Tasteful Alternatives to Hillbilly Elegy

You don't have to watch that

Welcome back to Going Downs, a newsletter about the intersection of celebrity and politics.

Hey Everyone! It’s Brenden, Claire’s husband, and Going Downs rural correspondent, back to talk about the biggest thing to hit rural America since the opioid epidemic. Of course, I am talking about Ron Howard’s upcoming adaptation of J.D. Vance’s memoir/political propaganda book, Hillbilly Elegy.

The trailer for Hillbilly Elegy dropped this morning.

I want to avoid any criticism of the film here because, as readers probably already know, Claire and I work in show business. But, some of my friends on Twitter have no such hangups. 

Regardless of what happens with the film, I am not a fan of the book. Hillbilly Elegy is essentially the conservative economic argument for “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” that you so often hear leveled at urban communities aimed at the rural poor. The book is dressed up with the maudlin tales of Vance’s early life, so the respectability politics aren’t immediately apparent. But, with Hillbilly Elegy, Vance rides a familiar respectability politics refrain all the way to the bank. 

As musician Sturgill Simpson put it:

"I’ll give this to J.D. [Vance] - like so many coastal elites that have come to eastern KY to point out all its problems, much like them, he offered no solutions, but just found a way to get fucking paid for it. Twice."

Many better political thinkers than myself have mounted critiques of Vance and Elegy. If you’re interested, I recommend subscribing to podcasts from my friends, The Trillbillies and WellRED Comedy. I also recommend reading writer Sarah Jones, who is perhaps the foremost journalistic critic of Vance’s politics.

Instead of getting into the opioid crisis and the abandonment of rural America by Democrats post-Reagan, I want to talk about something more fun. If you’re put off by Hillbilly Elegy, there are plenty of films and TV shows set in small-town America to enjoy. Here’s my canon of film and television set in the country. 

If you have any additional suggestions, go ahead and drop them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to give them a look or give you my critiques of them.

The Last Picture Show (1971) - dir. Peter Bogdanovich

The movie that American Graffiti wishes it was, The Last Picture Show tells the story of a dying town through the eyes of a young man (Timothy Bottoms) who isn’t sure if he is ever going to get out. With stellar performances from a young Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, and Ben Johnson, the movie doesn’t romanticize small-town life. Still, it gets at the heart of why rural people feel such a connection to their roots, even when it makes no economic sense to stay attached.

For film history buffs, the most recent season of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast deals with Bogdanovich’s first wife, Polly Platt, a kind of “director whisperer” throughout her career, and probably deserves co-directing credit on the film. 

Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) - showrunner Jason Katims

It’s hard to imagine a work more deeply influenced by The Last Picture Show than Friday Night Lights. The story of the Dillon Panthers and their coach (Kyle Chandler) is easily the most realistic and compelling depiction of rural America to ever appear on television. 

The relationship between Coach Taylor and his wife (Connie Britton) also receives perpetual accolades for its realistic depiction of the ups and downs of married family life. With the exception of some hiccups early in Season 2, this is as a close to a perfect television show as you can get. 

Justified (2010-2016) - showrunner Graham Yost

“We dug coal together.” 

This line recurs throughout Justified, used to simply explain the complicated relationship between Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) and Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins). Raylan left town to become a US Marshal while Boyd, the townie gone from bad to worse, stayed around. Anyone from a small town understands this give and take between those who “got out” and those who decided to build a life there, and the mutual resentment that often builds between them.

It might seem ridiculous to describe this Western-by-way-of-Appalachia in emotional terms, but that’s what makes Justified great. The high point of the show is season 2, which features Margot Martindale as a big bad. Her character, Mags Bennet, offers the perfect distillation of rural politics, in which the people who claim to be helping small-town communities are often doing the most damage. 

King of the Hill (1997-2010) - showrunners Mike Judge and Greg Daniels

Still, the funniest take on rural life there ever was and maybe ever will be. I feel obliged to mention The Trailer Park Boys and Letterkenny here, two shows I’ve never seen that always crop up in the when discussing “most hilarious small-town sitcom.”

Deliverance (1972) dir. John Boorman

Deliverance sometimes gets criticized for its unsympathetic and even monstrous portrayal of rural people. I believe the film makes it clear that this is the perspective of the suburban adventurers at the center of the film, not necessarily the film’s point of view. In fact, some of the assumptions the characters make are later called into doubt. And besides, writing rural people as universally noble, hardworking people is just as ridiculous as portraying them all as racist hillbillies. 

Norma Rae (1979) dir. Martin Ritt

It’s hard for me to imagine not liking a film about rural American AND union organizing. And, when I finally watched the film recently, I was not disappointed. The movie takes a structure of a sweet almost-rom com mixed with a kitchen sink drama, and the results gave Sally Field a unique role which she knocks out of the park. 

Northern Exposure (1990-1996)

Perhaps because it is not streaming anywhere, probably because it came out around the same time as Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure is one of those shows that goes underappreciated today (NOTE: I omit Twin Peaks as a rural show because it takes place in David Lynch’s mind).

Northern Exposure is the story of a Manhattan doctor (Rob Morrow) who gets assigned to be the physician to the remote Alaskan town of Cicely, Alaska, by a program that agrees to pay off his medical school debts. The show is quirky, often verging into magical realism, with characters like a philosophical talk radio host, a former astronaut, and an immortal(?) bartender. It’s great.

Hell or High Water (2016) dir. David Mackenzie

Taylor Sheridan is probably the greatest chronicler of rural life working in Hollywood today, and in my opinion, Hell or High Water is his best-written work to date. The story of two desperate brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who turn to bank robbing is structurally perfect and balances the beauty of small-town life and its challenges with ease and grace.

Waiting for Guffman (1996) dir. Christopher Guest

If you have ever done small-town community theater, you simply must watch this film to relive your high school trauma while dying laughing.

Honorable Mentions:

Before I go, I want to address a few apparent exclusions before I am taken to task in the comments. Gilmore Girls doesn’t exactly take place in rural America because Stars Hollow is clearly a tourist destination for New Yorkers and Bostonians and attracts an urbane crowd. What’s Eating Gilbert Grapebarely misses the cut for me. I think it is hard to tell if Dazed and Confused is set in the suburbs or the country. Fargo is

set in the city of Fargo, and the TV series is set in the city as often as it is in the country, so it doesn’t count. And finally, I am told Harlan County, USA, is the best documentary about rural America, but I haven’t seen it. 

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