"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
The Beverly Reali-billies
The rumors have finally been confirmed.
Last week in Los Angeles, CBS television executives announced that they would begin next month to interview 'rural, lower-middle-class families' for a new reality series based on the classic 1960's sitcom, 'The Beverly Hillbillies.' One of the most successful television series in history, the original show aired from September 26, 1962 to September 7, 1971, a total of 274 episodes.
Created by Paul Henning, the series starred great character actor Buddy Ebsen as family patriarch Jed Clampett. The premise of the show was fairly simple; take a backwoods family from Bugtussle, Arkansas, have them 'accidentally' strike oil on their property and become fabulously wealthy. Next, move said family to Beverly Hills, home of more pretentious status-worshippers per square acre than anywhere else in the known universe. Then, watch the sparks fly as the 'fish-out-of-water' Ozark natives try to cohabitate with people who can't stand them, but can't stand not having access to the hillbillies' money even more.
Reaction to the announcement of the new 'reality television' series has been swift. Noted conservative columnist Kathleen Parker writes in her column this week, 'Hollywood has confirmed yet again what folks in my neck of the woods have long known: In the land of 'hate' crimes, affirmative action, diversity and multiculturalism, it's still OK to revile Southerners.' Television critic for The Hollywood Reporter, Barry Garron states that the 'Reali-billies' will offer 'entertainment for the masses at the expense of the few.' Garron continues, 'But then, what we've seen this summer with so-called 'reality programs' like 'The Osbournes' and 'The Anna Nicole Show' is a race to see who can underestimate the intelligence of the viewers the most.' Garron comments, '(CBS) once called itself 'the Tiffany network,' but it's going to become 'the lump-of-coal' network with this show.'
Interestingly enough, these 'preemptive' reviews are not that dissimilar from the ones that accompanied the original show upon its introduction in the fall of 1962. Writes Sam Heib on the website tvparty.com:
Never before in the history of television had there been such a discrepancy between critical and mass appeal as when the Hillbillies appeared on CBS on September 26, 1962.
The Hillbillies climb to the top was one of the swiftest in television history. The show rose to number one only three weeks after its premiere, and by December of '62 was attracting 33 million viewers a week-doubling up the viewers tuning into Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall and Gene Kelly's comedy-drama based on the popular movie Going My Way.
The show hasn't gone out of style since. It dropped out of the top twenty only during its last season in 1971, and has remained popular in syndication and on cable, drawing up to sixty million viewers a week.
Upon their introduction to Jed, Granny, Jethro and Ellie May, however, the critics held their noses as if the Hillbillies hadn't had a lye soap in a while. Newsweek called 'the most shamelessly corny show in years'; Time said, 'the pone is the lowest form of humor . . . a program that is dedicated to finding out how many times the same joke can be repeated.'
The New York Times was no kinder, writing, 'The Beverly Hillbillies is steeped in enough twanging guitar and rural no-think to make each half-hour seem like sixty minutes.' Social critic David Susskind was alarmed by the subject matter of the show that he called upon 'the few intelligent people left' to write their congressman and complain. The federal government could relocate the Clampetts back in the Ozarks on their way to integrate public schools in the South.
Here is ultimately where the rub comes. At the time of the airing of the original show, Newsweek, the New York Times and other arbiters of 'good taste' were offended that someone might burn the few hours of commercial programming available from the three networks to air a comedy based on such an unsophisticated cast of characters as four Ozark hillbillies. The notion was that we would be trapped in a cultural morass of 'Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Rodeo Drive,' and subjected to lowbrow humor the likes of which television had not yet seen.
The reality was somewhat different. Granted, the humor in The Beverly Hillbillies would never have been called urbane wit, but it was nowhere near as bad as the Times and Newsweek indicated. While the Hillbillies (played by Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Max Baer, Jr. and Donna Douglas) were portrayed as simple folk on the sitcom, the show would never have become as popular as it did with a broad cross-section of America if all it accomplished was to portray a bunch of bumpkins as the butt of sophisticates' scorn. What made the program work was that the Hillbillies were often smarter than they appeared (with the notable exception of Jethro /Baer, Jr.), and the sophisticates were never as clever as they assumed.
Favorite Granny line:
Granny: 'Remember what William Jennings Bryan said, 'Fight hard, but fight clean!''
Jethro: 'But, you ain't fightin' clean, Granny!'
Granny: 'Course I ain't! William Jennings Bryan was a loser!'
Imagine a mainstream television program today using a William Jennings Bryan reference in a joke, and expecting the audience to 'get it.' I rest my case.
Jed Clampett, for all his $25 million in oil wealth, never considered himself more than an honest and humble man. He believed that the simple things in life were the most important. He prided himself on keeping his word, and his honor meant something to him. He knew how to hunt and fish, and he could provide for his family, which he cared for very much. Sure, he knew Jethro was an imbecile, but he also knew that the boy meant well.
Granny hated Beverly Hills, and she saw through the pretense of the Hollywood types. She wanted nothing more than to return to the Ozarks, but she also wanted to see Jed happy, so she put up with the indignities of living next door to a woman (Mrs. Drysdale, wife of banker Milburn) who couldn't make her own lye soap.
Elly May, Jed's daughter by his deceased wife, was a tomboy who was most at home with her 'critters,' as she referred to her assortment of possums, raccoons, etc.
The only one of the Hillbillies who tried to 'fit in' with the sophisticates of Beverly Hills was Jethro. He was the only character of the group who was vulnerable to cashing in his heritage in order to be considered one of the in-crowd in LA-LA Land. It was this trait that made him an easy mark for swindlers, cheats and scoundrels. Jed knew this, saw it as a phase that 'the boy' was going through, and was committed to providing the guidance that the young man needed until he was no longer able.
The Beverly Hills characters, on the other hand, were all money and status mad. Bank president Milburn Drysdale (played by Raymond Bailey) had no low to which he would not stoop to keep his hands on the Clampett's millions, which they had deposited in his Beverly Hills bank. His wife, Mildred (played by Harriett MacGibbon) was completely absorbed in her status-consciousness. She was aghast that her husband would put up with having such ill-bred and ill-mannered folk as the Clampetts living next door, but, like her husband, she would stoop to anything to keep their money in place.
Favorite Mr. Drysdale line:
Mr. Drysdale: 'When I give MY word, I expect YOU to keep it!' (Directed to Miss Hathaway)
Even a sympathetic Beverly Hills character like 'Mizz' Jane Hathaway was completely absorbed in the trappings of sophistication, and would constantly demean herself to keep her position as Mr. Drysdale's personal secretary.
What made the original show so popular with audiences in the 60s, and with audiences in syndication today, is the fact that, for all their foibles, the Hillbillies took the hot air out of the elites. Their core principles of hard work, honor, family, and pride in one's heritage shone through their lack of sophistication, and ultimately made them the betters between themselves and the status-conscious, unprincipled wealthy of Beverly Hills.
Is this the premise behind the new show, or will the 'Reali-billies' be entirely different? The temptation will be for Hollywood to find and publicly humiliate a family of unsophisticated, rural Americans--sort of a collective Hollywood guffaw at the 'Bush Country' map. It would be almost too easy. They are looking for the cast, of course, in the rural South. According to the Washington Post article on the story, 'The network already has a crew of casting agents combing 'mountainous, rural areas' in Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky in search of a 'multi-generational family of five or more--parents, children and grandparents--who will be relocated for at least a year' to a mansion in Beverly Hills.' In the same Washington Post story, CBS claims to be looking for a family that's 'very different, but that's relatable,' and whose members love one another. (You read it hear first, there is no chance in hell that they will be minorities.)
While CBS' claims of sensitivity may be true, the idea of taking a real family of unworldly, rural folk out of their normal environment, handing them piles of cash and placing them in a mansion for a year to televise their tribulations dealing with folks who have had very different life experiences seems to lend itself more to the notion of acceptable regional ridicule of the South than to shedding insight on the dignities that can attend a simpler life. Somehow, I don't see Faulkner come-to-life in this reality-based sitcom.
The bottom line is, it is up to Ghen Maynard, head of 'reality' programming at CBS, to determine how this is going to play out. Do you take the cheap way out, or do you find a middle ground that shows America a family, that while unsophisticated by contemporary urban standards, has common sense, dignity and pride. Will Americans tune in and see a little of themselves and their own daily frustrations to laugh at, or will we finger-point at the rubes? Will it have a gentle side, like the original series, or will this be an exercise in cultural superiority at the expense of rural America?
CBS, it's up to you.