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ON THE TOWN

NO TV DINNER : Without the Usual Guest of Honor, Thanksgiving Enters a New Dimension

November 19, 1995|Patt Morrison

This year, someone will be missing from my Thanksgiving festivities. He's the perfect guest, someone who has been there unfailingly every year, from the moment I stuff the free-with-$100-in-groceries turkey to the last watery sigh of the the dishwasher.

I speak, of course, of Rod Serling.

One holiday TV parade is sufficient, and it comes on New Year's Day and it's not named Macy's. Around my house, Thanksgiving Thursday has always been reserved for the Technicolor-larded, overstuffed pleasures of the feast, counterseasoned with the spare pungency of "The Twilight Zone" 's black-and-white homilies.

But after 15 years of Thanksgiving Day marathons, KTLA, the local station that's as cozy as old slippers, has lost its rights to broadcast the series. No more "Third from the Sun," so long "Nick of Time." Gone to cable, every episode.

When people begin hallmarking their lives by the TV programs they watched, I am ordinarily the first one in at the kill. I once had a student who could recite every "Brady Bunch" episode the way Homer could recite "The Iliad." I mocked her, but she is now probably making a better living off "Brady Bunch" revivals than she would with her college degree. What assured my conversion was the Perry Mason moment (there you go) when a cable rerun of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" pretty well cinched the time frame of the Brown-Goldman murders.

So I can now accept, even exalt, "The Twilight Zone" marathons as--what's some good jargon?--"cathode art verite , a life-authenticating experience, one that provides a common humane language and an incisive prism to my generation." (Wish I'd been able to toss around language like that when I got sent to bed before "Thriller" came on.)

Really, though, when you set aside the silly-spooky stuff, some of the episodes are at least as morally instructive as anything in the "Book of Virtues" (another overstuffed turkey). With the spare, graphic, black-and-white veracity of news footage (there I go again) we were getting "Faust" and the New Testament and "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "Charlotte's Web" and my parents' cautionary tales--the same lessons, done up in different fables:

* Beauty is only skin deep ("The Eye of the Beholder"), but conformity can be both banal and monstrous indeed ("Number Twelve Looks Just Like You").

* Hate is not justice ("I Am the Night--Color Me Black").

* Our paranoia can victimize us more readily than our real sins ("The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street").

* Arrogant man is not always the measure of all things ("The Invaders," "The Little People" and countless others).

* Goodness has its own way of triumphing ("Night of the Meek").

* You had better look a gift alien in the mouth because the free lunch isn't free unless you're it ("To Serve Man").

* Youth is a state of mind and a state of grace, not a state of age ("Kick the Can"), and death need not be a victor but a companion ("Nothing in the Dark").

* History matters and is forgotten at our peril ("Death's-head Revisited").

* One life, however modestly led, can make a profound difference ("The Changing of the Guard").

* With technology, as with anything else, we should be careful what we wish for because it might come true, including putting our trust in the machines of our own invention ("The Brain Center at Whipple's").

* Non-humans have feelings, too ("The Lonely").

Yes, I'm going to miss that Serling guy. He never ate too much, and he kept me entertained while I cleaned up and very carefully gave the turkey carcass as dignified a disposition as possible, because you never know tomorrow's bill of fare . . . in the Giblet Zone.

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