Los Angeles Times: Up From CBS Comes Bubbling Crudity

By Rudy Abramson

Considering the general inanity of the stuff that network television successfully foists off as family entertainment, CBS' plan to resurrect the "Beverly Hillbillies" of the 1960s with real-life hillbillies in the role of Jed Clampett's brood should be a big hit and a gonzo moneymaker -- and another swipe at rural America.

Auditions underway in Appalachia and the rural South are in search of new "stars" who will soon hie off to Southern California to be settled in opulence, furnished with undreamed quantities of cash and set loose to explore strange and wonderful new circumstances. Naturally, they will be followed by cameras recording their slack-jawed amazement and grateful appreciation of Beverly Hills' (read modern or enlightened) civilization, culture and amenities.

A new generation will be as amused as the last one was when old Jed, awash in money from oil discovered on his land in the Ozarks, moved Granny, his buxom daughter, Elly May, and cousin, Jethro, to Beverly Hills. The saga of the Clampetts attracted as many as 60 million viewers each week. In spite of CBS' solemn assurances that the forthcoming "Real Hillbillies" will be rich with social insight, the setup assures that the production will be offensive. In the original, the actors left no doubt that they were engaged in outlandish buffoonery. This time we shall see real rural people put on display in circumstances reeking of condescension. Young urbanites and recent immigrants unfamiliar with Jeb, Granny, Elly May and Jethro will be left to conclude that the bumfuzzled new hillbillies are more or less typical of rural Americans, who constitute 20% of the nation's population.

If the production comes to pass, this social commentary will no doubt enjoy huge ratings in the very areas being scoured for its unwitting stars, but a great many activists, academics and proud ordinary folk regard the prospect with revulsion. They have not been in such a snit since Robert Schenkkan was awarded the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for "The Kentucky Cycle," an epic play sodden with violence, greed and depravity, and presuming to offer profound insight.

"In the original [Beverly Hillbillies], the actors left no doubt that they were engaged in outlandish buffoonery. This time we shall see real rural people put on display in circumstances reeking of condescension."

About the Author

Rudy Abramson, a native of north Alabama, was the long-time Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. He was editor of The Encyclopedia of Appalachia and wrote Spanning the Century: The Life of W. Averell Harriman. At the time of his death at age 70 in 2008, he was writing a biography of Harry Caudill, author of Night Comes to the Cumberlands

This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times op/ed page on December 1, 2002.

To be sure, Southerners and mountain folk are somewhat culpable for their region's image as Dogpatch incarnate. Entertainers from the region have eagerly promoted the hillbilly image. Across the region, hillbilly motifs are on exhibit nearly as prominently as Old Glory.

But there is quite a difference between self-deprecation and being manipulated, stereotyped and commercialized by outsiders. The plan to use real-life Clampetts for mass amusement is more than a cute scheme to cash in again on a weathered target of ridicule. Rather, it is a symptom of the mass media's lack of regard for rural America, a detachment manifest not only in sitcoms' affinity for Southern hillbillies, hicks and rubes but in urban news organizations' general disinterest in rural issues.

The point was well made by novelist Gurney Norman after "The Kentucky Cycle" fizzled on Broadway (after an enthusiastic West Coast opening). The essential problem with the play, Norman wrote, was not that it dwelt on stereotypically violent, cruel, greedy and ignorant people but that it willfully omitted positive images that were equally relevant.

CBS has not heard the last protest against the reality hillbillies. Rural Strategies, a new nonprofit organization created to give voice to rural America, will soon undertake a national campaign featuring paid ads to shame the network for perpetuating negative rural stereotypes.

Appropriately, the group is based in Whitesburg, Ky., home of the late Harry Caudill, author of the saga "Night Comes to the Cumberlands." Caudill's chronicle of central Appalachia's impoverishment by corporate plundering of the region's mineral and timber wealth provided important political stimulus for the War on Poverty and passage of federal legislation on strip mining and mine safety.

Ironically, Caudill's stark portrayal of mountain people provided the fodder for the dark characters of "The Kentucky Cycle" and for television producers who continue to find nonurbanites quite funny and altogether irrelevant.