Tuesday, November 29, 2011
November 29, 2011: Hap-Hazzard
There’s a flip side to what I tried to describe in yesterday’s post—something I mostly still love but can also analyze critically—and that’s when our more critical analysis of a once-beloved work makes it impossible for us to feel much affection at all for it. One of my first pop culture loves was The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985)—one of my more vivid memories from pre-age 5 is of settling down in front of the small TV in the room next to my bedroom on a Friday night to watch a new episode—and when I have happened to watch the occasional rerun of the show in recent years, there’s no question that its core ingredients (the car chases and jumps, Tom Wopat and John Schneider’s easy camaraderie, Catherine Bach’s charms, a Southern sheriff nearly as funny as JW Pepper, Waylon Jennings’ great theme song and pitch-perfect cliffhanger narrations), all assembled into a comfortably consistent formula, still function almost exactly as my nostalgic memories of childhood had indicated.
Yet on those occasions my present, adult self has found Dukes almost entirely unwatchable. Partly that’s due to some elements that escaped my three year-old eye, including some of the worst overacting ever captured on film (the Ivy League-trained Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg being the most egregious repeat offender, although I suppose anybody slumming that thoroughly deserves our sympathy more than our condemnation). But chief among those formerly overlooked elements, and the most overt and central source of my recent distaste for Dukes, is a constellation of Southern themes that I have noticed precisely because of my AmericanStudies, analytical perspective on the show. It’s true that the Duke boys were in some ways a relatively radical rebellious force there in Hazzard County, fighting against the good ol’ boy network of Boss Hogg (he of the full name Jefferson Davis Hogg and the plantation-esque white suit), in trouble with the law since the day they was born, and so on. But Jennings’ theme song opens by calling the Dukes “just good old boys” as well—and on closer examination, the Dukes’ rebellions echo those of the Agrarians, and of other similarly reactionary Southern traditionalists, far too closely for my taste.
It’s not just that the Dukes’ car was named the General Lee, with a Confederate flag on the roof and the tune of “Dixie” for its horn—although those interconnected details were far from innocent in the post-Civil Rights American South. It’s that the Dukes’ central mission, their goal in virtually every episode, was to maintain the status quo in their county-that-time-forgot: the show’s real villains weren’t Boss Hogg and his police force (who managed to coexist happily with the Dukes within that County, each car chase and crash seemingly forgotten by the following week’s episode), but rather the outsiders who would come to Hazzard, seeking to modernize it in one dastardly way or another. Each such plan was, on its specific face, well worth the Dukes’ opposition; none of them had anything explicitly to do with racial integration or Civil Rights or the like. But in an era that would, a year after Dukes premiered, see Ronald Reagan launch his successful 1980 presidential campaign by traveling to Philadelphia, Mississippi and telling its residents “I believe in states’ rights,” the show’s outright and absolute preference for the past over the future, for the way things have been in a place like Hazzard as opposed to how those meddling outsiders would like to reimagine the County, was in and of itself a powerful and, yes, deeply reactionary social statement.
Sorry, Bo and Luke, Daisy and Uncle Jesse and Cooter, Rosco P. Coltrane and Flash, but I’ve got to call it like I see it. More tomorrow, the monthly recap,
PS. Any former loves that haven’t stood up to your analytical responses?