Even in this age of the twenty –four hour news cycle, the viral video and the instantly downloadable movie, the rapid explosion of television after World War II is still something to behold. In 1946 there were only six thousand television sets in the United States, by 1951 that number had risen to over twelve million. Twelve Million! Having a television in the home fit in perfectly with the desires of the returning G.I. to leave the war behind and settle into the domestic tranquility of a stable home life. In many cases, the television became the centerpiece of this new idyllic home, with the family gathering together to watch their favorite tv shows quickly becoming a nightly ritual.
And many of the returning G.I.’s also found the new medium to be the perfect vehicle for them to express what they had seen and experienced. Gore Vidal, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky were all World War II veterans, and all became very famous television writers in the early 1950’s. While some wrote directly about their experiences in the war, others turned a mirror on America as a whole, deciding instead to critique the culture that was growing out of the post war boom. Serling choose to expose the high pressure world of business in his classic “Patterns” and in “Marty”, Chayefsky examined the loneliness of those men who had failed to find a family and fit-in to the expected norms of the greater society.
The work they did for television in these early days came to be referred to as ‘kitchen sink dramas”, largely because of the stripped-down realism of portraying everyday characters in everyday settings. While some have interpreted this to mean the dramas were small in scope, perhaps linking the subject matters to the technical limitations of live television -- few locations, minimal sets – but in actuality, this is quite misleading. The best dramas of this era take their characters through profound events and changes, that hold up with the best dramatic work of any medium at any time. Serling’s work in particular leapt beyond the seeming smallness of the stories by having the protagonists fight an antagonist who not only represented an obstacle to what the character wanted, but also represented the ill in society that he or she was fighting against. Thus the protagonist had to overcome not only the person who was standing in his way, but had to defeat society as a whole in order to win. There was nothing small about these battles. The stakes couldn’t have been higher, and the desired outcomes couldn’t have been harder to achieve.
To further see just how powerful and strong this work was, one need only look to the influence they still have all these years later. Mad Men bares a more than passing resemblance to Serling’s masterpiece “Patterns” (Mathew Weiner, the show’s creator, has repeatedly mentioned Rod Serling as a huge influence) and any number of tv series and movies can look back to “Marty” as a starting off point.