Friday, October 21, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 14: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"

For many years, critics have openly dismissed Rod Serling's second TV series, the genre anthology Night Gallery (1970-1973) as nothing but an inferior rip-off of The Twilight Zone. Because Serling (1921-1975) often voiced very public disappointment with some elements of the horror series, it seems like a Pandora's Box - or perhaps a can of whup-ass - was opened up on the program and hasn't ever been closed, not really even to this very day.

And yet, Night Gallery features so much of Rod Serling's original - and brilliant - creative voice. So it isn't that easy for me just to dismiss or neglect it. After all, Serling did pen some thirty segments for the series, and that number symbolizes a sizable chunk of work. It represents a whole new opportunity to examine Serling the artist as a writer, a storyteller and social moralist. To ignore or downgrade Night Gallery because it wasn't as consistently brilliant as The Twilight Zone is to basically close ourselves off to an entire work by one of TV's few undeniable geniuses. I just won't do it.

No less an authority than Stephen King called Night Gallery a "watered down Thriller with Serling doing the Boris Karloff hosting job..."(Danse Macabre, page 243). Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahigimi noted in their book, The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television that the series "was a sad departure from series activity for Serling," but also commented that the show did "contain moments of true horror and mood-drenched atmosphere."(E.P. Dutton, 1979, page 252). On the plus said, TV Zone magazine has called the series "occasionally inspired" (November 1992), and Bob Wisehard in The Best of Science Fiction Television opined that the series "was like the dark side of Rod Serling...a real change for television..."(Harmony Books, 1987, page 126).

The dark side of Rod Serling, imagine that! Or don't. Simply watch the stirring and emotionally-wrenching installment titled "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar."

In this deeply-moving work of "paint, pigment and desperation," a man named Randolph Lane (played by William Windom) copes with the inevitable march of time. Although he was a heroic paratrooper in World War II (as was Serling himself...) Lane has spent the 25 years since his service selling plastics and not feeling particularly special. His company doesn't value him, he has to fight every young upstart on the way up, ("with assistants like that, who needs assassins," he quips), and also there's the guilt. The terrible, haunting guilt. His beloved wife Katie died years ago of pneumonia. He wasn't there to help her, to take her to the hospital. Nope, he was "working," making a name for himself. And now, 25 years to the day that he began employment with Pritkin's Plastic Products, he gets fired without so much as a gold watch for compensation. Worse, a demolition company is getting ready to destroy his favorite drinking spot, Tim Riley's Bar. This is the very place where Randy's homecoming from Europe was celebrated in 1945. The very place where his Dad sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" to him. Where Katie and he used to go together and gaze into each other's eyes. Where Lane experienced what he now considers "the best years of his life."

Randy just can't let go of Tim Riley's bar. It's part of his very existence, and the past beckons to him there in a way that the empty present simply never can. He peers in at the bar's interior through dusty window panes and sees his dead father, his dead wife...his past inside. He sees 1945 laid out before him. Ghosts. But that wrecking ball is still coming, threatening to destroy the very past that he loves, all in the name of "progress." Soon a 20-floor banking establishment (replete with underground parking garage) will occupy the space where his memories live...

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is not your typical Night Gallery episode. It isn't overtly horrific. There aren't big "scares" in it anywhere. There's almost no touch at all of the supernatural. The only horror is, indeed, the melancholy passage of time and the inevitable sense of aging too quickly. It is about, as Serling states so eloquently in his opening narration, "the quiet desperation of men over 40 who keep hearing heavy footsteps behind them and are torn between a fear and compulsion to look over their shoulders."

Randolph Lane is not just a man facing hallucinations from 1945, but a man who realizes with acute accuracy and insight that the best days of his life are far behind him. That he's had his shot, his one chance, and it will all soon be over. Done. In many ways, this episode is autobiographical, I'm sure, and it is important to note that Serling died just five years after writing it. In the episode, Windom's character makes note that he is 48 years old, and that his father passed away when he was just six years older (at 52). In a weird and sad twist of fate, that was just about the very age at which Mr. Serling himself passed away. It's as if Serling knew - like his protagonist, Randolph Lane - that he was fast running out of time.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" serves as an excellent companion piece to the episode of The Twilight Zone called "Walking Distance," in which a harried businessman walks over a hill one day and finds himself back in a favorite summer from his long-gone youth. He encounters himself as a child at a merry-go-round and desperately urges the boy to cherish this time, because it will soon be gone. He is chastened, however, by his father, who tells him - a bit sadly - that we all get allotted just "one summer." Just one. And that this one belongs to the boy with a future, not the man living in the past. He must go home; must go back to the unhappy present.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is the logical and (very sad) continuation, after a fashion, of "Walking Distance," proving again the adage "you can't go home again." I guess this is kinda personal to me. The message resonates. I am 35 years old (36 on December 3rd...) and both of these stories grip me in ways I don't fully comprehend. I don't really think I'm old, and yet I have lived long enough now to see the artifacts of my past begin to age and disappear. There are people walking around in this world who weren't born when Star Wars was released, and furthermore don't understand why it's a touchstone. I mention Battlestar Galactica, and they discuss the remake. My sixth grade English teacher whom I loved and cherished as an early mentor, is long dead of cancer. Both my Grandfathers are gone...one from Parkinsons and the other Leukemia. A new family resides in the house where I grew up in Glen Ridge. I've now been with my beautiful wife for ten years of marriage, and six years of dating beyond even that benchmark. So I see and understand and - honestly - fear the march of time. I feel too close to that recognition that life is going by fast, and already the things and people that I have loved are disappearing into the mists of time; never to be seen again. I have not witnessed such emotions better expressed than in this episode Night Gallery. Rod Serling was grappling in this extraordinary story with nothing less than his own mortality, the eclipse and sunset of life itself.

And so I can think of no better reason than that to feature "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" as my fourteenth friday cult TV flashback. Especially because we lost this artist far too soon. He died just about thirty years ago, now. Yet Rod Serling had a special and singular perspective on life and on humanity, and this world we all share. Barry Eysman eulogized Mr. Serling in this fashion, in Writers' Digest (in November of 1975):

"Rod Serling saw dignity in people like this. He showed us the shadow people, the ones who dwell on the periphery, who dwell in the dark out-of-the-way bars, reliving, subsisting on past times. He showed us people we'd rather not think about. But with that keen perception and sparse dialogue, he grabbed you...and told you in no uncertain terms that these people deserved at least a little victory, breathing space, someone to care for, someone to care about."

Rod Serling's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," is about one man hoping to be treated with dignity after a life of service and of sacrifices. It's about a man taking stock at the mid-point of his life and deciding where, ultimately, to dwell -- the past or the present. I suppose I find it a little shocking that Rod Serling could ever have, even for a second, doubted that his legacy would stretch decades far into the future, and that he would be remembered and honored as one of the greats of the medium. But perhaps it was that gnawing self-doubt, that deep-seated insecurity that drew him again and again to the typewriter; that made him create art in the first place; that forced him to top himself over and over. In the end, Serling need not have feared his own death as any kind of ending, because his writing -episodes of Twilight Zone such as "Walking Distance or Night Gallery's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" - has granted him the very immortality that I suppose we all seek.


13 comments:

  1. Thank you for this entry. I never understood the scorn heaped on Night Gallery. Twilight Zone had its share of yawners and turkeys (actually my favorite TZ is considered one of its turkeys). I managed to record "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" back when Encore was showing the series. It's a superb effort.

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  2. Hey Linda - thanks for the kind words. Had sort of a blue "feeling my age" moment when I wrote about "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," but I think it helped make the piece come together...

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  3. i don't think serling was terribly certain about his legacy. a 2 hour biography i caught painted his post twilight years as kind of sad, marginalized, and difficult. the derision for night gallery seems indicative of just how for granted he was taken. yes, the series had plenty of limp and predictable moments, but also contributed some of the most dark, profound, and cinematic television hours seen.
    tangentially, did you ever see any of the decalogue? before his masterpiece, the three colors trilogy, krystof keislowski made a ten episode anthology series for polish television all set in the same apartment building. each episode focused on different residents and (often ironically)was thematically based on a different biblical commandment. certainly different in tone to night gallery, but i think serling would have appreciated a lot of keislowski's reflections on big themes in a somewhat banal setting.

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  4. Kevind3:27 AM

    I remember seeing this episode when I was really young and it stuck with me.

    I would like to know a little more of the back story for this episode because Serling (as mentioned) was a WWII Paratrooper in the Pacific and William Windom was also a WWII paratroop with the 508th Regiment of the 82nd Airborne who fought throughout Europe.

    I anyone has any insider info, I'd like to hear it.

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  5. Anonymous12:28 AM

    Years ago, when in college, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a Q&A session with William Windom the day after he'd appeared in a one-man play, "Thurber," on campus.
    He said that of all the TV work he'd ever done, "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" was the only one he kept a personal copy of.

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  6. Beysman11:58 AM

    Thank you for publishing my eulogy to Rod.He wrote poetry and had such vision. He gave everything he had and there was such beauty. He made words sing. He made me weep for Martin Sloane and want to go home to childhood when I was still a child. Words were heart to Rod. He kept integrity in nostalgia and in outrage. He fought and didn't quit.
    I think of Danse Macabre and Stephen King,how they hurt with their cruel words. They could never touch Rod's genius in a million years. Rod was a giant. He looms and will do so forever.
    Barry Eysman

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  7. Mr. Eyesman,

    Thank you, sir, for composing and offering us those words about a genius and a great human being. Thank you for your wisdom, your insight and your compassion. Your eulogy was beautiful, and it was a pleasure to feature your words here on this blog, in honor of a great writer and a great talent.

    Thank you,

    John Kenneth Muir

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  8. Anonymous11:13 PM

    My favorite two episodes from Mr Serling: 'They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar' from "Night Gallery" and 'A Stop at Willoughby' from the "Twilight Zone". Perhaps due to being in my late 40's both of these cause me to remember fondly much simpler and happier times with those that are gone. PMToone

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  9. SK Trynosky Sr.3:31 PM

    Just heard of the death of William Windom while I was on vacation. I only saw "Tim Reilly's Bar" once, when it originally aired yet it stays with me to this day. Perhaps I am overly sentimental, but their generation, Serling's and Windom's was certainly something very special. I saw the same in my parents and their brothers, sisters and friends. A unique people, certainly not replicated since and I doubt impossible to replicate again. As with "the Best Years of Our Lives", the tears tend to well up when I just think about them, their hopes, dreams, struggles and disappointments. Thanks for a wonderful piece.

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  10. The Tim Riley episode is a great Serling piece, wonderfully acted by Windom. It's always resonated with me deeply and I reference it in my Wisconsin tavern history website: manitowoctavernhistory.org. It's right there on the home page, which I link to this beautiful homage by Mr. Muir.

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  11. I was born in 1960 and Serling has always been a big inspiration to my career as a writer and Night Gallery is a special favorite. I just saw "Tim Riley" again which resonates differently to me at 52 than it did when I was 11. Brilliant!

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  12. Anonymous12:15 AM

    Thank you so much for your reflection upon this and Mr. Serling's work. I have always loved Rod Serling's series and had not seen this one(Tim Riley's) until tonight. I will be 48 in 6 weeks and amidst reflection and judgement, joy & regret, sadness at all the inevitable loss that comes with time, it is comforting to read of others pondering our condition. Also of note is that the last of the paratroopers of WWII are with us now. They would be about 86 this year. My dad would have been 92. There is value in reflection.....

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  13. Anonymous4:27 PM

    Loved both TZ and NG - Rod Serling was local and many of the place names in his stories can be found on our maps in central New York. My parents occasionally ran into him at a favorite local restaurant. He shopped in our town (the menswear shop on State Street had his favorite knit tie in assorted colors) and he lectured at our community college. His maternal grandfather owned a meat market here and this is where his father met his mother.

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