Speak Your Piece: Hollywood’s Rural America Is a Scary Place
Hollywood has shifted from portraying rural people as hicks and hayseeds to showing them as criminal kingpins and murderers. Joe Belden surveys the media landscape and finds rural settings to be frightening and violent.
Why does Hollywood think rural America is either ridiculous or evil? In the 1960s and early 1970s, television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies; Gomer Pyle, USMC; and Green Acres portrayed rural places and people as comic, slapstick, and, often, frankly ridiculous. Dating from the 1930s and 40s, very popular comic strips like Li’l Abner and Pogo satirized rural locales and characters but also had elements of social and political comment.
Today that has changed. Networks in the early 1970s canceled rural-themed shows in favor of a more urban focus. And a review of many current and recent popular television shows and films seems to show that their network sponsors and city-born-and-raised creators frequently see small towns and rural people as racist, ignorant, pathetic, corrupt, or maybe just viciously murderous and criminal. Examples include critically acclaimed and award-winning TV shows such as Ozark, Rectify, Sharp Objects, and Sons of Anarchy – as well as the Oscar-winning films No Country for Old Men and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In some of these shows, the sensible non-criminals are urban folks temporarily working or stranded in rural places. Or they may have grown up in the small town, are back for a visit, and can’t wait to head back to the big city. A disturbing theme is that Rectify, Sharp Objects, and Three Billboards all include as a major part of the plot the murder, or rape and murder, of teenaged girls, apparently by local folks in each story.
Consider Ozark (2017-2018), which began its second season August 31 on Netflix. The Byrdes, a family from the Chicago suburbs, relocate involuntarily to Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks to set up a money laundering scheme for a Mexican drug cartel. The cartel killed Marty Byrde’s partner in a small accounting firm for stealing from previously laundered funds. The word “Ozark” and its use as the setting appear to have been picked because it sounds rural, backward, or redneck. In their new locale, the Byrdes launder through small business fronts but also run afoul of two rural crime families. The Langmores are stereotypical crude rednecks. But the Snells, an older couple who are local crime lords and major drug dealers, turn out to be so deadly at the end of the season that they casually kill the head of the Mexican cartel. So the rural Missouri criminals are a lot scarier than a murderous Mexican drug lord. (Donald Trump, take note!)
Somehow rural Missouri has emerged as a convenient geographic punching bag for many of these shows. But oddly the actual filming has been done in the small-town South for several stories set in Missouri. Why is this? Are the shows’ creators worried about backlash over stereotyping if the shows are set in the South? Ozark was actually filmed in rural areas near Atlanta. And maybe those murders of teenaged girls just happen in scary small towns.
Lots of teenaged young women in rural Missouri either die or are murderers in Sharp Objects, a highly-praised 2018 crime drama based on Gillian Flynn’s novel. Set in the fictional small town of Wind Gap, Missouri, this HBO show actually was filmed in Barnesville, Georgia, and in California. In the series Camille Preaker, a St. Louis-based journalist, returns to her hometown of Wind Gap to cover the grisly murders of several young girls. She and a visiting police detective from Kansas City appear to be the only normal people in the story. But Camille is soon shown to be very damaged – from her youth in Wind Gap. The town itself is one of the main characters. Almost all of its residents and Camille’s family seem to be on a spectrum ranging from stupid and clueless to arrogant, jaded, crude, racist, or criminal. In case we miss the depiction of small-town political incorrectness, one teenaged girl at a party wears a tank top with the Confederate battle flag on both sides of the shirt, and the major local holiday celebrates a Confederate hero. Sharp Objects will probably be a strong contender for Emmy Awards next year.
Also in the Missouri-bashing file is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Actually filmed in Sylva, North Carolina, this 2017 drama won two Academy Awards, was nominated for seven, and won four Golden Globes, including best picture. Angry at the lack of police investigation into the unsolved rape and murder of her teenaged daughter, Mildred Hayes rents three unused billboards to criticize the local sheriff. With her frustration growing, she maims a threatening local dentist, burns down the police station, and almost kills a racist deputy. Just a strong rural woman – and the sympathetic heroine of the film. Frances McDormand won the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Mildred.
Perhaps no show was more specific about its rural background than FX’s Sons of Anarchy (2008-2014), a violent motorcycle gang drama set in fictional Charming, California. With a city limits sign in the show stating that the population is 14,679, Charming was said to be between Lodi and Stockton in San Joaquin County (which are all real places). The show’s website at one point provided GPS coordinates for Charming that placed it the middle of an agricultural field. San Joaquin County – the real one – is a major center of California agriculture. The county’s population is also 38 percent Hispanic – many of them farm workers. But of 17 main characters in the show, only two were Hispanic.
Rectify was a Sundance Channel show running for four seasons between 2013 and 2016. Set in fictional Paulie, Georgia, the show’s actual filming was in Griffin, Georgia. With a new trial ordered based on DNA evidence, Daniel Holden returns to Paulie after years on death row for the rape and murder of his teenaged girlfriend. But the corrupt local prosecutor and others continue to think Daniel is guilty. Paulie is depicted as backward at best, with some of its residents conspiring long ago to frame Daniel. Rectify won a Peabody Award and received other award nominations.
There are some very successful shows about rural communities – for example, Fargo (1996) in both its large and small-screen versions — where the hometown lead characters are strong and heroic, and the villains are both urban and rural. But the rural settings are often still seen as vaguely sinister. Female deputies and sheriffs in Fargo are the heroes, outsmarting both their dim bosses and the villains. McDormand won her first Oscar for her memorable portrayal of Sheriff Marge Gunderson. And Carrie Coon and Allison Tolman portrayed smart, determined police women in the TV Fargo series. The three-season TV series (2014-17) won several awards and many nominations. Fargo, North Dakota, is actually not the setting for much of the action. But several smaller places in Minnesota fill in; they can be just as mysteriously sinister.
In addition to creating the film Fargo, Joel and Ethan Coen also wrote and directed 2007’s No Country for Old Men. It won four Academy Awards, including best picture, and many other awards and nominations. Rural and small-town Texas is the setting for most of this very violent film, including Terrell County, the 37th least populous county in the United States.
The excellent Coon also stars in the second season of the USA Network’s The Sinner, which started airing in August. Set in small-town upstate New York, this drama features brutal murders committed by unlikely perpetrators – a young wife and mother in season one and a 13-year-old boy in season two.
Language and titles may be important in these shows. For example, Fargo and Ozark just sound quaint or rustic. Rectify and Sons of Anarchy sound ominous. Or sometimes a rural place may just sound funny. The 2017-2018 Showtime series, I’m Dying Up Here, is about stand-up comedians in Los Angeles in the 1970s. One of the main characters is from Wink, Texas, a real small town, and a plot device apparently used because the name sounds a bit ridiculous.
One recurring element in many of these films, shows, and novels is that their creators are from urban and suburban backgrounds. A few examples:
- The Coen brothers, creators of both Fargo and No Country for Old Men, were born and raised in a suburb of Minneapolis.
- Bill Dubuque, creator of Ozark, was born and still lives in St. Louis.
- Gillian Flynn, author of the novel Sharp Objects, was born and raised in St. Louis and lives in Chicago.
- Jean-Marc Vallée, director of the TV version of Sharp Objects, was born and raised in Montreal.
- Kurt Sutter, creator of Sons of Anarchy, was born and raised in New Jersey in the New York City metro area.
But surely they have flown over rural America, read about it, or seen it portrayed on the screen. One TV writer with authentic rural roots was Earl Hamner Jr., creator of The Waltons (1972-1981). A very popular “family drama” set in rural Virginia, this show treated rural people and places with respect. Hamner grew up in Schuyler, Virginia (2010 pop. 298). Little House on the Prairie (1974-1982) was another example of such a family drama.
Such shows today – with positive, though often sentimental, portrayals of small towns — may be found on the Hallmark Channel, but mostly not on the major cable or network outlets.
Joe Belden is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C