Tuesday, March 15, 2005

More Thoughts on Green Acres

The season 2 DVD set of Green Acres is about as good as you can expect, for the price: no extras, print quality varies from episode to episode, but everything is uncut and at least looks better than you could expect to see in syndication.

Some random thoughts on the show:

- If you want to start a Green Acres collection, it's probably advisable to start with season 2, because that's when the show really went nuts. The first season started out relatively normal -- especially the first batch of episodes, which were intertwined in a crossover story arc with episodes of Petticoat Junction -- and got wackier as it went on; the second season is wall-to-wall insanity.

- As others have pointed out, the roles of the two main characters of Green Acres did a complete 180 from what they were originally supposed to be. The concept of the show was that Oliver Wendell Douglas was the eccentric one, what with his flowery speeches about "The American Farmer" and his insistence on farming in a suit and tie, and his wife Lisa was the sensible socialite who had to put up with his eccentricities. That's the dynamic that is portrayed in the famous title song: Oliver's the nut, Lisa's the conventional one. Midway through the first season, that started to change, and by the second season, the formula was established as the opposite of the original formula: Oliver was the sane man in an insane world, while Lisa instinctively adjusted to the Hooterville way of life. The writers would occasionally make a token reference to Lisa wanting to go back to New York, but really, for most of the series, the real premise of the show was that Oliver was the one who hated it in Hooterville, not Lisa.

- Creator Jay Sommers wanted to cast Martha Hyer, Hollywood's all-purpose blonde ice queen (she even managed to land a rich husband, producer Hal Wallis), as Lisa; when Hyer turned it down, executive producer Paul Henning suggested Eva Gabor. If it hadn't been for that bit of casting, the show might have turned out very differently, as I don't think Lisa would have become as loopy with Hyer in the role.

- The second season was where Green Acres began its most famous meta-humorous running gag: having the characters comment on the opening credits. My favorite of these gags is the one in the episode "Getting Even With Haney": as Mr. Ziffel knocks on Oliver's door, the credits appear onscreen and then zoom off, and Ziffel keeps turning around, trying to catch them before they sneak off. Finally he catches the director credit: "Gotcha!"

- And speaking of the director credit, Richard Bare had an interesting career. While he was a student at the University of Southern California, he wrote and directed a short film starring George O'Hanlon (later the voice of George Jetson) as the luckless "Joe McDoakes"; it was a parody of instructional films called "So You Want to Give Up Smoking." Bare sold the film to Warner Brothers and he and O'Hanlon spent the next ten years making Joe McDoakes shorts for WB. After that, he went into television directing, and he directed every single episode of Green Acres except for the pilot; he held the record for directing the most consecutive episodes of a show until it was broken by Jerry Paris of Happy Days. Then after Green Acres ended he wrote a book, The Film Director, which became a sort of classic nuts-and-bolts manual for aspiring directors. (It also became famous because he predicted that two of his film students would go on to big things: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.) He also published his autobiography, the cover of which features him posing on the set with Arnold Ziffel.

- Ivan of "Thrilling Days of Yesteryear" has some good information about the radio backgrounds of the show's writers, Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat. Both Sommers and Chevillat, unfortunately, passed away in the mid-'80s.

- The 1990 TV reunion movie, Return to Green Acres, was reportedly a disaster (I haven't seen it and don't want to). Eddie Albert said in an interview that he thought that his contract was contingent on his approving the script; the producers deliberately delayed sending him the script. When he finally read it, he said the script was terrible and he wouldn't do it, and the producers threatened to sue him, whatever the contract may have said. At his age he couldn't deal with a lawsuit, so he did the movie.

- One of the reasons Green Acres seems so edgy for a '60s sitcom, apart from all the self-referential and genre-bending jokes that influenced shows like The Simpsons, is its almost boundless cynicism about life and human nature. Most TV shows are about escape into a world that is in some way idealized; the lives of Rob Petrie, Andy Taylor or Mary Richards may have their problems, but they all live in a world where life more or less makes sense. Green Acres is about a guy who wants to escape from the "rat race" into a world that makes more sense, and who finds, week after week, that what he's escaped into is even worse than what he escaped from. More than that, it's a nightmarish parody of the problems we face back home in the rat race: Hooterville is awash in bureaucratic red tape, commercialism, media whoredom and mutual distrust; daily life consists of pointless rituals that people never explain and never question. If you try to apply logical principles to the way people behave, as Oliver consistently tries to do, you'll be driven crazy. The only way to be happy is to do what Lisa does: just accept that people are the way they are, that life doesn't make sense, and go along for the ride. That's why Lisa can be happy anywhere, and Oliver is miserable no matter where he is: it's not the city Oliver can't deal with, it's the fact that people just don't make sense.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Love your commentary on "Green Acres." You are right on the money about the way Lisa & Oliver deal differently with the insanity of Hooterville.
Do you have any idea if writer Dick Chevillat is related to Bruce Chevillat who worked with "Mad About You" (producer) and "Seinfeld" (production management)?