story dealing in black comedy before presenting the audience with a dark take on modern-day society. It’s not many anthologies, or shows in general, that could move around as freely as the series did, offering up Vincent Price as a sorcerer in one episode and then honestly examining marital strife in another. Yet Night Gallery did, and it worked every single time.
Although Night Gallery was produced and distributed by a major network, it was almost immediately apparent that NBC had very little faith in the show. Nowhere was this more evident than in the cheap production values, which continuously ran rampart. Sets are re-used numerous times, while other tricks, such as pulling a fake tree on a skateboard with a piece of rope while a couple sat in a car to give the illusion of a nighttime drive, are apparent. Moreover, the show’s guest list includes a who’s who of some of cinema’s greatest actors and actresses as film lovers know them today, including old pros (no longer considered relevant at the time) and young up-and-comers, all of whom were secured at undoubtedly cheap costs. Among the many names to pass through the Night Gallery were Leonard Nimoy, Virginia Mayo, Patty Duke, Larry Hagman, Sally Field, Raymond Massey, Diane Keaton, and even Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
As with most shows, a number of creative differences entered the picture and wreaked havoc on what had so far been a fairly successful television show. The root of the show’s behind-the-scenes problems, courtesy of Serling and unorthodox producer Laird was, of all things, tone. While the former wanted the stories in each episode played straight, Laird wanted to amp up Night Gallery’s dark comedy. Ultimately, the network (who never really found out what to do with the show anyhow) sided with Laird, leading Serling to one of the darkest periods of both his personal and professional life before seeing cancelation of the show shortly after its third season.
Even more tragic than the way Serling and his series was treated by the network during its brief run was the way it was still being mishandled decades after it left the air. While episodes famously appeared on Starz’s Mystery channel in the late ’90s and early ’00s (where, as a geeky 17-year-old, I first discovered it), the series’ syndication life has been incredibly short-lived. The studio’s lack of enthusiasm for Night Gallery extended to the show’s DVD releases, each of which were marked with a four year gap in between. However the love and devotion of fans towards Night Gallery is as alive and well as ever with even Guillermo Del Toro being counted among the show’s many admirers. While it never reached the popularity or significance of Serling’s landmark series, Night Gallery was both a testament to the era of television it belonged to, while at the same time breaking the mold of the current TV landscape with its dark playfulness, creative stories, filmmaking techniques, and its deceptively insightful views on society.
My Top 10 Night Gallery Moments:
1. Eyes – The most memorable segment from the original pilot movie remains so thanks to a young Steven Spielberg exercising his unique vision for the first time, while also bringing out the last great performance from screen legend Joan Crawford as a wealthy blind woman who will do anything she can to regain her sight. Between Spielberg’s penchant for off-beat angles, Crawford’s note-perfect performance, and Serling’s flawless script, Eyes perfectly captured the hope, despair, and that ultimate form of irony which would become the show’s trademark.
2. Class of 99 – Another Serling gem, this one stars repeat guest star Price as a professor at a futuristic college who assesses whether or not his students are ready for graduation based on how well they have mastered notions of prejudice and acts of violence. While the segment was no doubt shocking for its time, Class of 99 remains chilling by today’s standards as the thought of a school geared towards shaping its students to go out and destroy humanity is as frightening as it is engrossing.
3. Silent Snow, Secret Snow – There’s nothing but escape and wonder in this Orson Welles-narrated story in which a boy finds himself fleeing the monotony of his everyday life and escaping into a world populated with nothing but snow. Silent Snow, Secret Snow may not offer the dark laughs or horrors that the majority of Night Gallery’s other vignettes did, but there is a fearfulness to it with regard to seeing how easy it is to get lost in one’s own young imagination to the point where the actual world around you ceases to exist.
4. Tell David… – This cautionary tale features Sandra Dee as a ’70s housewife who stumbles into the future and encounters the grown-up version of her young son and his wife. With themes such as jealousy and redemption at play, Tell David… is emotionally darker than most of the show’s other episodes, but remains well-written and well-acted in its effort to tell a story with an ending that would rival most modern tragedies.
5. Green Fingers – When a wealthy developer resorts to every trick in the book to get a spinster fond of gardening to hand over her land, he gets far more than he ever bargained for. The eternally-underrated Elsa Lanchester gives a stellar turn as a woman refusing to leave her home, and her garden, in what is a quintessential Night Gallery offering full of dark humor, suspense, and glorious, glorious irony.
6. You Can’t Get Help Like That Anymore – Cloris Leachman showed another side to herself when she and Broderick Crawford played a rich couple who purchase a beautiful robotic maid (Lana Wood) whom they later proceed to abuse. The ending of You Can’t Get Help Like That Anymore has the same kind of twist that would make any Night Gallery fan smile. However, it’s the comment on lack of respect and humanity, which should be afforded to all, that makes this story one of the show’s most searing indictments.
7. Whisper – A young husband (Dean Stockwell) has his hands full when he discovers his wife (Sally Field) has developed the ability to communicate with the dead. While Whisper is first and foremost a ghost story (and a crackling one at that), the highlight of the episode remains Field. Watching the future Oscar-winner lose herself in such a complex and conflicted character (her various moments when her only scene partner is sound effects is mesmerizing) brought forth the kind of stunning work the actress remains known for to this day.
8. Big Surprise – I’m sure network executives and audiences alike must have cringed with horror thanks to Big Surprise’s tale of a trio of friends who are given information by a sinister-looking old man (David Carradine) about a buried treasure of sorts in a nearby field waiting to be dug up. The simple idea of the boogeyman is so effectively illustrated here in one of most shocking and memorable of segments which doesn’t play it safe even for a minute.
9. Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture – The show paid tribute to H. P. Lovecraft (whose short stories were adapted numerous times throughout the series’ run) in this semi-iconic vignette about a college professor (Carl Reiner) who angers the Gods of urban mythology during one his classes. The tension rides as high as it possibly can thanks to great effects and especially in Reiner’s adrenaline-fueled performance, which remains a definite highlight in his legendary career.
10. The Waiting Room – Steve Forest and Buddy Ebsen bring this eerie Western tale to life with Forest starring as a drifter who happens upon a dark saloon where its inhabitants seem to be mysteriously leaving one by one. One of Night Gallery’s many depictions of hell, The Waiting Room injects slight pathos into this story, giving its popular actors some worthwhile roles and the audience at home an exercise in the kind of stuff nightmares are truly made of.