Night Gallery was proof that you can’t go home again, with a tanned and weary Rod Serling attempting to reprise The Twilight Zone minus the level of craft or creative control.
The spooky-themed anthology did have its occasional moments, but it’s telling that the best of them — like “The Caterpillar” and its ear-to-ear slice of nightmare — are frequently misremembered as Twilight Zone episodes when recounted in conversation. For the most part, the show functioned as a creepy counterpart to Love American Style, serving up a parade of familiar faces sporting the gaudiest of Nixon Era hair and clothes styles, all rendered in the washed-out yet excessively vivid palettes aimed at evangelizing the wonders of color TV.
It’s an aesthetic rooted in my most primordial memories, a shade too early to be experienced firsthand but seared into my gray matter by the power of syndication. Not that I really experienced Night Gallery through such means, apart from a handful of episodes caught during the four-ay-emm dead zone in the days before infomercials usurped that time slot. The vibe and title font and cast of characters were interchangeable and ubiquitous on the UHF band of my pre-school years.
My real introduction to the show came through a serialized episode guide (co-written by J. Michael Straczynski) which ran in Twilight Zone Magazine and a paperback collection of stories “inspired by” the series. It was enough to sate any curiosity I might have had. Even if it hadn’t, there wasn’t any real way to explore further. Except for a Halloween airing of the original pilot movie, Night Gallery was absent from the regional airwaves for the next few decades.
It wasn’t until I started reassembling a run of TZM in the early Aughts that I started thinking about the show again. Fileshare and early-stage streaming video sites made it possible to watch a decent number of isolated segments in glorious low-resolution. I checked out the adaptations of Lovecraft’s “Cool Air” and “Pickman’s Model,” less bothered by the awkwardly shoehorned romantic subplots than the rundown studio sets and sparseness behind the period facade.
Such sparseness can be used to enhance atmosphere. If I was younger, it would’ve felt profoundly disturbing, but my older-and-wiser eyes just saw cost-cutting cheapness overlaid with the unflattering tackiness of the Sixties-Seventies Transition Zone. Even when I could get past those hurdles, there was a fair chance I’d realize one of the actors was “Clayton from Benson” or “the elusive Robert Denby” and lose the narrative thread entirely.
The proliferation of retro-themed digital sub-channels has returned Night Gallery to the grim pastures of early morning TV. The time slot precludes regular viewing, but I have caught a few episodes during bouts of post-bedtime restlessness. They’ve been among the most mind-boggling and disturbing things I’ve ever seen on the small screen, and not for the intended reasons.
Night Gallery originally ran as an hour-long anthology with a pair of segments and occasionally a humorous “black out” bit (which Serling hated). The syndicated version sliced these into thirty-minute chunks, which often required a decent amount of padding to bring to the correct run time. (Y’see, back in those days, there were limits on the amount of commercials that could run in any given programming hour.) To fill out the gaps, the syndication edits are jam-packed with looped and stock footage, spliced in with little regard for logic or flow.
So “The Different Ones,” a diminishing returns rehash of “Eye of the Beholder,” has its melodramatic tale of an unhappy young fellow who resembles a Chianti bottle candle interrupted by shots of NASA space launch footage, flying robot cops, and some government announcer declaring that “aliens have landed nearby whoops no sorry our mistake.” No attempt whatsoever was made to tie any of it back to the actual segment, which rolls around the inserts to its predictable conclusion.
As confusing as that was, it paled in comparison to the syndication edit of “The Painted Mirror,” where Zsa Zsa Gabor is a cruel businesswoman who wanders through a magic mirror and gets trapped in the alien dimension where the cover of Husker Du’s Warehouse: Songs and Stories was photographed. The basic plot was a pretty simple EC Comics revenge jobber, The syndication edit turned it into the stuff of day-glo nightmare by repeatedly looping the same short clip of Gabor wandering around and shouting.
If horror is stripping away expectations and familiar frames of reference, this was a conceptual masterpiece that outdoes any of the dark absurdism of Adult Swim’s “infomercial” shorts. The plot is telegraphed from the moment the mirror’s powers are revealed. The viewer’s expectations are on autopilot, coasting towards a foregone conclusion…that keeps getting delayed by the same fifteen second clip over and over again. Is there a problem with the feed? Is the cable box broken? Did one of the cats trigger some deep macro on the remote? OH MY GOD, THE SAME CLIP JUST LOOPED AGAIN. Am I dead? Is this hell? I should turn off the TV but what if I press the power and it won’t shut off?
In short, the perfect train of thought when it’s 2:30 in the morning and you’re already having trouble falling asleep.