Fifty years ago today CBS introduced a new TV series that sharply divided American cultural opinion.Critics and intellectuals hated it, and it became for them a symbol of how far television had fallen since the so-called “golden age” of live, New York-based programs in the early days of the medium. Most everybody else felt differently, however.
The show became an instant hit of mammoth proportions. It spent its first two seasons at the very top of the Nielsen ratings. At its peak, it was being watched by 60 million viewers per week. As late as 1982, eleven years after it had left the air at the end of its ninth season, nine of this show’s episodes could still be found on the list of the top fifty highest-rated broadcasts of all time, alongside Super Bowls, blockbuster miniseries, and special event programming. "The Beverly Hillbillies" was, without question, one of the most popular television series in the history of American television.
In the first episode, aired on September 26, 1962, we were introduced to Jed Clampett, his mother-in-law Granny, his daughter Elly May, and cousin Jethro, all poor mountaineers scraping out a happy but subsistence living in some remote location in the Ozarks.
The now-classic opening theme song elegantly sums up the premise of the show. Jed shoots at what he hopes will be the evening’s meal, but misses. His errant bullet pricks the surface of the rich American soil, and oil (“black gold, Texas tea”) commences gushing out of the ground. With his new found riches, his cousin Pearl convinces him that “Californy is the place you oughta be” (in the pithiest phrasing of American Manifest Destiny since “Go West, Young Man”), so he loads up three generations of his family and moves to Beverly Hills.
In the last half-century, even some critics and professional thinkers have finally come around to embrace the show. A handful of academics, me included, have in fact celebrated it as one of the funniest TV series of its decade.
But there was one troubling issue that needs to be addressed. Granny is one of the sympathetic stars of the show. She also happens to be a vehement defender of the Confederacy and seems to think that Jefferson Davis is still its president. Given the fact that "The Beverly Hillbillies" debuted in the thick of the civil rights movement (the deadly riots over the admission of a black student to the University of Mississippi occurred just a few days after the show premiered), this seems very strange. The Clampetts, of course, were living in a state of extreme isolation before they struck oil and moved to California. They’d never heard of telephones or airplanes much less Brown v. Board of Education. But still.
For all that, though, the politics of this show and other sitcoms like it ("The Real McCoys," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Green Acres," "Petticoat Junction") were slippery, complex, and often contradictory. Even after 274 episodes, it remained hard to tell what exactly the Clampett family stood for.
If, in this election season, you feel inclined to waste a little time celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of "The Beverly Hillbillies," share with me in the comments section your response to the following little thought experiment: If the Clampetts and their associates were around today, who would they vote for in the upcoming presidential election?
In some cases it’s obvious. Granny probably wouldn’t vote at all because she still considers herself a citizen of the Confederacy.
The banker Mr. Drysdale is definitely a Romney man, and I think it’s pretty clear that his assistant Miss Hathaway would go for Obama.
But what about Jed? He’s a salt-of-the-earth regular American who always seems to get the best of his friend Drysdale in issues of ethics and old-fashioned common sense. He also made his fortune in Big Oil, and Drysdale’s bank has helped that fortune grow from $25 million in the first season to $95 million in the last--not a bad increase in nine years of not doing any work.
And Elly May? We know from the first episode that she’s against excessive government regulation: when she sees a revenue agent investigating the family’s illegal moonshine apparatus, she knocks him unconscious with a rock. But she’s also an environmentalist and her love of “critters” puts her squarely in the camp of organizations like PETA.
Then there’s Jethro, who totally embraces the glamour and ethos of Hollywood once he gets to Beverly Hills.
The political identity of the show and of its characters is not easy to pin down.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that so many people loved it and so many critics hated it. Like most entertainment shows of the 1960s, it was ideologically vague and unfocussed by design. Much of the television of the decade provided a kind of social anesthesia to what we were reading in the papers and hearing on the evening news, an alternative universe in which all of the upheavals of the decade had been erased. While the news was reporting on things like civil rights, political assassinations, the Cuban missile crisis, and the war in Vietnam, prime time was giving us shows about a beautiful genie, a beautiful witch, a talking horse, and a flying nun.
American network television created an aesthetic of denial and escape in the 1960s; "The Beverly Hillbillies" elevated it to an art form.
Robert Thompson is founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University and a trustee professor.