Christmas in The Twilight Zone: Revisiting Night of the Meek

Rod Serling was born on Christmas Day. We look at "Night of the Meek," a holiday offering from the writer/creator of The Twilight Zone...

Rodman Edward Serling (1924-1975), the creator and head writer of the legendary science fiction/fantasy/horror anthology TV series The Twilight Zone, was born in Syracuse, New York (but raised downstate in Binghamton), on Christmas Day.

Though raised Jewish, and, according to his daughter Anne Serling (writing in her 2013 memoir, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling), “fiercely proud of his heritage,” Serling’s wife, Carol, was Unitarian (a Christian theological movement started in the 16th century that believes in one God, but not Christ’s divinity), and her husband came to share her liking for Unitarianism’s “free thinking, the permission to believe what one wants.”

Yet Rod Serling, like a lot of American Jews who suffer from annual Christmas-envy, loved and celebrated the holiday more as a secular/spiritual American holiday (like Thanksgiving), and mostly for what he called “the wondrous magic” of Christmas.

As a writer for radio in the early 1950s in Cincinnati, Serling wrote a number of Christmas-themed dramas, including one that never got produced, “No Christmas This Year,” a black comedy about a society that stops celebrating the holiday, while Santa Claus is besieged on all sides by striking elves and anti-aircraft fire. Years later, Serling recycled some of its characters for a Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone’s second season (1960-1961), “The Night of The Meek,” that aired in the series’ usual Friday 10 p.m. slot, and one night before Christmas Eve.

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After the camera pans down from the familiar outer space background of The Twilight Zone’s opening graphics into the set of a department store’s “North Pole” Christmas display, what startles every Zone aficionado is the weird “look” of the photography—because it’s not the black and white filmed look we’ve come to associate with The Twilight Zone, it’s shot on videotape, and therefore has video’s more immediate, yet somewhat cheaper and tawdrier appearance. It looks as dated as The Twilight Zone’s filmed episodes look timeless. (Serling himself hated the videotaped look, writing to a Young & Rubicam ad exec who had championed “Meek” to CBS that the episode was “an abomination, and looks for all the world like a rough dress rehearsal that is a couple days from coming around.”)

“Meek” was one of six second-season episodes (out of 156 total) videotaped in a cost-cutting experiment that produced shows of somewhat negligible quality, and looks more like a live television production, hearkening back to Serling’s ‘50s heyday of 90-minute, live dramas for anthology showcases like Playhouse 90.

In fact, both the lead actor and director of “Meek” had a history with Serling, live television and The Twilight Zone. Art Carney, famous as Ed Norton on Jackie Gleason’s ‘50s sitcom classic The Honeymooners, stars as down-on-his-luck department store-Santa Henry Corwin (the surname is an homage to Serling’s radio mentor, writer/producer Norman Corwin, one of the first American broadcaster/entertainers to tackle serious social issues in the medium); the year before “Meek,” Carney stretched his dramatic acting chops by playing Serling’s doppelganger in the writer’s semi- autobiographical Playhouse 90 teleplay “The Velvet Alley.” Director Jack Smight came from live TV, and directed three of the six videotaped Twilight Zone episodes, as well as one of the series’ earliest filmed episodes (the robot-themed “The Lonely”).

In “Meek,” Serling lays out the plot and theme of the episode right up front, as heavy-handedly as he was often criticized for, when Bad Santa Corwin looks up from his shot of booze and looks, not at the bartender, but straight at the camera and asks us, the viewers, ”Why isn’t there a real Santa Claus?” So “Meek” is Serling’s television take on the perennial favorite Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street, a 1947 dramedy in which the “real” Santa Claus edutains the film’s folks, and by proxy the rest of us, on “the true meaning of Christmas” (much as other Twilight Zone episodes were smaller-screen versions of famous films, like the first season’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine,” starring Ida Lupino as an aging screen actress nostalgic for her silent-screen past, was Serling’s knockoff of Gloria Swanson’s similar sad screen goddess in the 1950 noir classic Sunset Boulevard).

Miracle’s message is Frank Capra- esque (without any involvement by Capra); Serling’s Capraesque “Meek,” a morality play for TV, inverts Miracle’s conceit of Santa becoming “real” into a “real” person becoming Santa, as Carney’s Corwin does mid-episode, giving him the chance for the redemption that’s at the heart of Christianity itself. (The connection between Capra and Serling is not a tenuous one, as “Serling Sermons” like “Meek” were chided by critics, then and now, as much as “Capracorn” was. And the half-hour fantasy sequence in the final act of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey witnesses his life had he not been born, isn’t so much a throwback to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as it is a proto-Twilight Zone episode.) A key image in “Meek” is when Serling and Smight conflate Claus with Christ by framing Corwin’s seedy Santa, gleefully distributing his newfound Christmas booty to his fellow sots in the church mission, in front of a sign on the wall that reads “Love Thy Neighbor.”

Corwin decries the commercialism of Christmas in Serling’s trademark poetic, stylized and philosophical dialogue. Pop culture author Gary Gerani, in the audio commentary to “Meek” on the Twilight Zone DVD, calls Carney’s speech about what Christmas really should be about, and what it’s been turned into, “a more dramatic and heartfelt version of what Edmund Gwenn had done in Miracle,” citing lines like “I live in a dirty rooming house on a street filled with hungry kids and shabby people. Where the only thing that comes down the chimney on Christmas Eve is more poverty.” In another of the episode’s most poignant scenes, Corwin, weeping, cradles a boy and girl in the snow as they ask him for their Christmas presents; the boy wants “a job for my Daddy.”

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It’s earnest but heartwarming touches like that that give “Meek” a gravitas not normally associated with holiday-themed television episodes, a seriousness steeped in Serling’s Judeo-Christian-Unitarian social concerns of the time, like the burgeoning civil rights movement. In the episode’s opening department store scene, the first person we notice is a young boy—a black boy—placed prominently in the foreground, a black among the all-white crowd of parents and kids. This was 1960, when nary a “negro” was to be found on television—but Serling was a pioneer here, with his absolutely daring casting, earlier that year, of the first black actor (Ivan Dixon, later one of Hogan’s Heroes) in a starring, dramatic role on television, in the Twilight Zone episode “The Big Tall Wish.” After Corwyn wistfully whines, “On one Christmas, I’d like to see the meek inherit the earth,” Director Smight cuts right to a closeup of that black kid.

“And that’s why I drink…and that’s why I weep,” Corwin concludes (just like trumpet player Jack Klugman’s rationalization for his drinking in the first-season Twilight Zone episode “A Passage for Trumpet,” a redemption story similar to “Meek”). Perhaps the most telling of Corwin’s plaints is when he rues “I’m an aging, purposeless relic of another time,” because that’s Serling himself, describing himself, suffering the pangs of nostalgic longing that brought forth many of the greatest Twilight Zone episodes (like the first season’s “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby”), and that includes “The Night of The Meek.”

Serling, in that letter to the ad exec, wrote of the episode disparagingly, bemoaning that “instead of being the sheer delight I had hoped it would be, turned out to be an inconsequential nothing, and I rather think it’ll be a terrible disappointment to you.” But that short-sighted belief is belied by Serling’s closing narration, that is as beautifully written as the episode is fondly remembered, its present-day status as one of The Twilight Zone’s most beloved episodes assured:

“A word to the wise, to all the children of the twentieth century, whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics, whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers, or walk with a cane and comb their beards. There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas, and there’s a special power reserved for little people. In short, there’s nothing mightier than the meek. And a Merry Christmas to each and all.”

Arlen Schumer wrote and designed Visions From The Twilight Zone (Chronicle Books), the only coffee table art book about the series, wrote and designed the Paley Center for New Media’s website for the 50th Anniversary of the series in 2009, and continues to present a multimedia show based on the book to universities and cultural institutions around the country, most recently at Ithaca University’s 2013 Rod Serling Conference in Los Angeles. You can find his work on his website.