Case Study 38: Petticoat Junction, Episode 167–“Cannonball For Sale”

Original Airdate: March 9th, 1968 on CBS

Nowadays, TV fans are intimately familiar with the creators and personalities behind their favorite shows. Shonda Rhimes, Dan Harmon, Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, Aaron Sorkin—they all have dedicated followings, people who are fans of not just specific shows but the entire body of work. We tend to think of this as a relatively recent phenomena, dating back perhaps to David E. Kelley’s reign of mediocrity in the 1990s. But Paul Henning gives lie to this theory. He created three of the most memorable and long-running sitcoms of the 1960s, all of which aired on CBS. In the 60s, CBS had a reputation as the “Country Broadcasting System” for its surfeit of rural sitcoms and westerns. In the 1960s, CBS was home to Lassie, The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoffs Gomer Pyle USMC and Mayberry R.F.D., Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Wild Wild West, The Real McCoys, Hee-Haw, Mister Ed, and of course, the Henning suite of countryfied juggernauts: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and today’s offering, Petticoat Junction. Very few of these shows made it past 1971, thanks to what’s now known as the “rural purge.” It sounds like something that might have happened in Stalinist Russia, but Green Acres actor Pat Buttram aptly described it as “the year CBS cancelled everything with a tree.” One widespread theory as to why this was the case is that it was around this time that the all-important Nielsen ratings began to break down audiences into more fine-grained age segments, birthing the holy grail of TV marketers everywhere—18 to 34 year olds. And CBS was aghast to discover that hip young urbanites no longer cared about Mayberry. If you’d like to read hundreds of pages about analysis about rural sitcoms on CBS, check out historian Sara Eskridge’s dissertation on the subject, but if you haven’t got the time for that, you’ll have to settle for the patented Oryx & Cake Boss approach to Junction.

Strengths

  • Funny. Okay, so it’s not The Simpsons, but the whole point of the rural era on CBS was safe and gentle, and Junction is a reasonably good demonstration that safe and gentle can still be funny and entertaining. Early in the episode, Hooterville denizens Joe Carson (Edgar Buchanan) and Sam Drucker (Frank Cady, Green Acres) are playing horseshoes, and Joe settles a dispute about whose shoe is closer to the stake by chucking Sam’s into the bushes when he’s not looking. It’s not exactly gold, but the performances really sell it. Like many episodes of Junction, this installment deals with an existential threat to the Cannonball, a neglected and ill-starred railway spur that only provides service to Hooterville. At one point, hotelier Kate Bradley (Bea Benaderet) tricks miserly railway executive J. Homer Bedloe (Charles Lane, It’s A Wonderful Life) by flirting with him and fondling his decidedly unimpressive old man biceps. The scheme to save the Cannonball culminates in Joe and Sam posing as captains of industry in Chicago. To bolster their deception, Joe urges retired conductor Floyd Smoot (Rufe Davis) to call during the meeting with a “big, important” message—the actual message doesn’t matter as long as Floyd conveys how big and important it is. At just the right moment, the big, important message is delivered—they found the missing horseshoe. Reader, I chortled.
  • Engaged with economic realities and the absurdities of finance. Too many sitcoms—particularly the so-called “classics”—rely on contrivance and artificially prolonged treatment of social faux pas that could easily be resolved with a quick conversation. Staples like Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City and How I Met Your Mother are famous for blithely ignoring the economics of urban life in a quest for a blandly hip series. Junction definitely isn’t hip, but you can’t say it’s not thoughtful about the livelihood of its characters. They all know that without the Cannonball, the town will undergo complete economic collapse. There won’t be enough income to support hotels, general stores and a crop-dusting business, and even when everyone takes out loans against their assets, they can’t match the price offered for the Cannonball by a junk dealer. This is one of many episodes dealing with a potential threat to the Cannonball, because it’s the fulcrum of financial precarity for the entire community. Much of the humor here also deals with the radical inaccessibility of financial arcana for the folks in Hooterville. Crop-dusting pilot Steve Elliott (Mike Minor) condescendingly explains to his wife Betty Jo (Linda Kay Henning) that she can’t boycott the railroad’s parent company because they only sell stocks and she isn’t planning on buying any stocks. Wackiness ensues when the relatively esoteric finance term “combine” is confused with the farm machinery. Joe produces a financial statement listing coat hangers as assets. I was worried that Junction was going to be little more than an exercise in mocking slack-jawed yokels but in reality many of the jokes are about how the world of high finance is inaccessible and irrelevant to regular people despite the fact that their fortunes depend on it.
  • Frank Cady. Frank Cady is awesome. There’s a reason that Sam Drucker is the only constant in all three of the Henning-verse sitcoms. The entire third act of this episode consists of the caper in Chicago and Cady is pitch-perfect accompaniment to Buchanan’s bluster. The fine art of being a comedic straight man is highly underrated and Cady does more with a dubious expression than can be accomplished with 10 lines of repartee.

Weaknesses

  • Lazy, implausible ending. Sure, they need to wrap it up to 22 minutes and hew to the status quo. It’s not like Hooterville can actually undergo complete economic collapse. We’re not going to see the characters scatter to the four winds because the show isn’t called Petticoat Diaspora. But it does seem a bit unlikely that the wealthy industrialist would forego thousands of dollars in profit out of the goodness of her heart because a couple of rubes tried to fleece her in a comically incompetent fashion. She’s a railroad magnate. Surely she closes down railway lines all the time. It’s her job. Every one of those closures is going to bring financial ruin in its wake. Why is this one any different? Because some bumpkins tracked mud all over her carpets? Wouldn’t it be much more satisfying if Sam and Joe managed to pull it off and maybe get Henrietta to invest in their non-existent corporate empire? Admittedly, having the Hooterzens commit fraud and get away with it also stretches plausibility somewhat, but if you’re going to paint yourself into a corner you might as well climb out a window instead of knocking down a wall.

Motivation: Anything that involves a wealthy industrialist can safely be categorized as being about money.

Final Episode Judgment: This provided satisfactory proof that not all goofy 60s sitcoms are created equal and books shouldn’t be judged by their petticoats. 7/10.

NEXT TIME: Ironists, take note–I’ll be reviewing Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos.

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Case Study 38: Petticoat Junction, Episode 167–“Cannonball For Sale”

Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”

Original Airdate: January 19th, 1961 on first-run syndication

Mister Ed was at the vanguard of a wave of high-concept sitcoms that were everywhere in the 1960s. People often confuse the phrase “high concept” with something highly conceptual or experimental. That’s not what it means. No, when a TV show or a movie is high concept, it’s something with mass appeal, usually with fantasy or sci-fi elements, that can be summarized in a short sentence. Jurassic Park: There’s a theme park with cloned dinosaurs. Big: There’s a twelve-year-old in the body of a thirtysomething. Snakes On A Plane: There’s snakes on a plane. In the 60s, sitcoms were so fanciful they make contemporary fare like The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family look even more boring. You had witches and genies and martians and monsters and dead parents reincarnated as cars. But before all of that you had a man and his talking horse. What could go wrong?

Strengths

Um, well, you see….hmm….

Weaknesses

  • Profound misogyny. Look, I realize it was 1961. I realize you have to overlook some of the more incidental symptoms of widespread injustice or else you’re not going to make it through anything from the period without gagging. Watch, here’s me overlooking the fact that Wilbur (Alan Young) pretends that a caller’s dialed the wrong number by adopting a wincingly racist “Asian” accent when he picks up the phone. But in this episode, misogyny is central to the plot of the show. In fact, it’s the entire plot. Wilbur’s wife Carol (Connie Hines) joins a club dedicated to lobbying for civic improvements, and Wilbur isn’t able to stand it for one goddamned second. How dare she take up an interest that keeps her from making him lunches and picking up his dry cleaning? The horse (Allan Lane, Stagecoach to Denver) impugns Wilbur’s masculinity. Wilbur’s asshole neighbor (Larry Keating, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show) taunts him for doing his own grocery shopping. Wilbur manages to fix the situation by preying on his wife’s sexual insecurities and humiliating her in front of her friends. Hooray! It all worked out in the end! The worst part is that we’re supposed to sympathize with Wilbur, despite the look on Carol’s face when she realizes the consequences for daring to push even slightly against the suffocating confines of her home life. No, the real tragedy here is the scene where Wilbur can’t bone his wife right there on the living room rug because she wants to talk to her friend (Edna Skinner.) Instead, he sadly slinks up the stairs, trying to figure out a way to get his manhood back that doesn’t involve murdering Carol and turning her into a new saddle for Mister Ed.
  • Has nothing to do with its central premise. So there’s something else you may have noticed about that little cautionary tale about the dangers of unchaining your wife from the radiator. IT HAS SWEET FUCK-ALL TO DO WITH A TALKING HORSE. That’s what the people came for. They wanted to see the hijinks that ensue when you have a talking horse, but all the talking horse does here is tell Wilbur he’s pussy whipped and watch Leonard Bernstein on CBS. Oh, he also reprises Wilbur’s racist telephone bit. That’s it. Admittedly, the final act requires a woman wearing a bikini astride a horse (don’t ask) but that could have been accomplished with a standard nonverbal horse. I went into this halfway expecting Ed to offer Wilbur some wise counsel on how to have a healthy marriage, but instead he just makes fun of him, and the asshole neighbor is already doing that. Admittedly, Ed does complain that because Wilbur is off in the kitchen making sandwiches like some kind of unnatural monster there’s no one to entertain him, but this feels like fairly perfunctory horse usage, and if there’s one thing you don’t want from Mister it’s perfunctory horse usage. Well, I guess you also don’t want a field trip to the glue, Jell-O and leather factory, but presumably that’s not in the offing.

Motivation: I hesitate to describe this as an issue of love…that would assume that this form of marriage has anything at all to do with love. Since Carol’s essentially treated like a broken piece of property, we’ll call it money.

Final Episode Judgment: This presents me with an interesting problem, because while Mister evidences no strengths, it’s also not nearly as terrible as some of the dreck staining these pages. I’d hardly cite them as strengths, but there’s things this show could have done badly that would have made it worse. The acting is fine. The story is coherent, if repulsive. It’s not funny, but it also doesn’t try too hard at being funny–it’s very gentle. 2/10. Don’t watch it, but don’t bury it thousands of miles below the earth in a steel cask, either.

NEXT TIME: Our search for the dumbest sitcom of the sixties continues as we review Petticoat Junction!

Case Study 37: Mister Ed, Episode 3–“Busy Wife”