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Rod Serling's "Patterns"

A Dangerously Flawed View of Capitalism

by M.G. PIETY

I recently bought a collection of DVDs from the website Acorn that sells a lot of PBS stuff. The collection was called The Golden Age of Television and included a bunch of critically acclaimed dramas originally written for TV. The dramas were broadcast live, and with one exception, only once.

The exception was a play by Rod Serling called Patterns. Patterns is about the immorality of corporate America. A young engineer from Cincinnati, Fred Staples (Richard Kiley), is hired by Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane), the ruthless head of a huge corporation in New York, to replace an aging executive, Andy Sloane (Ed Begley), whose ethics have become both an inconvenience and constant source of irritation to Ramsey.

Ramsey’s plan is to make Sloane so miserable through unrelenting public humiliation of him that he’ll resign. Staples doesn’t realize he’s been hired to replace Sloane, not at first anyway. He likes and respects Sloane and does what he can to help him and to ease the pressure put on him by the villainous Mr. Ramsey.

Ramsey’s behavior toward Sloan is so vicious and sadistic it’s stomach turning. The implication is that Ramsey is a sadist and that such sadism might be an inexorable part of corporate culture. Even Sloane understands it. Staples, being younger and new to the corporate world, doesn’t get it, but Sloane explains it to him. Sloane knows what’s going on, but he’s determined to stick it out for just a few more years. He has a boy almost ready for college. Sloane is not merely psychologically dependent on his identity as the vice president of a huge and successful corporation. He’s also financially dependent on his lavish executive salary.

So Sloane takes beating after beating. Ramsey finally accuses him, in a particularly nasty attack, of trying to pass off Staples’ work as his own by affixing his name along with Staples’ to a report that Ramsey insists is so good it had to have been prepared by Staples alone. The report was, in fact, a collaborative effort, so Staples rises to Sloane’s defense. Sloane knows better, however, than to accept Staples’ support. “It was a clerical error,” he whispers, “my name wasn’t supposed to go on the report. It was a clerical error.” Sloane then staggers out of the boardroom and collapses in the hall of what would appear to be a heart attack. He dies later that same evening.

Staples decides he’s had enough of corporate ugliness and that he’s going to return to Cincinnati. First, however, he resolves to avenge his friend Sloane by telling off Ramsey. He calls Ramsey every name in the book, says he’s not even human. But Ramsey is unperturbed by Staples attack. In fact, he asks Staples to stay on with the company as Sloane’s replacement. Ramsey explains to Staples that Staples doesn’t have to like him, or be nice to him, and that he can oppose him whenever he wants. Staples needs the challenge, Ramsey asserts, that taking over Sloane’s position would give him. He needs the challenge of running a large company, the challenge of making it an even larger company than he, Ramsey, has made it. He will grow with this challenge, Ramsey asserts, even as the company grows. So then, in what film critic Andrew Harris calls “an anti-cliché ending to end all anti-cliché endings,” Staples accepts Ramsey’s offer.

But Staples’ acceptance makes no sense. We learned earlier from Sloane’s secretary that Ramsey doesn’t like people who oppose him. Not only do we, the audience learn that, Staples learns it because we learn it when she explains it to him. That’s why he persecuted Sloane, because Sloane opposed him whenever he wanted to do something morally indefensible. Staples is just like Sloane in having scruples, so why would he agree to stay and work for a man to whom scruples are an intolerable threat?

Staples wouldn’t accept such an arrangement, and, in fact, he didn’t accept it, not in Serling’s original script. Viewers learn from the introduction to Patterns provided on the DVD that Serling’s original screenplay had Staples telling Ramsey off and returning to Cincinnati a hero. That’s how director Fielder Cook describes the original ending anyway. Cook explains that he had to do some revision of the script and that Serling also had to labor mightily to make it acceptable. Cook makes it sound as if the motivations for the revisions were aesthetic, but the rest of the events surrounding the eventual broadcast of the play suggest otherwise.

Patterns had been written for CBS’s Studio One, but the executives at CBS didn’t like it so Serling had to shop it around. No explanation is given for why what had been unacceptable for CBS was soon afterward deemed acceptable for NBC’s Kraft Television Theater. The implication is that it was the script doctoring performed by Cook and Serling, or more specifically, that it was the replacement of the original ending with one that would have been more palatable to television executives and, more importantly, to the advertisers they hoped to attract. Media moguls and the corporations that paid handsomely to advertise on popular programs such as Studio One and Kraft Television Theater would undoubtedly have taken offense at Serling’s original denunciation of the immorality of corporate America, so the denunciation was replaced by what was effectively a defense of that immorality.

Serling sold out. He had intended his play to be a moral indictment of corporate culture but ended with a piece that appears to celebrate that culture. Interestingly, although the piece was critically acclaimed, the movie version that was made later was not a financial success. It isn’t hard to figure out why. It is an incredibly ugly spectacle and uncharacteristically bad writing on the part of Serling. The beginning is well written, in fact everything up to the confrontation between Staples and Ramsey is well written, but the confrontation is not. It is completely unbelievable. It goes against everything we know about both characters. The play isn’t made better by the new ending. It’s made worse, even from a purely aesthetic point of view, not to mention a moral one. The ending isn’t an anti-cliché ending. It’s a nonsensical one.

The problems with the play are not limited, however, to the characters’ suddenly acting “out of character” or to the moral bankruptcy of what would appear to be its message. The view of capitalism the play celebrates is staggeringly stupid. Ramsey defends his despicable behavior on the grounds that he took what had been a small company and made it a big one. And he entices Staples to stay with the promise that he may, through dint of hard work, be able to make it even bigger. Grow, grow, grow! Sacrifice your morals on the altar of growth without end? Even little children can see the problem with that philosophy.

The television critic Tom Shales wrote in 2008 that “[e]xcept for terms like ‘mimeographed’ and ‘teletype,’ little about the drama seems dated.” And yet, the whole thing seems dated. It’s difficult to imagine a high-level corporate executive today being either so moral as Sloane or so naïve as Staples. It’s almost as difficult to conceive of an executive dying as a result of public humiliation. They would appear to have become inured to that. Most anachronistic of all, however, is the celebration of growth for growth’s sake. I don’t mean to suggest that there are not still people who believe in that. There are. My guess, however, is that there aren’t many outside the boardrooms of multinationals. Most of humanity has been made all too aware of the dangers of valuing growth for its own sake.

The only redeeming thing about the ending of the play is also sadly anachronistic. Ramsey’s pathological behavior is not selfishly motivated, he protests, it’s for the good of the company! He’s committed to expanding the company. That’s why he asks Staples to stay on. He believes Staples will be good for the company (that this selfless commitment to the company does not cohere with what we learned earlier about Ramsey’s intolerance of dissent apparently did not bother Cook so much as the original idealistic ending). Few if any of today’s corporation-hopping CEOs, on the other hand, are committed to anything other than their own personal enrichment. My guess is that this has more or less always been true of corporate executives, but there was a time when at least the populace bought the idea that one could, and perhaps even should, be selflessly dedicated to the idea of endless expansion. Not many people buy that anymore though.

Patterns, reads the little booklet that accompanies the DVD set, “marked a pivotal moment for author Rod Serling, paving the way to multiple writing offers and eventually his signature series The Twilight Zone.” Serling acknowledges this himself when he writes in the Bantam paperback version of Patterns that the success of the play took him “into television’s elite quickly and fabulously.” Serling, like his character Staples, had just moved with his wife from Ohio around the time Patterns was broadcast. That must have been some eye-opening move. Serling had a great script, a script for which television was not quite ready, so in order to get it produced, he made it less great. He sold out, not so spectacularly as Staples, of course, but still, he sold out.

If Patterns has a message, Serling explained, “it is simply that every human being has a minimum set of ethics from which he operates. This minimum set of ethics often injects itself into a man’s own journey upward against competition. When he refuses to compromise these ethics, his career must suffer; when he does compromise them, his conscience does the suffering” (from the Bantam paperback). Did Serling’s conscience suffer because of his failure to stick up for the idealism of his original script?

I’ve always loved The Twilight Zone. Only after I began to watch it again as an adult, however, did I understand that most of the episodes are actually little morality plays. There’s “The Four of Us are Dying” about a man whose penchant for impersonating others leads finally to his death when he’s mistaken for an unwholesome character and murdered by someone that character had wronged. There’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” where the viewer learns that the real monsters on Maple Street are not the expected creatures from outer space but the neighbors who turn on one another out of fear. There’s “A Nice Place to Visit” where we learn that hell is getting everything you want, and “A Stop at Willoughby” where we learn that the corporate world can be so inhumane that anything, even death, is preferable. These teleplays are about loneliness, about greed, about selfishness, and most of all about fear. They are about how these things can drive people to behave in ways they cannot later live with. They are beautiful and poignant and moving.

Perhaps The Twilight Zone was at least in part Serling’s apology for what would appear to have been his reversion to a minimal set of ethics in order to get Patterns produced. My objective here is not to vilify Serling. His crime, if you can call it that, was pretty innocuous, and he more than made up for it with the wonderful and uplifting programs he gave us later. The reason I sat down to write this is that I find it incredible that the incoherencies in Patterns and the implausibility of its ending continue to be overlooked by critics. The only possible explanation for this blindness is that, even if much of humanity has wised up, too many people charged with influencing the thought of the American public are still in the grip of the dangerously flawed view of capitalism that Patterns celebrates.

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs and the author of Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. Her latest book is Sequins and Scandals: Reflections on Figure Skating, Culture, and the Philosophy of Sport, She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu