Monday, January 11, 2021

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 was opened up on the program and hasn't ever been closed, even to this very day.

And yet, Night Gallery features so much of Rod Serling's original -- and brilliant -- creative voice. Serling penned 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.

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? It's on full display in 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. 

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, twenty-five 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 here is, indeed, the melancholy passage of time and the inevitable sense of aging too quickly. 

The episode concerns, 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 a perfect 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. So the man 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."  Time stops for no man, and for no reason.  It just marches on.

Yet Rod Serling has discovered, in some sense, immortality.  He died too young, but his stories live on, all because he was able to express so well -- and so distinctively -- the universal dreads of human nature.  He boasted 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."

Ultimately 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 pushed him to create art in the first place; that forced him to top himself over and over again. 

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 eternal life we all seek.

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