I’ve been known to sit through several editions of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” and not laugh once. (That was especially true this past season.) The same can be said of most sitcoms (with the notable exception of CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory”). But I don’t think I have ever watched an episode of “Green Acres” and not cracked up several times -- particularly during those stories that center on Arnold the pig.
I remember enjoying “Green Acres” when I was a little kid. I was likely responding more to the visual and occasional physical comedy in the show than to the writing and the performances, which I appreciate more in adulthood than ever before.
Some folks (including a few close friends) have suggested that my renewed fondness for “Green Acres” (now available on Antenna TV) is an indication that I’m regressing. But I think that as an adult I’m enjoying it in an entirely different way. The considerable comic talents of everyone who was involved in the making of this classic show are formidable -- especially series leads Eddie Albert as frequently flustered Oliver Douglas, a former high-powered New York City attorney seeking a simpler, easier life on a farm in far-flung Hooterville, and Eva Gabor as his wife Lisa, a lovingly dim, displaced Park Avenue socialite who sees only the good in people and cheerfully supports her husband’s doomed efforts to enjoy the “countryside,” as it is called in the show’s theme song.
A word about that timeless tune -- it rarely (if ever) turns up on lists of the all-time best TV theme songs. It is so much fun to listen to -- even hundreds of times later -- that it belongs right at the top, along with the opening songs of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Dallas,” “Bewitched,” “Get Smart,” “Friends,” “The Sopranos” and “Phyllis,” among others. (Yes, I said “Phyllis,” the short-lived “MTM” spinoff starring Cloris Leachman. Watch it on YouTube and hear for yourself.)
The great thing about Oliver Douglas is that even though he has essentially forced Lisa to give up the life she loves and live in a ramshackle house on a farm with a leaking roof, a phone that sits high up on a pole and little room for her lavish Park Avenue wardrobe, there is never a moment of doubt that he absolutely adores his wife.
Similarly, the ditzy and delightful Lisa virtually glows with affection whenever she is near her spouse, even when they argue. I’ll admit this may have something to do with the luminous Gabor, unarguably one of the most strikingly beautiful women ever cast in a television series. And then there are her comic talents -- to this day, watching Lisa dutifully make hotcakes that stick to the ceiling or pour coffee with the consistency of maple syrup gets me every time. Nobody garbles the language quite like dear Mrs. Douglas; just listening to her is often uproarious and always charming. The radiant Gabor makes even the silliest situation work to great comic effect, without a hint of easy irony or smug self-satisfaction. I would put her in a class with Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore and Jean Stapleton. Is there a comedic actress on television today who is doing what these women did and whose work will continue to entertain millions of viewers many decades from now?
Every member of the rather large supporting cast is equally fine, somehow making the goofiest circumstances and most ridiculous dialogue work every time. That’s the kind of talent that producers had to work with from among the extraordinary character actors of yesteryear, now something of a dying breed. Most importantly -- and, in truth, remarkably -- they portray the kind of characters often mocked in modern media -- simple, earnest folks who don’t have much of an education -- without ever inviting the audience to laugh at them in a derisive way. “Green Acres” is a judgment-free zone.
When two or more of these characters are together in a scene, riffing off each other, often misunderstanding each other and propelling the comic energy of the moment, I sometimes think I am watching a comedy sketch in which every line is a gem, every performer is hitting his or her mark and the timing is flawless.
These attributes are even more impressive when the focus is on Arnold. How did these people ever play this material off a pig and get through takes without breaking up? I’ll bet they rarely flubbed a line.
I just watched a two-part episode in which Arnold was thought to be heir to a $20 million fortune. The story took Oliver, Lisa, their feeble farmhand Eb and the self-assured Arnold to Chicago to meet with a lawyer and determine whether Arnold was about to become the wealthiest farm animal in history. Even in episodes like this one that were more absurd than usual and played out in foreign settings -- and even when they were populated by guest actors (in this case most of them playing hotel employees who were fawning over Arnold, insisting that he stay in their finest suite and helping him throw a party for the hotel’s appreciative maids) nobody missed a beat. Members of the guest cast were as comfortably and convincingly nutty as the regulars.
This show also looks fantastic, with a color palette unlike that of any other series I can recall. Pay close attention to Lisa’s wardrobe and the furnishings from their Park Avenue apartment that are now crammed into their Hooterville fixer-upper. You’ll see colors you may never have seen before, at least on television.
“Green Acres” doesn’t simply belong on a list of the funniest comedies in television history, or one of shows with the most memorable theme songs. It also belongs high atop that long list of wonderful series from TV’s past that would never be made today -- not even for one of the so-called young-persons’ networks. Indeed, it’s not simply the sad fact that no network or studio would try to make a show like this; I don’t believe they could even if they wanted to.
I felt a chill writing that last sentence. It must have been the spirit of NBC’s short-lived “Animal Practice” reaching out from the vast TV boneyard to acknowledge my sentiment.