Exploring “Morality’s Shady Side of the Street”

Sixty years ago today, the Kraft Television Theatre aired a repeat of Rod Serling’s teleplay “Patterns.” As a Twilight Zone fan, why should you care?

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Everett Sloane, who would later star in TZ’s “The Fever,” plays no-nonsense boss Walter Ramsey.

After all, this was four and a half years before TZ hit the air. And the program in question had nothing to do with aliens, time travel, or any of the other fantasy elements that made that classic series so famous. It was a straight drama. Yawn, right?

Not so fast. A few important factors make “Patterns” worth a second look, especially for Twilight Zone fans.

One is that it turned Serling into the proverbial “overnight success.” Without it, it’s fair to question if he’d have gained the clout to launch a certain foray into the fifth dimension.

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Richard Kiley, who would later star in two episodes of “Night Gallery,” plays new VP Fred Staples.

Prior to this, he’d been turning out a series of interesting dramas, but nothing that caught fire. “Patterns,” however, was a ratings smash, leading to the repeat performance I just mentioned.

Big deal, right? Yeah, it was. This was in the days of live TV. A repeat meant that everyone who’d been involved in acting the program live on January 12, 1955 had to reassemble to stage it all over again. You wouldn’t go to that trouble for any old show.

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Ed Begley would star in both the teleplay and the movie as targeted old-guard VP Andy Sloane.

And “Patterns” certainly wasn’t any old show. Not to oversell it, but it’s not hard to see why it clicked with audiences. The writing, the direction, the performances — all of them can compete with any drama on TV today. No wonder it brought Serling his first Emmy award.

But for me, what makes “Patterns” truly special goes beyond that. It’s the fact that here you see, coming into sharp focus, the humanity of Serling’s writing. Themes surface here that would be echoed on The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, and so much of Serling’s other work.

The story, in thumbnail form: The hard-driving boss of a large corporation hires a new vice president — a young man who gradually realizes he’s been brought in to replace a VP who’s been with the company for many years. And why? Because that VP doesn’t play the part of the “yes man.” He dares to question the boss’s decisions.

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Will the new VP go along with the boss’s campaign to squeeze the other man out — a man he’s come to respect and admire? Or will he stand up for what he feels is right?

That may not sound very exciting, and yeah, I can’t promise you car chases and explosions. What you get is something much better — a taut drama that explores a real crisis of conscience in typical Serling style. The final confrontation between the boss and the new VP is beautifully written and gracefully unpredictable.

In “Patterns,” we see Serling’s concern for those trying to navigate the fine line between ambition and morality. We encounter dilemmas he would explore so memorably in The Twilight Zone‘s “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” as well as in Night Gallery‘s “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar.”

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As for what “Patterns” is really about, I can do no better than to quote the man himself:

It is the story of ambition and the price tag that hangs on success. If it professes actually to have a message, it is simply that every human being has a minimum set of ethics from which he operates. This minimum set of ethics often injects itself into a man’s own journey upward against competition. When he refuses to compromise these ethics, his career must suffer; when he does compromise them, his conscience does the suffering.

There are tragic overtones to this because our society is a competitive one. For every man who goes up, someone has to leave. And when Patterns8the departure of the aged is neither philosophical nor graceful, there is a kind of aching poignance in this kind of changing of the guard.

This is the morality of the fringes, the plowing under of human dignity in the name of progress, and the mass-production attitude toward the individual because his goods and services happen to be efficiently produced by mass-production methods. This is morality’s shady side of the street. The patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world — lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it.

Serling later expanded “Patterns” for a 1956 movie version, and although it’s well done, it doesn’t top the original teleplay. You can watch the 58-minute drama on YouTube. It’s also on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection’s “The Golden Age of Television,” a set that includes several other excellent live dramas, including Serling’s own “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”

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According to Serling, “Patterns must have hit on a truth.” It was, in many ways, the foundation of a career built on telling the truth in a witty, inventive, entertaining, and occasionally hard-hitting style. Sure, he’d soon leaven it with the aliens and the time travel. But when you want your truth straight, no chaser? You can’t do better than “Patterns.”

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 02/09/2015, in Teleplays and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. This is another fantastic post. I’ve been meaning to watch “Patterns” for quite some time, and after reading your post, I knew I had to finally see it before I left a comment.

    You could not have been more right. Only Rod Serling could have made this story what it was. I mean the basic plot could not be more boring, and yet “Patterns” is anything BUT boring. It’s compelling and exciting despite the lack of any “action”. I was skeptical going into it, but wow, this is some of Serling’s finest work. It’s the perfect illustration of satisfaction in simplicity. It doesn’t NEED car chases and explosions to be exciting. And the best part is, you’ll come away from it having learned something valuable. Both your and Serling’s descriptions of “Patterns” are spot on. THIS is good writing.

    Watching this, there is no question that it was written by the same man responsible for The Twilight Zone. In fact, some TZ episodes were clearly influenced by this teleplay, “A Stop at Willoughby” being the most obvious. But this is classic Serling – showing us the less flattering aspects of the world, the filthy underbelly of our human nature, but all while stoking the urge in us to fight back. Telling us that it doesn’t have to be this way. And that’s the key that’s missing from today’s garbage shows like “Black Mirror”. (Though I’ll save my thoughts on that for your next post!) What good is a message of “This sucks, I suck, you suck, everything sucks and then you die, so who cares?” I hate that. As with so many episodes of TZ, here Serling gets your soul stirring and you WANT to be a better person, and he makes you believe that maybe, just maybe you CAN do better if you stand up for what’s right.

    “Patterns” was superb and so is this post. You certainly did Serling’s work justice here, as you always do. Thanks for keeping Serling and his principles alive for us all. :)

    • I couldn’t be more flattered. There’s a quote from “The Velvet Alley,” one of Serling’s other live teleplays, that applies here: “It’s a crazy thing about writers. You tell ’em you read their stuff, and all of a sudden their hearts stop.” I can certainly tell you it’s true!

      I’m so glad that you enjoyed “Patterns” and that this post played a role in motivating you to finally watch it. As you well know, I love TZ, but I want to introduce fans to Serling’s other works, especially this amazing play, which (as you note) showcases the same themes that would play out later on TZ and elsewhere. It’s a riveting piece of work, and if you can do that with no car chases, explosions and special effects, then you KNOW it’s good writing.

      I love the raw honesty of his writing, and how he managed to combine it with a tone that is ultimately uplifting. You’ve hit on it here so well — we don’t walk away from his work thinking the world sucks. We think, “Wow, things can be bad, but we can make it better.” I love how he appeals so eloquently to the better angels of our nature.

      Thank you, my friend, for leaving such a thoughtful comment. :)

  2. I think the really amazing thing about this show is how early it was made. It’s as if Serling was as far ahead of the curve with his understanding of the new medium as he was with the Twilight Zone. I think he had a better understanding of how to use television to tell a story, and to communicate a message than anyone.

    • I’m glad you mentioned that, Dan. No question about it — Serling and writers such as Paddy Chayefsky and Reginald Rose had such a huge influence on this new medium. TV is often blasted, and quite rightly, for being a wasteland, but to the extent that it ISN’T? To the extent that we do have at least SOME top-notch programs? We have Serling and Co. to thank for that.

  3. Sloane’s last name alone is Irish, but it is not his real family name. He is of Hebrew origin and it came from the Middle East.

  1. Pingback: Serling’s “Patterns”: A Television “High Point” | Shadow & Substance

  2. Pingback: Serling’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight”: A Knock-Out | Shadow & Substance

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