Judge Bill Gibron thinks any painting by C. Coolidge is scarier than Rod Serling's other TV series.
Our review of Night Gallery: Season Two, published November 11th, 2008, is also available.
"Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collector's item in its own way—not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare."
For a kid growing up in the late 1960s / early '70s, television, and specifically, the TV movie of the week format, provided many a "water cooler" moment. Instead of gathering around the typing pool's town hall drink distributor, anxious wee ones would meet near an old tree towards the end of the four square court and regale each other with opinions and recreations of the previous evening's offering. Stick in hand and teeth bared, someone would run around like a retarded chimp, imitating the Zuni Fetish Warrior from Trilogy of Terror. Over in the corner, girls would giggle and sing the stupid nursery rhyme riddle that ended The Legend of Lizzy Borden (you know the one, about the 40 whacks and all). And of course, no playground discussion was complete without a good going over of what exactly those girls were doing to Linda Blair with the plunger in Born Innocent. From the modern day vampirism of The Night Stalker to the gremlins in the fireplace of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, the boob tube did everything it could to mess with the minds of the impressionable youth just discovering its addictive properties. And you know the juvenile joint was jumping on November 9th, 1969. You see, the day before, NBC offered up the pilot for a new supernatural series from the creator of the quintessential TV spook show, The Twilight Zone. And once the kiddies got a load of Night Gallery, tiny tongues were destined to wag.
Quick to capitalize on the sensation the special created, the network ordered up a complete season's worth of scares and Rod Serling, the titular head of Zone's success, was back in broadcast business. But Night Gallery was hampered right from the start. Instead of functioning as its own entity, it was grouped together with three other shows (in something called NBC's "Four-in-One") and rotated on a regular basis. Then there were rumors of creative differences between Serling and executive producer Jack Laird. By the end of the first season, one could sense a creeping mediocrity invading the series. And sure enough, the playground grew silent. So the question becomes—does Night Gallery still hold up? Or better yet, was it really worth consideration in the first place. With Universal's release of Night Gallery: The Complete First Season, the answer is complicated, and a little disheartening.
Facts of the Case
This three-disc DVD contains each and every episode of Night Gallery produced for the 1970-71 season, six shows in all. Along with the pilot/TV movie, and a few bonus features, we are treated to 23 vignettes, a few of which represent Gallery at its best. Using an omnibus style, each episode could contain as many as four, or as few as two, separate stories. And each was introduced by the incomparable Serling, with his great, gravitas voice. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the show was the desire to illustrate each story by a painting, a commissioned work (by artists at Universal Studios) that attempted to capture the spirit—and the sinister qualities—of each installment. For many, the images created on these canvases are far more memorable than the tales they illustrate. Serling would discuss each vignette with his trademark doom and gloom, and the entire hour would feel like tales told round a campfire accentuated with eerie illustrations. The series would go on to last three seasons.
Let's begin with the bare facts. Night Gallery is no Twilight Zone. It's not even a decent Outer Limits. When it comes to the category of great sci-fi/horror made exclusively for series television, it barely compares with One Step Beyond or Thriller! It's more like Tales from the Crypt, or syndicated spasms like Monsters or Friday the 13th, the Series. This is not to say that Night Gallery was all that bad; it was merely poorly developed. And those of you ready to lay blame at the feet of one Rod Serling, certified scriptwriting genius, need to check your charges at the door. Though he name is attached to many of the episodes here and he acted as announcer and narrator for the show, this is not Rod Serling's Night Gallery (no matter what Season Three called itself). No, there is another name lurking among the credits, a Universal Studios know-it-all who decided to dump one of the pioneers of broadcast television like so many worn-out black and white sets and fashion this near fiasco in his own ridiculous image. Rumor and report has it that producer Jack Laird pulled a Roddenberry on almost everything connected with Gallery: He made the important creative decisions, countermanded other authority and even rewrote Serling's own stories. The look of desperation on Rod's face as he reads some of the ridiculous lines he is given is more than genuine. Though he was happy to be back in front of the camera as a master of ceremonies, having to spew some of the nonsense concocted made the task that much more disingenuous.
Now, don't get the wrong idea. Perhaps 55% of what is offered on Night Gallery: The Complete First Season is salvageable. And for those with fond memories of the series, you're recollection will be reawakened to some genuinely creepy and cleverly crafted moments. But when Night Gallery lays an egg, it spreads its sulphorous stink all over the TV screen. The differences between Serling's previous pinnacle, The Twilight Zone, and the meandering, pedestrian Gallery are instantly recognizable. Night Gallery is an anthology, a mixture of several stories of differing lengths strung together under the museum of the macabre premise (the paintings themselves are occasionally more memorable than the stories they invoke). Zone merely told a single, sensational story over the course of 24 minutes. Also, Serling had strict creative control over Zone, something sorely lacking in Gallery's gala of goofiness. How else would you explain some of the surreal juxtapositions in tone and storytelling offered in this box set? A single episode can swing wildly from sentimental supernatural shtick to Love, American Style black outs. And thanks to the divergent running times, segments overstay their welcome while others seem to be cut off at the narrative knees. This wildly uneven quality makes a trip through this muddled museum a true treasure hunt. You have to pick through some pretty weak efforts to get to the gems.
To determine if Night Gallery is worth you're DVD attention span, it is necessary to look at each story individually, as each tries its best to gel into something special. But it is also from such a singular approach that Night Gallery reveals many of its flaws, illustrating that there were more than just a couple of concrete problems that plagued the series. We being with the show that started it all:
"Eyes"—A wealthy blind woman wants to see, and pays to have
the healthy eyes of a gambler transplanted in place of hers.
"The Escape Route"—A Nazi war criminal, hiding in South
America, hopes to avoid capture by projecting himself into a serene museum
• Episode 1:
"The Housekeeper"—Hoping to find a psychological substitute
for his shrewish wife, a scientist has his eyes set on a kindly old housekeeper
for a personality transplant.
• Episode 2:
"The Little Black Bag"—A skid row bum who used to be a
doctor discovers a medical kit from the future with the power to cure all
"The Nature of the Enemy"—NASA is puzzled by the
disappearance and destruction of several of its Moon missions…until it
sees the reason behind the mayhem.
• Episode 3:
"Certain Shadows on the Wall"—When the sickly matriarch of a
miscreant family finally dies, she leaves a "reminder" of her passing
on the parlor wall.
• Episode 4:
"Clean Kills and Other Trophies"—Before awarding his son a
huge trust fund, a big game hunter wants the boy to kill something, no matter
• Episode 5:
"Lone Survivor"—A ship picks up a man floating in a lifeboat
who claims he was onboard the Titanic when it sank.
"The Doll"—A Victorian general, just back from India, learns
that his niece has been sent a very unusual gift: a doll with a deadly
• Episode 6:
"The Last Laurel"—A decathlon champion learns a more
"psychic" way to move about after being paralyzed in an accident.
In addition to the full first season, Universal has, oddly, decided to toss on some "bonus" episodes, perhaps to pad out the third disc's running time. In any case, since the value of the set can also be claimed against these supplementary shows, they should be reviewed as well. We therefore start with:
• Bonus Episode: Season 2, #14
"A Matter of Semantics"—Dracula arrives at the local blood
bank. Hijinks ensue.
"Big Surprise"—A group of young boys meet up with a grizzled
old hermit, who promises them a big surprise if they dig near an old oak
"Professor Peabody's Last Lecture"—Braving blasphemy, a
college professor peruses the incantations in the Necronomicon, with
• Bonus Episode: Season 3, #29
• Bonus Episode: Season 3, #41
Never quite achieving the classic status it so desperately strives for, Night Gallery is a tired take on horror, with only a few glimmers of gold within its Gothic game plan. The main issue with the series is its incredibly inconsistent writing. As stated before, though Serling's name appears on a great many of the manuscripts here, you can tell when producer Laird has laid his hokey hands on something. Suddenly the poetic insights so crucial to Rod's literary skill become hackneyed and obvious. Since Laird wrote only one episode on this box set—"Professor Peabody's Last Lecture"—it is hard to understand his style, yet when you compare said show to other installments, the telltale interferences grow quite clearly. In addition, unaltered Serling is also observable (the Pilot shows, "Tim Riley's Bar") and when all is said and one, it's this meddling unpredictability that constantly robs the show of its structural sanity.
Another palpable problem with Night Gallery is its over-reliance on delivering a trick ending, O. Henry style, with each and every episode. When one looks back at the truly successful stories in Season One ("Tim Riley's Bar," "The Little Black Bag," "The Doll"), they don't really contain a certified twist, that Sixth Sense variety revelation that reconfigures everything we've seen before. But scattered throughout the rest of the stories on this box set are far too many segments seemingly crafted from the perplexing ploy backwards. It's clear that the writers thought that all the audience really wanted was a good final jaw-dropper, a piece of legitimate literary legerdemain, forget how the plot even got them there. The result is a feeling of complete incongruous; the strident stench of product making two incomplete and divergent passes through the formulaic typewriter.
But when compared to the vast majority of horror/sci-fi follies that shuttled across TV screens in the '60s and '70s, Night Gallery has a certain undeniable pedigree that keeps it afloat. The "Pilot" material aside, many of the installments here lack the impact of really memorable entertainment and it's hard to envision anyone thinking that the half-baked "boo's" tossed in as being any better or more memorable than the "it was all a dream" dynamic from the Bobby Ewing/Dallas disaster. Someone approaching Night Gallery as a curiosity or as a completist will perhaps fall in love with the little things—the early '70s style, the calm and deliberate pace, the attention to detail—that help the show survive. And there are several stories that indeed sweep you away on waves of imagination and/or suspense (even if they fail to pay off when the credits roll). As a final stab at yet another version of series television glory, Night Gallery was not a very good curtain call for the multi-talented Rod Serling. For as much greatness as he created prior to his opening up this supernatural showroom, there are those who will never forgive him for letting them on (and down) for three, unfulfilling seasons. There was so much promise in the premise, so much talent in the wings that for Night Gallery to feel like such a failure is something of an anomaly. But anyone picking up this box set will quickly realize the sad reasons why.
As many issues as one may have with the actual content of Night Gallery, they will be sure to find equal fault with the scattershot technical aspects to this digital release. Having failed to remaster the episodes presented here in any discernable manner (the shows did go through a minor restoration in 1990), we are treated to dirty, scratched transfers that lack depth or detail. The color correction is middling to fair and the 1.33:1 full screen image is usually filled with blemishes and dust. But the most noticeable flaw comes at or near every commercial break. Suddenly, without warning, the picture begins to deteriorate as pigments desaturate and the elements fog. Any studio wishing to preserve their product for posterity would have found a way to remove those distracting degradations before releasing these DVDs. Don't get the wrong impression—Night Gallery looks better than it has in years, especially for a show pushing 35. But Universal should have taken more time with this set, dedicating themselves to delivering the best possible sound and vision. At least the flat, pedestrian aural attributes have a rational explanation: There is not much that can be done with Dolby Digital Mono. While the voices are clear and the dialogue direct, the musical underpinning is lacking in atmosphere.
Another issue with this presentation is the lack of extras. Certainly, Universal will argue that the two hours of additional episodes more than makes up for a lack of "normal" DVD bonus features. But the cable movie network, The Mystery Channel (part of the Starz/Encore collection of genre-specific offerings), runs Night Gallery every weeknight and even produced a documentary on the show. So why is that material not included here? Why not a few essays, or even a filmography for the show? Each episode screen has a description of the stories offered (sometimes complete with unforgivable spoilers), but so much more could have been done with the packaging. Like the introduction of television series on VHS back in the mid-'80s, this is bare bones, "give the people what they want, only" marketing at its most distressing. Night Gallery, for many, is a fond memory of early '70s frights. For Universal to toss it off like another second-hand series ripe for a digital dollar draw is spiteful, to both fans and the inquisitive alike.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One has to question Universal's decision to pad out this DVD package with "bonus" episodes from other seasons of the show. This doesn't bode well for additional sets of the series. If this was going to be the approach from the start, then why not probe all three seasons completely, cull the top 50 or so shows (including some of the odious clunkers) and put out a "Best Of" set? While aficionados of the show would obviously cry "foul," it would keep them from screaming for blood once you announce that (a) you're not revisiting the series for DVD beyond Season One and/or (b) you're double dipping on episodes already offered. With the talent behind the show and the affection many have, some manner of contextual material could have been pulled together. The drawing on of material from other seasons of the show is a portentous omen for Night Gallery lovers.
Sometimes, beloved items from the past are best kept in their over-romanticized shell. Just because you thought Bad Ronald was the greatest ABC Movie of the Week ever conceived doesn't mean a post-millennial revisit will result in the same sense of shock (unless it's at your own bad taste). Many of the memories from one's youth—yummy space food sticks, delicious shake-a-pudding, long rubbery sticks of Bubs Daddy green apple bubble gum—would be stomach-churning horrors in the light of a low-carb adulthood. Part of the reason items loose their timelessness is the circumstances under which they were wrought. When something is made for love of the art—say a series like The Twilight Zone or Star Trek—the results somehow manage to find a way of sticking around past their prime. They retain their initial inventiveness and survive the claims of camp or kitsch. But objects obviously crafted for the love of commerce—and Night Gallery is surely a decent example of this ideal—seem to strike while the iron is hot, and then fizzle in the drizzle of time's acid rain. It is hard to imagine any in-depth discussion about this early '70s anthology series around the schoolyards of modern suburbia. While it may have fired the imagination of many a post-Peace Generation pre-teen, Night Gallery has lost a lot of its afterglow. As a curiosity and curio, it's more than mildly amusing. But as an example of television terror at its best, it fails to frighten. Just like a song by Seals and Croft, Night Gallery: The Complete First Season is an occasionally evocative experience, but it is frozen, not unlocked, in time.
Night Gallery: The Complete First Season is found guilty of being lost in its own lack of prime timelessness and is sentenced to several re-writes and a great deal of script polishing. Universal is also found guilty of mixing and matching its bonus material from other installments of the series, guaranteeing a furor whenever the fate of future digital offerings of the show is announced. The studio is sentenced to two years of watching "A Matter of Semantics" and "The Nature of the Enemy" over and over again.
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