Steven Spielberg's Early Television Genre Works
By Raz Greenberg
27 August 2012
2011 was a year of peak activity for Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful directors to ever emerge in Hollywood. The back-to-back release of his theatrical features The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse has been met with strong critical acclaim, while the director himself is busy filming his Abraham Lincoln biopic. Those looking for Spielberg's next genre work, however, will have to wait until 2013, when his adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson's novel Robopocalypse is rumored to be released. Spielberg, however, has not kept himself away from genre works in the past year, having produced science fiction films by other directors—Super 8, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cowboys and Aliens, and Real Steel—to varying degrees of commercial and critical success. Even more notable was Spielberg's involvement in the production of two of last year's high-profile genre TV shows—Falling Skies and Terra Nova.
The critical reception both shows met was not significantly different from Spielberg's previous attempts at genre television production such as Amazing Stories, SeaQuest DSV, or Taken—the general consensus appears to be that these shows are entertaining, but little else. Compared to the huge impact that Spielberg has made as a director of genre films—from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—his output as a genre TV producer appears to be of negligible significance. This failure is somewhat ironic, considering that television—and in particular, genre television—gave Spielberg his professional debut as a filmmaker.
An examination of Spielberg's early television works can go a long way in explaining how his filmmaking career remains successful and relevant to this very day. He signed his first contract with Universal's television department in 1969, and while his "New Hollywood" peers were busy experimenting with new forms of storytelling and exploring the dark sides of American life on the screen, Spielberg learned how to work with run-of-the-mill scripts, producers, and executives. In classic Hollywood auteur fashion, he channeled his creativity out of the content department he had no control over and into the visual world of images. Spielberg's work on television seemed to make him far more mindful than most of his colleagues to his audience and its tastes.
Spielberg professional directing debut in 1969 was "Eyes" a segment in the pilot episode of Night Gallery, an anthology show produced by Rod Serling, who made his mark on genre television with the anthology show The Twilight Zone. Compared to Serling's earlier show, Night Gallery placed a stronger emphasis on fantasy and horror than on science fiction, but the script for "Eyes," written by Serling himself, bears the same theme for which The Twilight Zone became famous: it's a morality tale about a sinner punished, with a particularly sadistic twist.
"Eyes" tells the story of Miss Menlo, a wealthy blind woman (Joan Crawford), who blackmails her doctor (Barry Sullivan) to perform a surgery that will restore her sight for a limited period of a few hours. This surgery involves the involuntary (and permanent) donation of another person's sight—Sydney (Tom Bosley), a small-time felon in desperate need of money. The operation is successful, but the consequences are hardly what Menlo expected.
The script for "Eyes," as noted above, is typical of Serling's writing—beyond its thematic qualities, it is very reminiscent of the days when television shows felt like staged radio plays. The script is full of bad puns ("What's more to see?" asks Sydney after being asked to sign the agreement that will make him blind for the rest of his life), overlong explanatory dialogue, and over-the-top emotional statements (the episode hits a low point when the script forces Crawford to scream her desire to see the world). It's not so much a bad script as one that's behind its times. Television had evolved considerably by the time that Night Gallery debuted, whereas Serling's writing remained pretty much the same.
And it was against the weaknesses of the script that Spielberg got to work his magic on a wide audience for the first time. The episode begins with the doctor's arrival to Menlo's apartment, and the conversation between the two characters makes superb use of the surroundings. Almost as though they are on a theatre stage, Crawford and Sullivan move around the room as they talk, and the camera follows them—sometimes focusing on small details and items, other times emphasizing the distance between them, creating tension, with occasional close-ups bringing attention to the characters' state of mind. This was anything but the traditional shot-reverse-shot method of filming dialogue. Sound effects are also employed as the characters' footsteps echo around Menlo's apartment, showcasing the place's empty, lonely nature.
The movement from one scene to another is presented in the episode in blurred images that slowly become full images, not unlike the manner in which Menlo gains back her eyesight—for a few seconds, before everything becomes dark again. It is here that Spielberg is in his top form, and interestingly, he worked in a direction that is almost the complete opposite of the script. He filmed Crawford against a pitch-black background, suffocated by darkness, stumbling all over her apartment, helpless—suddenly, she is no longer the manipulative, angry person viewers got to know throughout the rest of the episode, but a frightened victim. And as she falls to her death, after suffering such a terrible ordeal which the director has visualized so effectively, it is hard for the audience not to feel sorry for her—did she deserve such a severe punishment, even considering the crimes she committed? Serling's answer would probably be yes, while Spielberg's would be no: for such a visual director, blindness is a terrible curse, one that can drive people off the edge. Many years after the premiere of "Eyes," he would return to the horrors of having replaced one's eyes with another's, in a memorable scene from the 2002 Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report.
Spielberg returned to Night Gallery in 1971, directing another segment—"Make Me Laugh," which featured a stronger script, though his work on this episode was disappointingly pedestrian. The same year was particularly busy for the young director: he made his finest television directorial effort in "Murder by the Book" (an excellent early episode of the mystery show Columbo), directed the acclaimed TV movie Duel, and also made one of the most unique works of his entire career—the only science-fiction episode in an otherwise non-genre show.
This show, The Name of the Game, was a bold experiment in television storytelling. Taking place in a powerful magazine publishing company, the show rotated between three different protagonists, with each episode focusing on one of them as they told a different kind of story: investigative reporting, war on crime, or business/political drama—with episodes of the latter kind focusing on the character of Glenn Howard (Gene Barry), the company's CEO.
Spielberg directed the episode "L.A. 2017," written for the show's third season by veteran science fiction author Philip Wylie (best known for introducing many concepts of the modern superhero genre in his novel Gladiator). It opens with Howard driving on a California road, on his way back from an environmental conference. Tired after the long conference, but also alarmed by the dire predictions he heard in it, Howard begins recording a personal message to the President of the United States, urging him to take action on environmental issues. Losing his concentration on the road, Howard's car crashes, and he falls unconscious. He wakes up after being rescued by masked figures who take him to a large underground complex—which, as he finds out, is Los Angeles of the year 2017, almost four decades after an environmental apocalypse has wiped out most of the human race and forced survivors in the United States into underground cities ruled by a totalitarian government.
"L.A. 2017" holds an interesting place in Spielberg's filmography. Though Duel is often referred to as his first feature-length work, it was actually preceded by both "Murder by the Book" and "L.A. 2017"—each 75 minutes long. "L.A. 2017" was the first of the three productions to be broadcasted, and hence represents Spielberg's first experience in long-form storytelling. Judged as such, it has many problems—though much as in the case of "Eyes," many of them can be attributed to the script's weaknesses. Wylie attempted to squeeze too many issues into his script: environmentalism, government corruption, business corruption, the loss of privacy in modern society, eugenic fascism, racism—the episode feels unfocused, preachy, and over-explanatory in its dialogue. An even bigger problem is that it isn't always clear if Wylie intended for the episode to be a serious grim dystopia or a futuristic satire; this results in odd moments where unintentionally funny affairs (notably a band of aging rock musicians playing for an indifferent crowd of old people, or a church with computer terminals that allow believers to ask questions) are placed in an otherwise serious context. Finally, the very basic time-travel premise of the episode wouldn't have been possible in a modern-day drama like The Name of the Game if it wasn't for the weak "it was all a dream" ending.
Again, Spielberg overcame these weaknesses with his unique visual touch. "L.A. 2017" mostly takes place in small, narrow, and overcrowded underground spaces, but Spielberg filmed them with panoramic shots that show the characters from a distance, shots that demonstrate the totalitarian nature of the world that Howard has landed in: a place where someone is always watching you. The futuristic setting also meant that Spielberg had to practice world-building for the first time, and he did so wonderfully through small nuances: dissidents' graffiti is being cleaned while the protagonists walk by, fragments of bystanders' dialogue give an idea of local slang, which is based on reciting numbers, and the overhead speakers always deliver propaganda messages. It all amounts to a believably frightening futuristic vision.
And considering the fact that "L.A. 2017" was broadcasted in 1971, this vision was, in many respects, ahead of its time. The 1970s saw a wave of popular Hollywood dystopian films—Silent Running (which, like "L.A. 2017," revolved around environmental issues), Soylent Green, Rollerball, and others—but Spielberg's episode came out before the genre became popular. The episode also echoes strongly in the slicker dystopian cinema of Hollywood in the 1980s: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, in particular, appears to have borrowed the concepts of air-polluted streets and voice-over announcements that promise better life for capable citizens.
Though both "Eyes" and "L.A. 2017" have something of an edgy, downbeat subtext to them (something they share with Spielberg's non-genre early works such as Duel, The Sugarland Express, and Jaws), the nature of the director's work took a sharp turn in the optimistic and even naïve direction with the release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg proved himself to be every bit as talented in directing optimistic genre and non-genre works through the 1980s and the 1990s as he had proven himself in directing the grim visual works of the 1970s. But thirty years after the initial broadcast of "L.A. 2017," when Spielberg returned to directing dystopian and apocalyptic visions in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds, he did it with ease and effectiveness, almost as if he wished to keep exploring the same themes of his early television works. In fact, other than the above-mentioned reference to "Eyes," Minority Report appears to have borrowed some visual concepts from "L.A. 2017" as well, particularly in its use of holograms as means of communication.
"Eyes" and "L.A. 2017" both demonstrate how Spielberg became one of the most influential directors in the world of film, in and outside genre: his ability to communicate with the audience while working on scripts of different themes and genres through his unique visual touch started long before his name became synonymous with big-screen blockbusters, an ability that accompanies his eclectic body of work to this very day.