There was something endearing about Jed Clampett and gang when they first appeared on television screens in the early '60s, bringing their wacky tobacky charm from the Ozarks to Beverly Hills. The series was created by Missouri-born Paul Henning, who based the fictional characters on residents of the Ozarks he came across as a child. He also wrote the show's memorable theme song.
"Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed. Poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed. Then one day, he was shooting for some food. And up through the ground come a bubbling crude. Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea."
It's a shame Henning died in 2005, because he could have likely made a new fortune had he reworked those lyrics for the current state of television. The song might go something like this:
"Come and listen to a story 'bout a culture nearly dead. A poor taste in TV, seems they're crazed in the head. Then one day, they turned extra rude. Now on their screens, real hillbillies are spewed. Honey Boo Boo that is, American Hoggers, trashy TV."
Where Jed Clampett was endearing and comical, the real-life "hillbillies" filling primetime are hard to watch. Not so much because of their uncouth charm, rather the way in which these programs seems somewhat exploitative. Unlike, say, the Depression era photos of Dorothea Lange, there is very little room for a positive debate on the merits of broadcasting images of 7-year-old Alana Thompson (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) across the world. Alana's mother June Shannon might not be down and out like Lange's Migrant Mother, but those watching her family's self-proclaimed "redneck" lifestyle play out in 30-minute doses aren't doing so to support little Alana.
"What's little Honey Boo Boo going to grow up to be? That's what I want to know," The View's host Joy Behar recently asked. "She's going to grow up to be a big fat woman."
Obesity might not stack up against the troubles of the Great Depression, but it's a serious matter, and the producers of Honey Boo Boo are making a quick buck off of Americans' desire to laugh at the misfortune of others. In fact, this country's youth would rather watch Alana dig through a dumpster than pay attention to the presidential election, as Nielsen ratings proved last week when the TLC program tied CNN's coverage of the Democratic National Convention.
"More than anything, these series feed an odd sort of racial stereotype," NPR wrote late last year. "On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding."
As if exploiting Southern lifestyles wasn't enough, cable channels have taken to mixing rednecks with animal cruelty with shows like Swamp People and American Hoggers. That was a step too far for actor Dominic Monaghan. The actor recently spoke out in support of animal rights. "If alligator populations need to be controlled, I understand. But the act should not be glorified on TV. Disgusting."
With the Fall TV season nearly upon us, complete with a new round of redneck reality shows, it's surprising that more viewers aren't joining the likes of Monaghan and expressing outrage over exploitative television. Hollywood screenwriters would certainly appreciate it. And I'm sure, at some point, Alana will when she's old enough to be embarrassed by her "reality" travails.