The Green Acres Effect

After much delay at the hands of family matters, I’m back on the case of finishing The Amazing Secret of the Castle Omi La for this year’s VBS.

A little bit of history here. The first VBS play I did was The Terrible Misfortune. It was a pirate-themed show. It was influenced by every cliche in every pirate movie I’ve ever seen.

Next came An Unpleasantness At Lonesome Gulch – you guessed it – a wild west themed show inspired by every cliche in every western I’ve ever seen.

In line after that was The Incredible Adventure of the Frozen Man, a pastiche of cliches from the original series of Star Trek.

And for this year? The pre-knights of the roundtable tale named above. And it’s major influence is…

Robin Hood? Nope.

Camelot? Nope.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Nope – and I’m working really hard to keep it that way.

No, the major influence for this year’s show is the redoubtable Green Acres.

(Wait a minute – did he just say Green Acres as if it was something worthy of respect?)

Yes, I did. And here’s why.

While a lot of people saw Green Acres as a “hick show” that went along with a lot of the CBS lineup at the time (The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw), it was quietly subversive by building one of the most surreal universes on television, at least until Twin Peaks came along (and David Lynch may owe some gratitude to GA for making TP possible).

It did this by taking the fish-out-of-water plot (city couple moves to the country) – and after the first few episodes to get everything established, it began to turn things inside out. Lawyer turned farmer Oliver Douglas suddenly found himself (ironically, since he was the one who wanted to make the move) operating in a world whose rules he could never quite comprehend. His ditzy wife, Lisa (who didn’t want to make the move) takes to this new world like a duck to water and understands it perfectly. But Oliver becomes the one voice of sanity in a place where sanity is optional.

After Green Acres, the fish-out-of-water plot was never the same. It was no longer enough to put someone in a strange place. The strange place had to have its own set of rules, to a point where reality became stretched rather thin. Hence the groundwork is set for Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure and… well, I’m sure there might have been a couple of others, but I’m not that big a TV watcher.

Granted, this idea of the misplaced fish is not a new one. Jonathan Swift and Aldous Huxley used the fish-out-of-water to great effect in their respective satires to point out the foibles of society as they saw them. The difference between them and Green Acres is that they used Gulliver and John Savage as why characters, a character that exists so the new world can be explained without resorting to clumsy dialogue and exposition. What made Green Acres so subversive is that the good folks of that universe never offered any explanation as to why it was the way it was. It simply existed that way and it was good enough for them. If Oliver Wendall Douglas couldn’t quite fit in or figure things out, that was his problem.

All of this extends its influence into my current VBS play to the point where characters veer off into an argument over subatomic particles “which haven’t even been discovered yet”, but most folks just seem to know about. There’s a goofy inventor who was consciously based on Hank Kimble, the scatterbrained county agent. And there are not one but two waterless fish – the young man who has come to claim his inheritance, and the nasty King who is blocking his way. Although while the newcomer is only moderately bewildered by some of the goings on in his would-be kingdom, it is the king who suffers the most by trying to get his subjects to conform to what his idea of medieval squalor should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit much for a bunch of grade school kids. But there’s enough slapstick and other goofy gags to make them happy, just like in all my other productions.

In the meantime, if you’re called on to discuss a novel or movie where one person is just unable to fit in with a universe that is becoming increasingly bizarre, you can throw a spanner into the works by insisting that the influence is not Swift or Huxley – but rather Green Acres.

And judging from the limited and under-educated viewpoint of many, many writers out there, you’d probably be right.


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