Changing Portrayals of the Military

Today’s most interesting DVD release is, believe it or not, season 2 of Petticoat Junction. The set, like the season 1 set, has excellent special features (interviews and introductions with Linda Henning and Pat Woodell, aka Betty Jo and the Bobbie Jo — Jeanine Riley, the first Billie Jo, is still missing), the episodes are all new-to-DVD and, because they’re in black and white, have hardly ever been shown in syndication. And the quality of this season is an improvement on the first, and miles ahead of most of the colour episodes shown in syndication, because this was the season Jay Sommers took over as Executive producer and head writer. Jay Sommers, a friend of creator Paul Henning, was, like Henning, a radio comedy writer who successfully transitioned to TV. (He specialized in writing for radio-to-TV transplants like The Great Gildersleeve and Ozzie and Harriet.) As showrunner of Petticoat Junction, he set about making the nostalgic rural comedy a little more like the crazy, surreal rural comedies he had written for on the radio, like Lum and Abner and his own creation, Granby’s Green Acres (about a city guy who moves to a small farming town and finds that it’s populated by crazy people).

That meant more episodes about the get-rich-quick schemes of Edgar Buchanan’s character, more episodes where all of Hooterville acts under some kind of massive delusion or engages in petty feuding with its evil small-town rival “Crabwell Corners” (the obvious ancestor of Shelbyville on The Simpsons) and more episodes about the crazy people in and around Hooterville, like the pig farmer Mr. Ziffel and local dumbass Newt Kiley. After the second season of Petticoat, Sommers pitched Henning on the idea of a TV adaptation of Granby’s Green Acres, Henning suggested setting it in the same universe as Petticoat and making some characters (notably Frank Cady’s Sam Drucker) appear on both shows, and Green Acres was born. Sommers worked on Petticoat during the first season of Green Acres, but his attention was focused on writing all the episodes of his own show, and after that first season he left Petticoat to work on Green Acres full-time. After that, the two shows diverged completely in style and Petticoat became known for its incredibly boring episodes where everybody just stood around and sang old songs at the piano. But in this last B&W season, it’s like a TV version of a good, wacky radio show. Sommers also added the dog, played by the animal who was later to play Benji, to the cast.

One episode that is particularly fun — and which finally explains the subject heading — is an episode where the military holds war games near the hotel. The soldiers involved in the war games are, of course, mostly interested in the girls, and Bea Benaderet’s character is concerned with keeping the soldiers from ever getting a moment alone with her girls. In typical Sommers fashion, the whole thing goes out of control until the whole hotel is overrun by soldiers and Benaderet needs to blackmail a general (played by Ed Platt) to keep everyone out of trouble. But the thing that struck me was the portrayal of soldiers as horny, not-too-smart, not-too-brave people, just typical dirty-minded young men who happen to be in uniform. This was the way soldiers were usually portrayed in comedy up until the late ’60s: the soldiers are in town, better lock up your daughters. There was a brief moratorium on this during WWII, but even then there were some comedies that kept this idea alive (like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). And in peacetime, forget it: the point of any military comedy was that soldiers are mostly interested in getting out of work, chasing girls and getting into trouble. (Beetle Bailey, back when it actually made sense, was based on this idea.)

This started to change as the Vietnam War heated up, and portrayals of the military on TV became more favourable — since portraying soldiers negatively would have been taken as some kind of anti-war political statement. And after the draft was eliminated, it no longer made complete sense to portray soldiers as ordinary boys in uniform: whatever you could say about soldiers in an all-volunteer army, they are doing this professionally, and that’s different from an army made up of regular guys who were pressed into service. There are other reasons for this shift, but what it comes down to is this: pick a military comedy episode from the early ’60s, like this Petticoat Junction episode, and you’ve likely picked an episode that couldn’t be done today by any show that wants to “support the troops.”

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