Heading for the hills

The critically acclaimed television series “The Sopranos” has been criticized by advocacy groups claiming the show unfairly stereotypes Italian-Americans through its portrayal of a New Jersey crime boss.

Now the hillbillies (er… an Appalachian-American advocacy group) are taking offense at Hollywood. The Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky., placed ads in some of the country’s largest newspapers this week protesting a proposed television reality series titled “The Real Beverly Hillbillies.”

Advancing on the success of such TV drivel as “The Osbournes” and “Big Brother,” CBS will attempt to find a large family from the heart of Appalachia and place them in a posh Beverly Hills mansion while running the cameras 24/7.

The show’s producers have been combing the Appalachian states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina and, yes, Virginia for a rural family of “modest” means. Western Pennsylvania is conspicuously absent from the list of states.

“The brass at CBS clearly think it’s safe to make fun of and commercialize low income rural folks,” Dee Davis, president of the Center of Rural Strategies recently told the Associated Press. The ads encourage readers to voice their concern on a Web site to pressure CBS into reconsidering its plans.

It is true that the residents of the Appalachian region are unfairly painted with a broad brush as simple minded “hicks” or “rednecks.” In reality, this region has its fair share of local scholars, Rotarians, working class heroes and village idiots as any other region of the country. Still, we don’t see a vast conspiracy by the networks to portray all these folks as hillbillies. If the CBS venture is done in poor taste, then it is bad television period.

There have been plenty of positive depictions of rural folks on television and in movies. Andy Griffith was a small town sheriff in the hills west of Raleigh, N.C. Sheriff Taylor talked with a drawl but he was always a symbol of common sense and small town values.

Likewise, America admired the Waltons a television drama based on Earl Hamner’s experiences growing up in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. They were poor, but so was everyone during the Great Depression. Other than that, the Waltons were the epitome of a TV family. Even the clumsy humor of Gomer Pyle was portrayed through a country boy with a heart of gold.

Despite its classification as a “reality” series, it’s almost certain that CBS will recruit a family which grabs ratings. There are no more Jethro Bodines out there who will marvel at the “cement pond.” Producers will instead go for the lowest common denominator of a voyeuristic view of a dysfunctional family similar to the Osbournes. Poor taste, perhaps. But the networks only put shows on that they believe Americans will watch. It’s not art.

Advocacy groups pushing the networks to cancel such shows, only feeds the Hollywood publicity machine. We’re sure they welcome the protests with quiet glee.

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