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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 the 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.”
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!