As I watched the opening credits of Reelz’s new show, “Hollywood Hillbillies,” I expected to be annoyed or outraged by yet another show that continued the exploitation of the mountain Southerner.
I expected to see every hillbilly stereotype in the book. After all, “Hollywood Hillbillies” is billed as a fish-out-of-water story, like the horrible “Real Beverly Hillbillies,” which CBS threatened to create more than a decade ago. Appalachians have been dreading a program like that ever since TLC stopped broadcasting educational content and the History Channel became a 24/7 ghost and UFO fest.
The closest we’ll be able to get to “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” is here, and I’m not worried. You shouldn’t be either. Because I can’t imagine that the show will last longer than a season.
The star of “Hollywood Hillbillies” is Michael, a 21-year-old aspiring actor/rapper from Grayson, Georgia, whose Youtube rants about being bullied because of his red hair caught the attention of comedian Daniel Tosh and the creators of “South Park.” Michael has an earnestness that makes him incredibly likable. He’s just a nice kid from a small town trying to live out his dreams. He could have come from anywhere in the United States.
Michael is indubitably an entertainer. He’s funny, but his personality is not easily exploitable. That’s why the producers needed to bring his entire family into the spotlight.
His family includes an over-weight aunt with dreams of stardom, her bald and toothless boyfriend, an uncle in a baseball cap and shirt with cut-off sleeves, his grandmother’s best friend and Mema, Michael’s outspoken, overweight grandmother. (The skinnier, toothier, less-extroverted family members were shown in a going-away party scene, but were left at home in Grayson.)
And now we have ourselves a reality show.
I have to admit that I had high hopes for finding a Southern feminist hero in Mema, Michael’s grandmother and the matriarch of the family. In the first minutes of the show, Mema seems powerful, sharp and funny – a true performer and the glue that holds her family together. She is an archetypical Southern matriarch: protective, loving and sassy and the kind of person who won’t put up with any crap from anybody.
But then it all goes downhill when it turns out she’s also incredibly anti-Semitic. And at that point, there’s really nothing that even the strongest of Southern matriarchs could do to salvage this shipwreck of a show.
Which raises the question, “What the heck is wrong with Reelz?” Any self-respecting network (see A&E and “Duck Dynasty”) would never let that kind of archaic crap air on national television. Reality television isn’t known for its self-respect, but most TV channels have standards, or at least some sponsors that will refuse to back racist or anti-Semitic messages.
But I get the impression that Reelz doesn’t feel like they have anything to lose. If Reelz cared about their reputation, they would have produced better shows than their current offerings, which include “Polka Kings” and “Steven Seagal: Lawman.”
Unfortunately, Reelz’ reputation isn’t the one at stake. The reputation of the South is. People expect ignorant comments out of someone from Grayson, Georgia, and not Montclair, New Jersey, even though we all know that ignorance is not a regional characteristic. Fortunately (and I can’t believe I’m saying this), Mema’s family is not the only representation of the South on reality television.
There are more entertaining, better-produced television shows about the region that may not portray a realistic version of the South, but also don’t give lip service to characters whose views are stuck in the 1950s. Even the star of “Honey Boo Boo,” who has been compared to a redneck Shirley Temple, made headlines a few years ago when she proclaimed that “Everybody’s a little gay” and there’s nothing wrong with that.
While there are still some Southerners (and Northerners and Midwesterners and Westerners…) who are homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic or all of the above, “Honey Boo Boo” is a better reflection of the South I know and love. That South is filled with people who love and embrace the diversity of the region and are doing everything in their power to make it a more inclusive part of the country.
I finished a 21-minute episode of “Hollywood Hillbillies” in high spirits, but it had nothing to do with Mema’s hijinks. It’s because I’m not too worried about “Hollywood Hillbillies.” It’s just not compelling enough to warrant our concern.
Sure, someone turns his truck bed into a Jacuzzi, and there are some references to urinating outside. But aside from their accents, the family in “Hollywood Hillbillies” could have come from almost any town in the United States.
Many microcosms of American culture feature strong women who run the family. Teenagers all over the country post videos of themselves to Youtube, hoping to “hit it big.” It’s America. Obesity isn’t uncommon. Unfortunately, neither is racism, anti-Semitism or homophobia. And most people, not just Southerners, would experience some degree of culture shock if they were plucked from their homes and plopped in the middle of Hollywood.
This show is nothing special, and if Reelz continues to air openly anti-Semitic interviews, it’s going to have a world of hurt coming. The knowledge that our country still has a long way to go in terms of racial, socioeconomic, religious and gender equality is too real for reality TV.
Networks want a fish-out-of-water story, but the truth is, the pond’s gone dry. Rural America doesn’t exist in a vacuum from the rest of the world. It isn’t a land frozen in time, an innocent paradise depicted in a Norman Rockwell painting. We’ve had electricity and television for a long time now, and Internet access at increasing rates.
Michael and his family would not be famous without Youtube, so it’s no surprise that moving them to Hollywood makes for unremarkable reality television. Hollywood Hillbillies may shock and offend, but who’s watching?
Janney Lockman is from West Virgina.