“The Hunt” (season 3, episode 19; originally aired 1/26/1962)
In which dogs can smell Hell
I watched the latter of this week’s episodes with my wife, and she pointed out something that I’ve long been aware of but haven’t really talked about in this place yet: So many episodes of this show—including the two we’re covering this week—take a long damn time to set up their premises. In some ways, this feels appropriate for “The Hunt,” a Southern-fried journey through the afterlife that benefits a bit from feeling as if it’s being told by an old man with a thick beard and an even thicker drawl, who leans over every so often to spit tobacco juice into a giant jug with XXX painted on the side. There’s nothing in “The Hunt” to suggest that it issued from the pen of one of the most significant TV writers of the ‘70s, and the whole thing is just a touch cutesy, like a Barney Google And Snuffy Smith comic strip translated into glorious black and white. But it’s largely enjoyable, and it has a cute dog. You can’t overestimate how much a cute dog can bring to something like this.
Still, what my wife said about the next episode stands for this one, too: It just takes forever to get going. First, we have to meet Hyder Simpson, the 70-year-old mountain man who’s going out for a raccoon hunt with his faithful coonhound Rip. Then, we have to watch him have an endless conversation with his wife, Rachel, about how he’s going to head off into them there woods and rustle himself up a raccoon. Then we have to see him hunt said raccoon, which seems to consist entirely of whichever animal trainer brought a raccoon to set running the beast through every single trick it knows. Then and only then do we get to the heart of the story, as Hyder and Rip pursue a raccoon out across a log that stretches across a pond, then fall into the pond and drown to death. (Hyder I’ll buy, sure, but Rip? You’d think Rip would swim right out of there.)
“The Hunt’s” airdate situates it very early in TV’s fascination with rural settings as things to place at the center of TV series. We weren’t quite to the period where Paul Henning’s endless array of countrified sitcoms would dominate the Nielsens (and I mean this as no slight to Henning, who was a good comedy writer who occasionally became a great one), but we were very close, and The Beverly Hillbillies would hit CBS’ schedule the following fall. Westerns were beginning to lose their potency, so the shift to other rural settings became a way to attract some of the same audience and provide a visual break from the dramas of the period. (Since most sitcoms of the era were filmed single-camera, this was important.)
“The Hunt” comes by its Southern fascinations honestly, and that’s what saves the episode from being a parade of unfortunate stereotypes. It’s written by Earl Hamner, Jr., a novelist who’d grown up in the rural Virginia of the Great Depression. Hamner’s big break in television came from this script—his first of eight for The Twilight Zone—and if you recognize his name at all, it’s likely because of one of TV’s few rural-set dramas, the substantial critical and commercial success, The Waltons, which was one of the quality dramas of the ‘70s, a pretty dreary period for “traditional” quality dramas. (Hamner also created and produced Falcon Crest, but that doesn’t get written about as much.) The time was a great period for detective shows, but detective shows weren’t in vogue at the time, so The Waltons tended to do well at the Emmys, where it competed with another period piece, Upstairs, Downstairs.
That series, like this episode, came right up to the edge of indulging in Southern stereotypes that could have seemed reductive if they weren’t written with a sense of real affection. Hamner’s writing in a grand tradition that can get annoying—the country bumpkin who proves himself more intelligent than the city slickers give him credit for—but he really loves that tradition, and he makes Hyder less of the backwoods hick he might seem at first and more of a person whose intelligence stems almost entirely from his intense loyalty. The whole reason he doesn’t end up in Hell is because he can’t bear to leave behind Rip, and the whole thing feels a little like a Reader’s Digest “Laughter Is The Best Medicine” joke expanded to a half-hour of TV time, but Hamner treats these characters with a fundamental respect and gives them just a touch of dignity.
On the other hand, Hamner can’t overcome that he doesn’t have enough story here to fill a full half-hour, which means that he has to spend a lot of time vamping. There’s that endless hunting sequence. Then there’s the endless sequence in which Hyder realizes that he and Rip have died, a sequence that it feels like this show has done at least 25 times by now. This, again, is held together by Hamner’s basic sensitivity. The scene where Rachel mourns the death of her beloved husband is very sweet and touching, but it’s also not really enough to hold the whole center section of the episode together. Again, we’ve seen this so many times on this show before that it turns into a game of waiting for Hyder to get with the program.
The last stretch of the episode, which is the stretch that feels the most like a joke stretched to its breaking point, is also my favorite, as Hyder comes across a fence he’s never seen before and walks along until he finds a gatekeeper he naturally assumes to be St. Peter. (Well, it still takes a bit to convince him he’s dead, which is a trick, since he’s just gone to his own funeral.) Soon enough, though, he’s bristling at the idea that he can’t take Rip into the fancy party just behind the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper tells him that if he moves on past the gate, he’ll walk along the road for eternity, but Hyder doesn’t mind. He has Rip with him. Again, it’s all sweet and surprisingly dignified, but it still feels so stretched out.
Then Hyder comes upon an angel who tells him that he was almost tricked into going to Hell, and he’s sure lucky he had his dog with him, because dogs can smell brimstone. Theological qualms aside—the only way to go to Hell is if you’re tricked into it?—this is an okay twist ending, once again made bittersweet by Hyder hoping that the angel will make sure his wife isn’t tricked into going to Hell when her time comes. “The Hunt” is sort of a country sampler of an entry or like one of those folk art calendars your bank might give away, but it has its heart in the right place, and it’s interesting as a piece of TV history, primarily for having given Hamner his start in the industry. Yes, it’s kooky, and yes, it’s a little drawn out, but there’s a charm to it nonetheless, and it’s kind of fun in its laid-back mosey.
What a twist!: The gatekeeper is trying to get Hyder to go to Hell, not Heaven.
- This episode is quite well-cast—though that’s not exactly a surprise when it comes to this show—but I particularly like Arthur Hunnicutt as Hyder. He brings out the affection in Hamner’s script. Also, just what kind of a name is Hyder anyway?
- That Hyder doesn’t realize the “Elysian Field” is Hell when it starts to smoke probably isn’t testament to his intelligence.
- Seriously, how does the dog drown?
“Showdown With Rance McGrew” (season 3, episode 20; originally aired 2/2/1962)
In which the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Rance McGrew
Now, this one’s just fucking goofy.
The Twilight Zone has never had the best luck with comedic episodes. Rod Serling and company were capable of writing funny stuff, of course, but they also had a tendency to lay things on fairly thickly. Even here, where many of the early gags land, there’s this weird, overly precious score that reminds us at all times that we are having fun, and it takes a lot of the charm out of something that could be pretty entertaining if it would just calm down for five seconds. Worse, the whole thing just disintegrates throughout its running time, to the point where the best stuff is at the very beginning, and by the end, the whole thing doesn’t make a lick of sense. There are situations where all of this can work to the benefit of a comedy, but I’m not sure this is one of those situations. Also, there are three comedic cut-aways to a horse, two of which are the same shot. If you like horse reaction shots, this might be the episode for you.
That opening shot, though, is pretty great. A couple of cowboys stand outside a saloon, menacingly talking about when some other guy is going to come riding into town. Naturally enough, the expectation is that this dude will come plodding in on a horse and get into some sort of gunfight. Instead, he rolls up in a giant-ass car, with horns attached to either corner of the hood, and the central gag of the episode is revealed: This is Rance McGrew, and he plays a tough cowboy marshal on TV. But when you boil things down, he’s actually just a modern-day wuss, someone who relies on his convenient, modern technology to make his life more enjoyable than the life of the character he plays was.
Rance is rather a jackass, giving everybody on the set a hard time, particularly his long-suffering director, Sy, and the episode plays through a surprisingly large number of goofy jokes about making a TV show. I liked the way the mirror on the saloon set kept getting destroyed, and I really liked how Rance would yell, “Stuntman!” every time he needed to do something physical. The episode tries to play Rance as an incorrigible asshole—he demands ginger ale instead of cola when he needs something that will “read” as whiskey on camera, and he’s just generally a dick to all of his fellow actors—but he comes off less as a bad guy and more as a preening peacock who plays a tough guy on TV. I don’t know how much of that is intentional and how much of that stems from Larry Blyden’s performance, but it’s a mix that works for the more gently comedic first act. I’ll be honest: If the episode had simply continued in this vein for 25 minutes, I probably wouldn’t have liked it all that much, but it probably would have been better than what we got. For this isn’t some random episode of a comedy show; it’s an episode of The Twilight Zone.
That, right there, is the problem. Because this is an episode of The Twilight Zone, it essentially needs something unexpected and supernatural to happen. The idea here is so goofy—but is played weirdly straight—that it’s never possible to take the stakes of the episode seriously. See, the ghosts of the great gunslingers are all off in the gunslinger afterlife, and they’re upset with how Rance’s show portrays their careers. Jesse James is the spokesman who’s been sent back to speak for them, and he’s played by the big, barrel-chested Arch Johnson, who turns him into a schoolyard bully who’s had his feelings hurt. There’s some lip service paid to the idea that Rance may be creating an unfair impression of the dead by suggesting that his fictional character—named after the actor himself, no less—might have been able to defeat these gunslingers via trickery and deception, but it’s mostly just that, until it turns into James’ whole motivation. It’s just weird.
James transports Rance back to the Wild West, where he proceeds to lecture Rance on how he needs to leave a little room for a better portrayal of the bad guys. Rance laughs this off—not believing he’s time traveled at first, then calling for a stuntman when James ultimately threatens his life—but in time, he comes to be scared shitless by one of the great gunslingers of all time challenging him to a duel that he attempts to exit almost immediately. Then we watch as James chases Rance around the Main Street set, until Rance finally begs for mercy and says he’ll do anything, which is all that James needs to send Rance back to the present day, where he immediately acts strange in front of the director and other actors. Rance’s agent shows up, the director says he doesn’t know the chain of command (when you figure that’s the one thing he would know), and it turns out that Jesse James himself, in a Hawaiian shirt, no less, has come to the future to tell Rance how it’s going to be. Rance rapidly begins to make the show all about how the bad guys always win to appease his new supernatural tormenters.
I don’t normally go in for that much plot summary in these reviews, but I think it was necessary here for one very good reason: I’m not sure any of those events logically follow from each other. Oh, sure, once you get ghostly time travel in the mix, there’s not really a good reason to worry about logic, per se, but I feel like nobody not named Rance or Jesse James has any agency or behaves like a recognizable human being at all, really. Rance is just going to turn this show into one where the bad guys always win, and everyone else is just going to go along with that? Nobody’s going to call him on his sudden weirdness, or attempt to find a way around his new predicament? Sure, we could argue that all of this stuff would happen after we leave this episode—with Rance getting thrown through a window at Jesse James’ behest—but it still feels like somebody would say something. Too many of the other characters turn into props in “Rance McGrew,” and that makes the episode feel weird and weightless.
And what’s more, I can tell the episode wants to say something, but I have no idea what the message is supposed to be. Don’t speak ill of the dead? Don’t be an asshole to everybody? If the ghost of a dead gunslinger ever tells you how to behave, you’d best listen? Twilight Zone usually has some sort of little moral, and it’s clear there’s supposed to be one here, but it’s all muddied up by the fact that Jesse James’ motivations largely make no sense, nor does the premise of the episode. This isn’t one of the worst Twilight Zones ever, but it’s certainly deeply mediocre. Some fun performances and some good jokes aren’t enough to save a story that has no good reason to exist in the first place.
What a twist!: Uhhhh… I guess the agent is Jesse James? That’s the twist, I think?
- I mentioned this in the write-up of “The Hunt,” but this episode does take its sweet time getting going. That seems to be a bigger and bigger problem in this season of the Zone.
- Seriously, the scoring in this episode was so obtrusive. It just became obnoxious after a while.
- I like how bored the director and other crew members are with both Rance’s tantrums and with the whole process of making this Western. Just another day on the job.
Next week: Zack gets another episode you may have heard of with “Kick The Can,” then asks if there’s “A Piano In The House.”