[23 March 2005]
The Dukes of Hazzard captured a certain cultural zeitgeist during its run (1979-1985). Creator Gy Waldron traced the exploits of a family who fight corrupt politicians and sheriffs in the Deep South. Embracing NASCAR, stunt driving, and short shorts, the series had such a good time being ridiculous that it was often fun to tag along.
The Complete First Season DVD joins a slew of recent media attention. The upcoming 2005 film version—starring Jessica Simpson, Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, and Willie Nelson as Uncle Jesse—has generated serious buzz. (Criminally, the film has also prompted a duet between the stupendously talented Nelson and the offensively mediocre Simpson.) Hitching a ride on this bandwagon, CMT is rerunning series episodes every weeknight. Attached to a promotional sweepstakes where you can apply to be the “Vice President, CMT Dukes of Hazzard Institute” for one year, a $100,000 job that involves sitting on your stock-car-lovin’ ass… I mean, writing a blog, talking to the media, and watching the program religiously.
To prepare, you might check out this DVD set, which reminds us that the show actually skewered stereotypes about country bumpkins and rednecks. Dukes worked against those assumptions that Hee Haw actually represented country culture, rather than just being the most famous cornpone satire. Like Hee Haw, in fact, Dukes simultaneously celebrated and satirized all things country.
The first hint is Waylon Jennings’ role as balladeer/narrator; his famous theme song was part of the Outlaw country movement. The song tells us the boys are like “modern-day Robin Hoods,” fighting bad police and big business, sticking up for the small fry farmer. Like Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Good Country People,” the series teaches that every time someone assumes the bumpkin is stupid, he or she will get burned by a little country ingenuity. The Dukes are tricksters, from erstwhile moonshiner Uncle Jesse (Denver Pyle) to his charges, big blond Bo (Schneider), NASCAR-obsessed Luke (Tom Wopat), and Daisy (Catherine Bach).
The three-disc set includes the 13 first season episodes, commentary by Schneider and Bach for the first episode, and a reunion documentary, “The Twentieth-Anniversary Hazzard County Barbecue,” which consists of a conversation among most of the cast. The documentary is the real treat. We learn that James Best, a respected acting teacher who played Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane, agreed to do the show because the plan was to shoot on location in Conyers, Georgia. Though production moved to L.A. after the first five episodes, his castmates agree with Best that the first few installments establish a strong sense of place that advanced characterizations and storylines. Schneider says, “These are people you know. And you know them right from the beginning.”
One extra considers the car (which received over half the fan mail) and a preview of a video game based on the car, “The Dukes of Hazzard: Return of the General Lee,” too brief to be of much interest. Another featurette focuses on NASCAR drivers Matt Kenseth and Rusty Wallace, who dissect the driving, going so far as to say the show inspired them to race. Everyone loves the 1969 Dodge Charger and the stunts, highly innovative for the time. Indeed, diehard fans gather each year for a Dukes reunion festival.
If the episodes don’t exactly explain such devotion, they do provide raucously escapist entertainment, featuring cheerfully uncomplicated plotlines and cartoony characters. Repeatedly, the Dukes run up against diminutive Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), who rules the county like a rustic Napoleon in a Mark Twain-style white suit. In “One-Armed Bandits,” they thwart the sheriff’s (Best) attempts to funnel slot machine profits to his election; in “Repo Men,” they try to rebuild their engine and end up stopping counterfeiters; and in “Money to Burn,” the boys stop Boss Hogg from framing them for his embezzlement.
Amid the antics, the series also offers life lessons, such as: just because a federal agent means to arrest you doesn’t mean you can’t invite him to dinner; it’s fun to slide across the car hood; and it’s good to have a friend with a tow truck and a blow torch. While reductive, those folksy sentiments also generate humor. As the owner of said truck, meanwhile, trusty mechanic Cooter (Ben Jones, who went on in real life to become a two-term U.S. Congressman from Georgia) is like a backwoods Puck, always ready for a little mayhem, but he sometimes comes across as more disturbing than charming, a character study in alcoholic bath-avoidance. In the documentary, Jones recalls his method acting (he didn’t wash his clothes, to stay in character) and argues, apparently without irony, that the show “taught generations of kids how to behave.”
Given its setting—fictional Hazzard County is somewhere “within driving distance of Atlanta”—the series can’t help but engage the South’s troubled past and present. At once preserving folk culture and condemning slavery and racism, it maintains a somewhat delicate balance, for the most part. But Dukes also takes up particularly divisive Southern tropes, like the Confederate flag and Dixie horn tones on the “General Lee” car. The cheesecake quotient is also high: Daisy supports female stock car drivers and women’s rights, but she’s a sex object, straight-up.
What holds up better here is a populist resistance to the Man, or the Boss. Ultimately the series can be entertaining if you can appreciate its kitsch, including its affection for Smokey and the Bandit. The Dukes invoke Burt Reynolds’ name reverentially, tipping their cowboy hats to him and grinning like crazy, making him their mad inspiration. Just like Reynolds, the series is often great fun precisely because it’s so absurd.