I guess I can’t fault Rod Serling for aiming for some comedy from time to time. I spend a good deal of my time being whimsical and playful. Why should Serling only write dark drama? He’s as entitled to humor as the next guy. But The Whole Truth felt like the setup for a joke. “A used car salesman and a politician walk into a bar…” And yet that’s what we get here: a story about a used car salesman who has to tell the truth and a politician who gives him an idea…
At first glance, I didn’t like the episode but it did grow on me a little bit after watching it. I could tell it was supposed to be funny and it’s yet another time where the main character is a disreputable man. Harvey Hunnicut is a used car salesman – can you get much worse? Well actually yes, but we’ll come to that! Serling says it best in his opening monologue: “…when the good Lord passed out a conscience, must have gone for a beer and missed out.” He’s not someone the audience can take to, even though his whole modus operandi is to act like he’s your best friend. We listen to him telling one couple that old cars have move value than the new, then he tells another to avoid old cars because the new ones are where the real value comes in. He’s a shyster, a conman. He’s out to make a sale, customer be damned. And besides, he smokes a cigar and wears his hat too low. He’s simply not an easy guy to like. In walks granddad with a gloriously nice car which he sells for $25 (the mind reels…) and parts with the information that the car is haunted. The owner is forced to tell the truth until he sells the it.
The rest is a setup over the remainder of the episode with Hunnicut trying to come to terms with his new problem. He fails to lie to his wife about his evening activities and tells his underling that he’ll never pay him more money! It’s a lot of filler that is only ever mildly amusing. I think the punchline to this 25 minute setup came when a local politician comes in and tells the used car salesman that “you ought to be in politics”. If there were a moment where comedic irony really wins out, that was it! Then the politician has a plan which saves everyone; he tells Hunnicut to sell the car to the Soviet Premiere. (I don’t know if it was said in the episode who he was selling to and I just missed it, but I had to look that up. The general gist of the idea was still there at least.) Hunnicut can get his livelihood back and maybe, in the process, he helped his nation.
But why do I care what happens to Hunnicut? At best, we should keep him around for a few good lines. Frankly I loved this one: “If the car were a year older, Moses could have driven it across the Red Sea!” Surely, I’m not expected to actually like Harvey because of a good line, right? The story is a weak one and works as little more than a mild laugh but lacks the moral core or even the mind candy of so many other episodes. For a short while, we had a professional liar who was utterly unable to lie. There’s no logic to that curse, although there doesn’t have to be, but otherwise it’s just an old man saying something that gets into the main characters head. It had no other meaning! On top of that, I had no sympathy for the man who loses his staff and maybe his wife in one episode. I’d say he deserved it actually. And yet, I guess sometimes even the lousy people catch a break and have a positive outcome in The Twilight Zone… ML
The view from across the pond:
If you are unlucky enough to have watched the 1997 film Liar Liar, The Whole Truth was basically The Twilight Zone’s attempt at the same idea, 36 years earlier. It’s one of the weakest TZ episodes, but if you’ve seen Liar Liar then you can at least console yourself that it’s not as bad as that. Nothing could be worse than the gurning overacting on which Jim Carrey built the most successful part of his career. Here we have Jack Carson in quite a fun performance as Harvey Hunnicut, who goes on a journey from con-artist car dealer to a man who can only speak the truth, to the detriment of his business. The cause is a “haunted” car, which provides the episode with its only fantasy element.
The more Hunnicut tells the truth, the more likeable he becomes, until eventually he seems to be resigned to his fate. He actually becomes a better person, although Rod Serling has absolutely nothing to say about that in his script, clearly uninterested in offering us anything meaningful here. Instead, this is an attempt at a comedy episode, which is not Serling’s forte to say the least. This is a stark contrast from the previous episode. The music says it all really; we’ve gone from Jerry Goldsmith’s creepy horror music to Wilbur Hatch’s wacky comedy music, which sounds like it has been borrowed from a Mr Magoo cartoon. We even get some disappointing comedy violence, one of those television knockout punches that have no consequences, completely divorced from the reality of the damage that would likely be caused by a strike to the face severe enough to render a man unconscious.
That’s all relatively innocuous, silly humour for the time, and some of Hunnicut’s frank words could equally be applied to the episode itself (“I haven’t anything else worthwhile to show you.”) until we get to the twist in the tale, and then things get very disappointing, a bit dark (in terms of Serling’s motivations), and entirely illogical. I can’t quite believe I have to type this, but Nikita Khrushchev shows up and buys the haunted car.
Let’s take a moment to adsorb that astounding bit of utterly dreadful writing from Serling. We go through a checklist of stereotypically dishonest people. The car dealer is a liar, forced to tell the truth. A politician rejects the car, on the grounds that he “couldn’t make a single political speech” if he had to tell the truth. Then, in a completely absurd and nonsensical development, somebody Serling clearly wants to present to us as the ultimate liar shows up. Meanwhile, the broadcast of the episode coincides with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, who gets a friendly name-check at the end.
What a weird piece of mildly propagandist writing. There is something unseemly about a show-runner using his position to have a dig at a living political leader through his writing, with not so much as an attempt to dress it up with a name change. It all feels quite sordid. Maybe contemporary viewers laughed and cheered at the anti-Soviet propaganda they had just watched. After all, there’s apparently nothing people like more than to be manipulated into hating the people they hate, even more. We welcome lazy divisive trash into our lives via bad journalism every day, so why not lazy divisive trash written by Rod Serling?
… because this is The Twilight Zone. For one episode only, it’s a place that absolutely stinks. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: The Invaders
What we welcome into our lives and why we welcome it is always an interesting theme in the sci-fi universe. Certainly enough for Jordan Peele center this theme on why we’re attracted to spectacles in Nope. Whether a Twilight Zone is particularly good or not, if it can make us think about why we as a species have the attitudes or comfort zones that we do, it’s clearly all the more relevant for our trials and tribulations of today. Thank you both for your reviews.
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I’d note that Khrushchev wasn’t exactly know for truth-telling (“What missiles in Cuba??”) and also had the blood of Hungarian freedom fighters on his hands from 1956, so I really don’t think there’s much wrong in making him an object of ridicule (especially when Americans of the day also remembered the boorish spectacle he made of himself with his banging his shoe on the table at a UN session when he heard a speech he didn’t like.). I’ve seen other figures made subjects of mockery in TV shows who were guilty of far less.
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