Friday, September 28, 2012

Let Me Tell You a Little Story About a Man Named Jeb

The Beverly Hillbillies premiered 50 years ago today. Critics hated it but the audience loved it.

The premise was simple - a depression-era farm family meets the modern world. While the Clampett family was an exaggeration, rural people were still living without power or running water in 1962. I once met a woman my age who remembered getting power and running water and who had never been to an indoor movie theater as of 1978 (she had been to drive-ins).

The Clampetts' cultural references were all from the 1920s and 1930. They were from a world of silent movies and kerosene lamps and folk remedies. There politics were from the Civil War.

Most of the plots revolved around misunderstandings between the Clampett family and the outside world. Often the Clampetts turned to cousin Jethro (the only member of the family to graduate the 6th grade). Jethro was pretty dumb.

The show was a huge hit. It was in the top twenty for most of its run and could expect audiences of up to 60 million. Today a show is a runaway hit if 15 million people watch it.

It spawned two similar shows. Petticoat Junction took place in a rural hotel run by a widow and her three daughters. That was followed by Green Acers in which a New York lawyer and his glamorous wife moved to a run-down farm in the same valley as Petticoat Junction.

The shows still had decent ratings when they were cancelled. CBS worried that its shows appealed to too rural an audience and wanted to attract a more urban following.

The premise of the Beverly Hillbillies could never work today. Modern life has reached everywhere. A few years ago I got gas at a remote gas station/general store and heard the clerks arguing about the relative download speed of DLS and cable. Third Rock from the Sun is about as close as we can get to a modern version.

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