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.”


Changing Portrayals of the Military

  1. When you described the show, I kept thinking of Corner Gas and Dog River's crazy residents, and their feud with it's evil small town rival, Wullerton.

    Talking about the portrayal of the military in comedies, I think The Simpsons tends to treat the military as incompetent most of the time (the episode with Sideshow Bob stealing a nuke in particular comes to mind).

    • See also Homer joining the Naval Reserves ("America's seventeenth line of defense, between the Mississippi National Guard and the League of Women Voters"), Bart joining a boy band with backwards lyrics about joining the Navy, the decision to blow up Springfield after the Simpsons escaped from the Dome, etc.

      Honestly, though, I think the whole "the army's in town" plot has fallen into disfavor since the end of the Cold War. There are definitely still characters that have military connections, but the only recent "military in town" episode I can think of is the Sex and the City episode about Fleet Week, which does kinda play up the horndog aspect of the seamen.

      Oh, and one final thought – the disappearance of the "horndog" plot may also be related to changes in military guidelines for participation in TV/movies. The US military has been very restrictive in what they'll allow in a movie if it is going to donate uniforms, equipment, etc. I'm pretty sure most risk-averse studio types just sign on the dotted line instead of question whether that actually takes all joy out of the thing.

  2. I'd be curious to hear more of your opinion on Beetle Bailey.

  3. Lemme see if I've got this correctly. In the 50s there were lots of comedies, some of which featured soldiers/sailors/airmen. Later on, there were less comedies featuring soldiers/sailors/airmen, because that would have undermined an ongoing war effort?

    Don't you think the genre of the show plays a much greater role in how it depicts the military? Petticoat Junction (c. 1963) was a sitcom, ergo tertiary characters who happen to be in the military will—and this will shock you!—tend to be played for laughs.

    You could just as easily cite a contrary example—The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin (c. 1954), a kids show where most of the major recurring characters were officers or enlisted personnel, and generally seen as responsible and paternal, not horny and drunk.

    Likewise Swamp Fox (c. 1959), a drama set in the Revolutionary War. did not lean heavily on comedic soldier caricatures. And let's not forget that in the 1950s TV was flooded with non-comedic military anthologies (The Air Force Story, Assignment Foreign Legion, Citizen Soldier, Crusade in the Pacific, etc).

    And let's not forget that back in 1950-something, the Second World War and Korea were very recent memories. In WW2, 16 million Americans served in uniform (about 10% of the total US population). Not exactly an insignificant market. A big chunk of the viewers could be expected to be familiar with military life and, having spent so much time seeing it up close and personal, probably wanted lighter viewing fare—like sitcoms, rather than serious-minded military dramas.

    As the military shifted to an all-volunteer force in the 70s, not only did general unit discipline improve, but the trials and tribulations of military life have become more alien to the viewers, as the number of them that have seen active duty have shrunken over the decades. Today, about 1 million Americans have served in Iraq, or about 0.3% of the population.

    If you are a writer, or a network exec, is it a good idea to craft shows that will appeal to 0.3% of your viewers, or will you aim at something a little broader?