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The Golden Age of Television

  • Film
  • 5 out of 5 stars
RING OF FIRE Jack Palance goes another round in Requiem for a Heavyweight.
RING OF FIRE Jack Palance goes another round in Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Given a little distance, it’s likely that this collection of live TV dramas from the 1950s will need a more modest title—that’s how significant The Wire and The Sopranos are. We are only recently done with the best of days. Still, these oldies remain superb examples of craft and precision; they are part of the reason for the medium’s ascendancy to cultural dominance.

If you could somehow imagine an episode of The Office in which all edits and camera moves were done on the fly, the actors romping from set to set completely in character (and never flubbing a line), that’s what you get with these minimovies. The appeal was closest to theater, a lineage that television has since traded in for an aesthetic of its own. Criterion’s box of eight of the most successful examples is eye-opening. The image quality is poor (these were shot on early kinescope technology), but amazingly, you won’t care. The thrill of pulling off these plays before a rapt, nationwide audience is catching.

There are stars here, actors like Paul Newman and Julie Harris, at the dawn of their careers. But the dominant figure of live television, to judge from this collection, was Rod Serling, a writer who would go on to make a profound, spooky impact on imaginations during the next decade. Patterns, Serling’s 1955 corporate indictment, is a still-fresh piece of proto--Mad Men tension, with a conclusion that’s almost shocking in its cynicism. (An Emmy winner for Serling, Patterns was the first TV program to inspire an encore, performed live a month later.) The following year brought Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, a boxing drama that includes some of the dramatist’s toughest dialogue. The Comedian (1957), starring a sour, egomaniacal Mickey Rooney, is Serling at his most daring. You can see the future work of Scorsese in these plays.—Joshua Rothkopf

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