The more I reacquaint myself with the live television dramas of the 1950s the more I feel what a great opportunity the medium wasted. Well, perhaps wasted is the wrong word; it was killed. Murdered. This was not an example of declining ratings nor a changing culture. This was television coldly opting for videotape to do shows cheaper, without the ‘risks’ of live television. But, since risk, by definition connotes opportunities for failure AND success, television executives decided to cave in.
There were dozens of great teleplays aired in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, out of thousands of episodes aired. That meant there were failures and mostly mediocrities. But there WERE many great performances. In the years since, how many great television shows have there been? A few months back I ruminated on the number of great television sitcoms there had been in the 60+ years of the medium in America, and I barely hit ten. Perhaps there are as many great dramas in the same amount of time. So, let’s be generous, and say 25-30 great television shows in the history of commercial American television. Now, compare that to four or five times as many great teleplays in just a sixth the amount of time, and that might give you a numeric idea of the problem.
Rod Serling was probably the greatest advocate for television’s power, and championed it against the encroachments of commercialism’s stupidity, and not just stupidity, but creeping cupidity and pettiness. It’s no surprise that, despite being best known for his work on, and creation of, The Twilight Zone television series, and his penning the screenplay for the original The Planet Of The Apes film, Serling was, along with Paddy Chayefsky, one of the Twin Towers of the teleplay’s prestige in the 1950s.
While his Requiem For A Heavyweight is the most well known of the dozens of teleplays Serling penned, Patterns may be even better, as it is one of the most acidic portraits of corporate America ever presented to a mass audience.
Initially broadcast on January 12th, 1955, for NBC’s Kraft Television Theater, then ‘restaged,’ not merely repeated, a month later, it was the talk of the television season (and the 463rd teleplay in the series), and lifted Serling from the ranks of a writer with talent and potential to one of the most famous writers in America. And, like many of the Golden Age teleplays, it was later co-opted into an inferior film version. But the first broadcast, was captured on The Criterion Collection’s DVD set of eight dramas, called The Golden Age Of Television, culled from a 1981 PBS series that rebroadcast the original kinescopes (including Introductions by Golden Age actors - in this case by actor Keenan Wynn).