It might be a bit heretical, but I enjoyed the Night Gallery more than Serling’s more famous series, The Twilight Zone. It’s probably that my aesthetic sensibility runs more Gothic than sci-fi, and I preferred monsters to aliens, castles and mansions to rockets and asteroids.
That said, Night Gallery is a difficult show to love unconditionally. Like any anthology, its segments vary in quality, and few anthologies varied as wildly as Night Gallery, largely due to the tension between the putative star of the series, Rod Serling, and the producer, Jack Laird. At the time of Night Gallery’s inception, Serling had no interest in resuming the day-to-day running of a TV series, largely due to his bad experiences with CBS during the Twilight Zone years.
He later realized it was a mistake to give control to Laird and the NBC network. Laird, to put it as gently as possible, was a populist in the worst sense of the term and pushed the show toward a campy, sensationalist tone that stood in tension with Serling’s more restrained take on the macabre. The result was a series that could reach dizzying heights (for 1970s TV, anyway) and fall to such painful lows as short one-joke comedy segments in which vampires visit blood banks, the Frankenstein’s monster needs a babysitter, or a cannibal tries to hire a maid. Needless to say, Lair was behind the misbegotten comedy bits, which severely undercut the stronger segments by their sheer campy awfulness. But even Laird was a bulwark of quality against interference from NBC and Universal Studios, who demanded lower quality, more action, more gore, and more shock. By the third season, Serling was little more than a paid host for a program that was churning out some of the worst genre television committed to film. (Just try watching the segments “Fright Night” or “Hatred unto Death.”)
But at its best, Night Gallery offered dark, moving portraits of fear and the macabre, usually in the Gothic mode, many drawn from classic pulp magazine stories that Serling loved as a young man. Adaptations of Weird Tales authors Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and H. P. Lovecraft gave a pulp-literary cast to the show’s greatest efforts. To the best of my knowledge, in 1971 Night Gallery became the first TV show to produce straight adaptations of Lovecraft stories: “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air.” (The Dunwich Horror, a straightforward adaptation of Lovecraft’s tale, had bowed in movie theaters the previous year.) Such segments as “A Death in the Family,” “Class of ’99,” “Green Fingers,” and “Miracle at Camafeo” are both dramatically satisfying and as memorable as the best of The Twilight Zone. Even the critically-despised third season had a few hits, like the Smith adaptation, “The Return of the Sorcerer.”
In my upcoming Cthulhu in World Mythology, I pay homage to Night Gallery. One of the segments on that show, a rather long comedy sketch by Laird entitled “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture,” featured Carl Reiner as the titular professor explaining the Cthulhu Mythos to a room full of students with familiar names: Lovecraft, Bloch, Derleth, etc. In Cthulhu I refer to Prof. Peabody as “my distinguished predecessor” and offer his “last lecture” as a famous bit of scholarly discussion of Cthulhu! Although the Night Gallery segment itself is groan-worthy in its awfulness, this was a fun way of acknowledging my admiration for a series that tried hard and, more often than not, did good work.
If you’re interested in Night Gallery, be sure to read Scott Skelton and Jim Benson’s Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (1999), pretty much the definitive guide to Night Gallery. Though I might quibble with their judgments on a few segments, overall they do an excellent job of rating both the wheat and the chaff.