`Hillbillies' not only ones show mocks

March 02, 2003|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

WASHINGTON - This Beverly Hillbillies thing just won't go away. And if you wonder what "thing" I'm referring to, well:

"Come and listen to my story about a guy named Les, the man in charge over there at CBS."

Sorry, couldn't resist.

Anyway, Les Moonves is the CBS CEO. In August, his network announced plans to air something it called The Real Beverly Hillbillies, a twist on the old sitcom about bumpkins from the Ozarks who struck oil, so they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Etc., etc.

For the new show, a real, and really unsophisticated, family would be plucked from some isolated rural area and set up in a Beverly Hills mansion for the amusement of the American television audience. As one CBS executive put it, "Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids."

Many observers did imagine - and were appalled. This week, the controversy reached the U.S. Senate as Zell Miller, Democrat from Georgia, blasted CBS and Mr. Moonves in a speech. Which follows months of criticism from pundits like yours truly and newspaper ads from the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based advocacy group.

Most of the objections revolve around the idea that the show is offensive to poor people in the South. But we should also find it offensive for a larger reason, about which more in a moment.

First, a couple of things CBS would want you to know at this point. One, that so-called fish-out-of-water comedies have been around forever. Two, that it's usually the aforementioned "fish" the audience winds up admiring. Think Detroit detective Axel Foley, the Eddie Murphy character who proved himself smarter and more resourceful than any Beverly Hills cop.

The problem is, CBS is not dealing with characters here, but with real, live human beings. Worse, human beings from a population that has not enjoyed the material and educational advantages others have, a population that has been mocked, caricatured and marginalized - sometimes cruelly - by the society at large. Now those same people are offered up for the rest of us to laugh at. We are supposed to find humor in the ways they are Not Like Us.

As if you and I were the standard to which they ought to aspire. Our lives the ones by which they ought to be measured.

The sheer gall of it is astonishing, of course. But there is more than gall here. There is meanness and contempt. And ultimately, as already noted, not just for rural Southerners.

I mean, there was a time we laughed at television. It is increasingly the case, however, that television laughs at us.

What else is it when Maury Povich holds up the results of a DNA test to settle an issue of paternity between some screaming young woman and man? When Jenny Jones or Sally Jessy Raphael trots out some 12-year-old with a potty mouth and a bad attitude? When people agree to date, have intercourse, marry or cheat for the camera? What else is this new show about?

We are invited to look in and laugh at the crazy things other people do, to shake our heads over the shallowness and vacancy of their minds and lives. It's psychological comfort food, something that allows you to feel smug and superior about your own affairs.

We feel a certain distance from - and above - those people on the screen. But I would submit that the distance is a delusion. That in encouraging us to ridicule the unschooled, the unsophisticated and the unfortunate, television doesn't just trivialize their lives. It coarsens ours.

The camera gets the last laugh.

Lord knows there are few things funnier than human foibles. Few things more aggravating than some stiff who takes him or herself too seriously.

But at some point, you have to decide whether your dignity is worth spending - or watching - a few demeaning moments in the spotlight. Sooner or later, you have to stand up for your own life.

All the sophisticated people seem to have forgotten that. Maybe the hillbillies have not.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.

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