Down and Out In Beverly Hills

beverly hillbilliesRemember the good old days when television gave you a break from real people? Before the "reality" craze, TV had sets, scripts and escapism. Now the screen is cluttered up with the same dopes you find standing in line at the DMV. Sure they're in surreal situations -- in a French chateau vying to wed The Mediocre Gatsby, or the Sartre-esque hell of a protracted high school reunion -- but they're still real people, and they can get freaking tedious (except for the Osbournes, born stars, whose show should run 'til Kelly's in an old folks home).

But every trend does that 'jump the shark' thing; like Wyle E. Coyote with an Acme catapault rubber band, they stretch it too far and hit a wall. You gotta wonder if that might have happened to the reality concept with CBS's idea for the Real Life Beverly Hillbillies -- get some rural rubes, fatten up their bank account and set them loose in posh LA. The idea has left a lot of people PO'd.

The Center for Rural Strategies has a campaign going against the show, which many consider insulting to the rural poor, and took ads out in papers like the New York Times to get their point across. The ads highlighted a CBS executive's quote: "Imagine the episode where they interview maids." Ouch. Coming from a TV exec, it has that stinging smack of Leona Helmsley allegedly saying "Only little people pay taxes." If I were his maid, I'd start throwing the mail away.

TV has been a showcase for watching people be humiliated since Jerry Springer took off and that says more about America's freakish appetites than anything. But something about this one, maybe the arrogance, maybe the exploitation of economic hardship, didn't sit right. The president of CBS even apologized for any perceived offense.

This isn't a good time to be seen as knocking poor people. Employment fell in December -- a month you usually think of holiday hires -- by 101,000 jobs, the biggest drop in 10 months. A New York Times magazine story from last October on the disappearing middle class noted that "The 13,000 richest families in America had almost as much income as the 20 million poorest households; those 13,000 families had incomes 300 times that of average families."

James Carville in his 1996 book "We're Right, They're Wrong," says, "The bottom 80 percent of the American work force hasn't seen an after-inflation raise since the 1970s," and "By the mid 1980s we had the biggest gap between the haves and have-nots in the industrialized helps explain why so many people are struggling even when the economy is growing."

There is a way to alter the idea and make it a little more appealing for all of us. Instead of The Real Life Beverly Hillbillies, make the show the Reverse Beverly Hillbillies. Get some real-life Mr. Drysdales and drop them into an Appalacian shack or an inner city ghetto for a few weeks.

Zap2It reported that Paris Hilton talked with Craig Kilborn about working with Fox on a real life "Green Acres;" and I for one would much prefer to see a show about rich people making do and for real, not faux real. Let's see a few of the elite working for minimum wage, stretching a dollar until it screams, discovering that the junk yard where you've gone to find cheap car parts is no place to wear holey sneakers, trying to decide between eating any protein that week or paying for a doctor visit, how people look at you when you're holding up the line with your food stamps -- and maintain a spiritual attitude through it all.

And why not a Joe Millionaire twist at the end: When they've gone through all this for seven weeks, tell them "We lied. You're not really going back to Beverly."

Putting pretty people in ugly situations might turn out to be a perfect blend. Like a Michael Moore movie, it would wise you up to the reality but not kick you in the nuts with it. And what if there is a Siddhartha among them, a prince or princess who has never been in the company of the poor and suffering but, once there, is moved enough to devote their life to ending poverty? If I were a network exec, I'd want to get the next Buddha under contract toot sweet.

Tell me how it goes. I miss sets and actors and breaks from reality. I'll probably be at the movies.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer who lives in New York and Florida.

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