Monday, August 26, 2019

The Unshakeables: “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”


I’ve always believed that if you are an adult of at least average intelligence, a great work of art will speak to you. 

Wherever you’re from, however you were raised, and whichever demographic box you check on a census form, there is a universal truth in extraordinary creative expression that will be recognized, and will resonate. 

But there are exceptions. “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” an Emmy-winning 1971 episode of Night Gallery written by Rod Serling, cannot be fully appreciated by anyone under the age of, say, 45. You may understand what it’s about, and comprehend the emotions of its protagonist, but you won’t feel them in your soul until you reach the age where you can see the world through his eyes. 



Maybe that’s why I was so confused the first time I watched it, back when I was in my 30s. I was relatively new to Night Gallery then, but from the other episodes I’d watched I expected something scary, or at least unsettling. There are no monsters here, no haunted houses, no veteran TV actors and slumming film stars jumping at creaking floorboards. 

But now that I’m 55, I understand how frightening it is. It’s not an external fear – of something chasing you down a dark alley, but an internal one – of feeling out of step with the world, of being left behind, of the things that matter to you no longer mattering to anyone else. 

These are the emotions that haunt Randy Lane, who has spent the last 25 years selling plastics for the same company. He is played by William Windom, who is brilliant from the first moment Lane staggers back to his office, late, hair askew, testing the patience of his boss (John Randolph, who specialized in blowhards) but not Lynn, his loyal secretary (lovely Diane Baker, who turns up in the best episodes of many shows). 



Why was Randy late? Because he spent the last hour standing outside Tim Riley’s bar, which is about to be demolished and replaced by a 20-story bank building. He is consumed by melancholy over the loss of this special place, where he was welcomed back from his time in the military, and where he had the first date with his beloved wife, now long since passed.  And a year from now, he tells Lynn, no one will even remember that it was there. 

Drawn back to the site again after work, he peers inside and for a moment sees the party held in his honor all those years ago, back in full swing. But it disappears before he can go inside. Over the next few days he finds himself reliving other significant moments from his past – some happy, some hopeful, some tragic. 

Is he losing his mind? Having a nervous breakdown? Or, this being Night Gallery, are the ghosts and time-shifts really happening? 

Every scene in this 41-minute drama is beautifully written. There’s a moment outside the bar where Randy commiserates with the cop who has walked that beat for as long as the bar has been around, and also laments its loss. He remembers how, back in the day, he dreamed about being the hero who would capture Al Capone. “Now,” he says, “I walk a little slower and pray for a quiet night.” 

There are parallels here to my favorite Twilight Zone episode, “A Stop at Willoughby”, as well as “Patterns,” the acclaimed 1955 episode of Kraft Theater that first brought Rod Serling to critical and popular acclaim. All of them find something merciless and dehumanizing in executive suites. All of them feature workers under stress grasping for an escape, whether that’s into a simpler, happier time, or into a bottle of booze. All of them give us sympathetic characters who desperately wish to hold on to the past, believing it’s better than the present. 



Obviously, that’s a theme that hits very close to home with this blog. 

Surprisingly, however, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is the only one of these three stories to end on a hopeful note. One might expect the opposite had Serling become more cynical with age (as so many of us do). But here, 16 years after the grim final act of “Patterns,” Randy Lane is granted a moment of appreciation that, we hope, will help him cope with the loss of Tim Riley’s bar, and lighten his ennui. 

I’ll leave it to you to judge whether that final scene works. I’ve had discussions with fans on both sides of the divide – and to be honest I’ve been on both sides myself. As of my last viewing, I’m good with it. And I wonder if Serling, then about the same age as Randy Lane, found an empathy with his beleaguered protagonist that wasn’t accessible when he wrote “Patterns” while still in his 30s. I’m glad he threw a lifeline to a fellow traveler, at a moment when the journey no longer seemed worth the heartache. 



Sadly, Serling’s journey would last just four more years – he died in 1975 at the age of 50. 

“They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” is one of those little masterpieces that I wish more people knew about. And it’s probably the only reason I’m holding on to my Night Gallery DVDs. I hope shows like this will one day be discovered by millennials, amidst the 300 new shows TV cranks out each year (and that’s probably just Netflix). Maybe by the time they find it, they will be old enough to appreciate what it has to say. 


10 comments:

  1. Mr. Hofstede, are you aware of the situation where episodes of the short-lived Gary Collins series "The Sixth Sense" were severely edited and syndicated under the "Night Gallery" title? Introductions by the late Rod Serling were tacked on.

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    1. Unfortunately those same episodes are still included in the NIGHT GALLERY syndication package, so Me-TV still airs them as NG episodes, including Serling's intros. I've usually just ignored them. I suppose Universal paid Serling to film these intros, as THE SIXTH SENSE aired on ABC instead of NBC.

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  2. I'm much happier with the ending of this NG episode as aired instead of as originally written (no happy ending there). As corny as it sounds, I still believe in happy endings for basically good people.

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    1. So do I - especially when it seems they've become a rare commodity both on and off TV

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    2. I can't see there was any other written, though it jarred with the rest of the story.

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  3. I loved this episode when it first aired and I was CONSIDERABLY younger than 45. As I grew more, um, mature and worldly, I came to quote it and use it as a map pin to events that happened in my life, like when they sold and tore down the first building I had my first career job in. I am STILL considerably younger than 45 (and will be for decades to come) but of all the NG episodes this is the one that left the largest emotional mark.

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  4. A minor correction: it was nominated for an Emmy but did not win.

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  5. This episode is also similar to Serling's "Walking Distance".

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