Friday, December 7, 2018

The Unshakeables: “Patterns”


Any history of television that does not recognize Rod Serling as the medium’s first transcendent writer should be viewed with skepticism. 



There were other titans in that pioneering era, from Paddy Chayefsky to Reginald Rose. But Serling was more prodigious, more prolific, and more willing to cast a critical eye on the times in which he lived. His association with the macabre, made indelible by The Twilight Zone, tends to overshadow many other brilliant scripts for TV’s once-abundant anthology series, including “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” “Requiem For a Heavyweight,” and a 1955 episode of Kraft Television Theater that is, indeed, unshakeable. 



“Patterns” is a 60-minute teleplay in three acts. Act One takes us into the corporate offices of Ramsey and Co., a thriving conglomerate located on the top floor of a New York skyscraper. What they actually do is never specified, because it’s not relevant: the company serves to represent many such businesses in Manhattan, all of which have board meetings and discuss budgets and acquisitions, with the apparent sole purpose of making more money. 



The story opens with secretaries (one played by Elizabeth Montgomery) gossiping about the arrival of a new executive. Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), recruited by Mr. Ramsey himself from Cincinnati, is warmly welcomed by his new coworkers, who expect big things from this young and energetic go-getter. 



If there’s someone on the way up in an organization like this, it means there’s likely someone on the way down; that would be Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), 24 years with the firm and “the last of the original bunch.” Everyone knows he’s lost the confidence of the boss (Everett Sloane) but he soldiers on, leaning more heavily than usual on the bottle of booze in his desk drawer.

Act Two opens one month later. Fred Staples has surpassed expectations, resulting in a shift of work toward him and away from Andy Sloane. Despite this the two men get along well, and Fred supports the input Andy provides into the company’s annual report. Mr. Ramsey is impressed as well, though he refuses to acknowledge Andy’s contributions, even going so far as to cross his name off the final draft. Fred protests, but to no avail.

The consequences of Ramsey’s actions reach their climax in the final act. Andy Sloane’s fate is not a happy one. An outraged Fred storms into Mr. Ramsey’s office, ready to throw away his future with the company and take a stand for fairness and common decency. But when he walks out, he’s still on the payroll. “I’ll be late,” he tells his wife, as he prepares to tackle the stack of papers on his desk. “Aren’t you always?” she replies. Fade to black. 

I know – doesn’t sound all that exciting. Why would anyone watch 60 minutes of office politics on a show that aired 63 years ago? 



But the excellence of “Patterns” was recognized immediately after its January 12, 1955 broadcast. The New York Times critic called it a breakthrough in television drama, and suggested a second showing for anyone who might have missed such a splendid show.  Amazingly, the NBC network obliged, gathering the cast back together for a second live performance on February 9. That was the first time that happened in the medium’s history.

In a September 1974 article in TV Guide, John Crosby writes that the day after “Patterns” first aired, it’s author was famous: “Within two weeks Serling, a struggling author up to then, got 23 offers of TV assignments, three movie offers and 14 requests for interviews from newspapers and magazines.”

Later that year, the show won him his first Emmy. The following year, he expanded his script for a 90-minute feature film version.

Clearly this was material that resonated with viewers at the time. But great writing also resonates across the ages, which is why I believe you could take the same script and transfer it to a Silicon Valley tech firm in the present day, and it would work just as well.

The cutthroat corporate world was one that apparently fascinated Rod Serling – or perhaps repelled is a more accurate description. What do these jobs give you, he asks – status and prestige. Some financial security. A nice home in Connecticut. But at what price? “They keep chipping away at your pride, your security,” Andy Sloane says at one point. Is it worth it?

Serling returned to this theme throughout his career. There are elements of “Patterns” is the standout Twilight Zone story “A Stop at Willoughby,” and Night Gallery’s most famous episode (“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”). 



But “Patterns” was the cornerstone. And anyone who is serious about experiencing the best of classic TV should see it  – which is easy to do as it’s been on YouTube for years.

If you do, I hope it will inspire you to watch more live television dramas from the 1950s. There are technical limitations they have to surmount, but these only remind us of how today’s television distracts its audience with shallow spectacle, because it lacks the quality and substance of the Golden Age programs.

“Patterns” offers no elaborate sets, no fancy camera movements, no swelling music to cue the viewer on when to get excited. It’s just a terrific script performed by great actors – all getting it right the first time, because there was no other choice.

2 comments:

  1. The movie version is quite good, too. I showed it to several executives and we had some great discussions. Everett Sloan is fabulous in PATTERNS.

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  2. "The Comedian" to me, is Serling's supreme achievement, the medium of television is barely a decade old and already Rod had exposed some of it's worst habits and secrets. Its no accident that of all his tv-plays its literally the only one that never got adapted as a theatrical motion picture. Maybe it could get revived on Broadway...

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