Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
There’s a story that gets told around Daily Yonder HQ from time to time. It concerns a small, scrappy nonprofit taking on one of the big four broadcast television networks, demanding that a new show be cancelled. It’s worth noting that at this point in time it was rare, perhaps even unprecedented, to find a documented instance of the networks cancelling a show that had already started casting or entered production. By that measure, this was no easy fight to pick.
The scrappy nonprofit in question was the Center for Rural Strategies, the eventual publisher and parent org of the Daily Yonder. The network was CBS. And the show was “The Real Beverly Hillbillies,” a reality program playing on the general premise of the vintage “Beverly Hillbillies” sitcom: what happens when you take a bunch of poor country folk and drop them into a mansion in Beverly Hills?
Like other reality programs of the modern TV era — think Jersey Shore or Real Housewives — the show could hardly be expected to show much in the way of nuance or restraint. All signs pointed to poor rural people being the butt of the joke, presented in outsized fashion and for laughs.
In that regard, the ending of this story is a happy one: the small nonprofit ran an aggressive public media campaign, and the big network ultimately pulled the plug on the show. Again, as far as we know, this was a rare event, to see a network scrap a forthcoming production and consign it to the dust bin of history. Rural Strategies was relatively new to the world at the time and this campaign helped put the organization on the map.
Today, Rural Strategies is less focused on this same brand of targeted public campaigning. But in our international headquarters in Whitesburg, Kentucky you’ll still find clippings of stories from big newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal recounting this chapter in our history. And while some time has passed, our work at the Daily Yonder descends from this same tradition.
How rural people and places get covered in the media is an important matter, and it’s one that aligns with our core mission.
If you trace television history, two of the most common shortcomings in how rural people are represented in our media manifest clearly. In the early days of TV, during the middle of the 20th century, there was a boom in rural-themed shows. Think “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Green Acres.” These are shows many would consider classics, but, viewed through a modern lens, the shows definitely present an idealized version of rural life, pastoral, fixed in time, and, again, lacking some nuance.
Following a “rural purge” in the ‘70s, there were suddenly many fewer rural shows on the air. In recent times, things have started to bounce back, but today’s offerings often have the opposite problem. They overemphasize danger or doom and gloom, representing rural places as rife with decay, crime, corruption, or backward thinking.
In either case, idyllic or dystopic, the portrayals are one-note.
But if we go beyond TV, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful. We’ve written about many of them. And we intend to write more. That’s what we’re aiming to do with our latest series and newsletter, “The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy.”
We’ll use it to talk about rural movies, music, TV, books, and much more under the banners of media, entertainment, and culture. Rural communities make important contributions to the cultural conversation and popular imagination. Beyond our screens and speakers, there’s food, recreation, travel, fine arts, and folklore to consider too. We’re excited to dig into it all. We hope you are as well.
What’s in a Name?
In the weeks to come, you can look forward to an eclectic batch of things under this banner. Reviews of new releases. Recommendations for things to watch, read, or listen to. Retrospectives on essential classics, hidden gems, or certified trash. Cultural analysis and critique. We hope you’ll weigh in with your thoughts, ideas, and recommendations too. Over time, we want this to become a conversational, community-oriented project.
Why call this multipurpose mish-mash “The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy?”
Well, when it comes to the history of American media and entertainment, the Western genre is indelible and unquestionably rural. Invoking an iconic selection from that catalog, “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” also effectively encapsulates what we’re trying to accomplish. We want to share our enthusiasm for the good stuff worth binging and revisiting. And we seek to respectfully gripe about the bad stuff that deserves some ire.
As for the ugly of it, well, many of the most popular articles in the history of the Daily Yonder have concerned “Hillbilly Elegy,” both the book and film. For better and for worse, “Hillbilly Elegy” catalyzed a rich vein of criticism about media representation and rural identity. And our work here descends from that tradition too, just like “The Real Beverly Hillbillies” before it.
This Week’s Feature
There’s a lot of space going toward introductory obligations this week, so I’ll try to keep our inaugural rural recommendation short and sweet.
The 2021 film “PIG” stars Nicholas Cage as a recluse living in a remote cabin alongside a pig adept at truffle hunting. The story is set into motion when the cabin is ransacked and said pig is stolen away. So begins a journey to get back the pig, whatever it takes.
That setup, plus the packaging of the film, with Nicholas Cage at its core, might have you expecting a gritty or over-the-top action vehicle. When you look at the building blocks, there’s just the “John Wick” of it all, if you catch my drift.
But the film surprises in being something entirely different from what you might expect. It’s ultimately a quiet and contemplative work, centered on grief. On that subject, it seems subverting audience expectations around genre or casting choices is entirely the point.
Films like “John Wick” also concern trauma and grief, but their primary outlet is catharsis — through violence and vengeance more often than not. “PIG” recognizes that in real life, outside the realms of action cinema, there is often no such catharsis. There is just the slow burn of trying to move forward and hold onto your humanity.
The past year has been a rocky one for movie going, but “PIG” was one of my favorite films of 2021 and it came at an unfortunately fitting time in my own personal journey. I’ll be curious to see if it gets any awards attention in the year to come (the central performance by Cage is what I’m inclined to monitor most closely), but come what may, this is a film that is worth your time. Don’t overlook it.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.