In the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz identifies television shows like “Justified,” “True Detective,” “Breaking Bad,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “The Walking Dead” as “Hollywood folk making mincemeat out of poor rural folk” and part of the “ongoing American culture war that should not go unremarked.” Podheretz notes that “[e]ven Mad Men’s Don Draper, the well-to-do man from Westchester, was damaged forever by being born to a hooker in rural Illinois and raised by a vicious farmer who beat him regularly.”
I’m not so sure.
You can certainly argue that the production design of these shows is Pure White Trash, but when it comes to characterizations of the rural poor and working class, Hollywood has actually come a long way. You can’t judge a person by his double-wide.
For years it seemed as though Southerners and rural folk were forever portrayed in film and television as bigoted, ignorant religious freaks eager to make you squeal like a pig — they always took the pie in the face. From my vantage point, the shows Podhoretz lists (except for “True Blood,” which I haven’t seen and can’t comment on) all offer three-dimensional characters, and in many cases flawed but likable and intelligent protagonists capable of selfless and heroic acts (“Justified,” “The Walking Dead,” “True Detective,” “Breaking Bad” (the brother-in-law)).
I am much less concerned with the production design and wardrobe choices than I am with how the characters are portrayed. And to be fair, when Hollywood explores any culture, be it Southern, Italian, the black inner-city, Mexican barrio life, a high school, Manhattan’s Upper West Side, or even Hollywood… there is frequently a hyper-reality involved in creating a flavorful world that borders on stereotype.
As far as “Sons of Anarchy, which features only criminal psychopaths and is a twist on ghetto gang dramas featuring racial minorities, the primary story might revolve around white characters, but blacks and Mexicans come off just as bad whenever we get a glimpse of their world. For one season there was a black character who wore expensive suits and rode in a limo, but he was a clichéd drug-dealing sociopath.
“Justified” is, I think, astonishingly generous to the south. Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens is a bona fide hero forced against his will to return home to rural Kentucky (from the big city of Miami) with his own bigoted preconceptions. In many ways Raylan represents those elite leftists who escape to the Left Coast with a superior hatred of where they come from. With his cowboy hat, boots, and slow drawl Raylan didn’t completely leave his roots behind, but one of the pleasures of “Justified” is watching our hero return home emotionally.
The women of “Justified,” Ava and Winona (Joelle Carter and Natalie Zea) are not only drop dead gorgeous, they are strong, independent, can handle a gun, and are always ladies. Both completely turn the notion of the Southern Belle on its head without deconstructing it into something else.
As Raylan’s boss, Nick Searcy’s Art Mullen is a Christian southern gentleman who listens to Rush Limbaugh and can outsmart any big city fed who thinks he’s going to big shot his way around “Mayberry.” Art is likable, charming, generous, strong, and the tortoise forever outsmarting the city slicker hare.
Finally, there’s Boyd Crowder (Walter Goggins) the villain determined to be the arch-villain. What I especially love about this character is that his redeeming qualities are not that he is an environmentalist, or opposed to the war in Iraq, or in possession of some other left-wing “virtue.” Other than being astonishingly intelligent, Boyd’s virtues are purely southern virtues; he is a wonderful southern gentleman to Ava; fiercely protective without being controlling, respectful of her as a lady and supportive of her ideas and goals. For this reason, Boyd Crowder might be the most subversive pro-Southern character on television right now.
On “Justified” protecting a woman’s honor is not laughed at as sexist or old-fashioned. Chivalry is a heroic thing. Talk about subversive.
And let’s not forget one overriding virtue found in almost all of these shows: the return of masculinity. The men in these shows are MEN, not urban, murse-carrying metrosexuals holding an appletini. The Left’s war against masculinity is taking a hellacious beating during television’s third Golden Age.
The South has been my adopted home for over two decades. I love it here. I love the people, the southern accent, the lifestyle, and especially the moonshine with a half-peach floating in the jar. (I grew up in the Midwest.) My county in Western North Carolina (Watauga) is packed with smart, fiercely independent, tolerant, God-fearing people — some of whom do look like they walked off the set of “True Detective.” And the meth/Oxycotin problems here are heartbreakingly real.
Naturally, I’m sensitive to how my home and neighbors are portrayed and have actually been pleased at the resurgence of the television drama that features appealing southern and rural protagonists. They might not be saints, but they are human and the fact that they are masculine and independent is almost always portrayed as an appealing quality. And in many cases they are also portrayed as resourceful, selfless and surprisingly decent.
At the very least these characters are complicated, not stereotypes. And this is true for most of the supporting characters, as well. You really can’t ask for much more from Hollywood than that.
Nonetheless, what these shows really do is play on the ignorant prejudices of leftist urban elites by spreading the message that beneath the White Trash exterior you will find real people who are nothing like your bigoted mind imagined.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC