Headin’ Down To Hooterville: A Look at PETTICOAT JUNCTION

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, as promised, I’m sharing more thoughts on Petticoat Junction (1963-1970, CBS), the middle series in Paul Henning’s rural trilogy and the only one not getting full Sitcom Tuesday treatment here. This is because, quite honestly, it’s not as strong as either The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971, CBS) or Green Acres (1965-1971, CBS) and if I gave it the same attention I’d be implying an equality that doesn’t exist. However, the show is relevant to our Hillbillies understanding, because not only did the two series intersect narratively during their runs — along with Green Acres — they also came to share a universe that Petticoat essentially created when it introduced us to Hooterville.

Petticoat Junction was developed by Paul Henning for wonderful character actress Bea Benaderet, who was then stealing scenes as Cousin Pearl on the first season of the creator’s smash hit, The Beverly Hillbillies —  a series so popular that CBS network president Jim Aubrey was willing to greenlight anything from Henning that had a similar aesthetic. And indeed, with a regard for “hayseed” simplicity and a belief in the basic goodness of country folk in contrast to those from the city, Petticoat was obvious kin to Hillbillies when it premiered during the latter’s second season, but it claimed a much more low-concept premise — no “fish out of water” construct. In fact, it’s really just a domestic sitcom set in a workplace mostly inhabited by a family: Kate Bradley (Benaderet), the widowed proprietor of a small country hotel at a water stop for The Hooterville Cannonball (an isolated train running between Hooterville and Pixley), her cranky-but-lovable Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan), and her three daughters — played by six different actresses over the seven seasons but in the beginning by Linda Kaye (Henning) as tomboy Betty Jo, Pat Woodell as bookish Bobbie Jo, and Jeannine Riley (who replaced Sharon Tate shortly before filming commenced) as flirtatious Billie Jo. Recurring support came from Rufe Davis and Smiley Burnette as the operators of the Cannonball, and Frank Cady as the owner of Hooterville’s General Store. From this design, it should be obvious that Petticoat was built with less inherent conflict — and therefore less comedy — for unlike on Hillbillies or Acres, which juxtapose the city and the country directly in their ensembles, all of Petticoat‘s regulars are of the same rural world. Accordingly, in order to find story, this series would have to rely more on the depictions of the characters themselves, instead of how they fit within the premise.

I’m afraid to say this is another place where Petticoat deviates from its cousins, for with the possible exception of Uncle Joe, whose role is driven by Buchanan’s persona, none of the other regulars have firm characterizations that motivate, or at the least, inspire stories with consistency. Kate, a star part that allows the talented Benaderet to showcase ample warmth and humanity, is written with no flaws or even quirks, so she sadly never gets the big laughs Cousin Pearl frequently provided on Hillbillies. As for the girls, they all three start with beautifully delineated personalities, established in Henning’s smart and efficient opening script, but each of their characterizations get diluted over time — a consequence, perhaps, of the revolving door of actresses (with naturally shifting strengths). Yet this can’t be blamed solely on that, for even in the first few years before there are any switcheroos, the specificity that made the Clampetts so comedically identifiable is blurry at best. Again, this is in spite of Henning’s initial teleplay, which introduces Kate’s girls with laudable precision and is a fine half hour of comedy all the way around, for it also manages to invoke his guiding thesis of the city vs. the country via a nemesis for Kate in Charles Lane’s Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive determined to shut down the train/hotel. And with an opening four-episode-arc about Homer’s failed attempts to do so (stymied by his boss, played by Roy Roberts), we want to presume a regular drama for the series — it’s the little country hotel vs. the big city meanie. But Homer isn’t around every week — he’s not a regular — and even though ten appearances here in this first season seems like a lot, it’s not enough to hang the series’ primary conflict on his inclusion, particularly when the law of diminishing returns takes hold, as the same story template is repeated so often that the initial charge of comic tension grows less and less powerful (hence his dwindling use).

What’s more, even if one attempts to extrapolate a broader drama — the hotel vs. the world — it’s not played enough in weekly plot to be viable, which means that, in addition to the premise lacking conflict, the series is never able to cultivate a dilemma as utilizable as Acres’ or Hillbillies‘. And with minimal conflict, the stories are less inspired, having to rely more on weekly ideas that, unsurprisingly — because the characters are minimally comedic as a function of minimal definition — aren’t comedically dynamic either. The overall result, then, is that Petticoat Junction is only a satisfying sitcom if warmth is considered a legitimate substitute for its com. I generally don’t think it is, and Petticoat especially disappoints when measured alongside the other Henning shows and their immediately palpable comic returns, no matter how much we like Benaderet, the catchy theme song, or those very pretty girls… However, the series isn’t a total wash. For one, the characters don’t heighten because they don’t have a high concept forcing them to heighten, meaning the leaps in logic are fewer (of course, so are the laughs…) And then, Petticoat does do something sincerely brilliant — it facilitates a shared universe for all three of Henning’s efforts: Hooterville. This town and its kooky populace is part of the package from the start (and is first mentioned in a 1962 Hillbillies episode), but it doesn’t really gain traction in story until Petticoat‘s second season when head writer Jay Sommers takes the reins from Dick Wesson and begins expanding the comic possibilities of the sleepier first year, which instead did more with the regular characters because, to be fair, it benefited from their clearest depictions. That’s right; even though they’re weaker than they were in the strong debut, the opening year remains the best showcase for the characters Henning created. But they need help, and Wesson’s story ideas are not as funny as they’d been on Hillbillies, so when Sommers takes over in Two and institutes a broader narrative and comedic scope, there’s an immediate uptick in quality. (In case you’ve forgotten, Sommers is the guy who would go on to shepherd the third show in the Henning trio, Green Acres, which he created based on his own 1950 radio comedy called Granby’s Green Acres — starring Benaderet. His boisterous sense of humor elevates all his work.)

The second season is my pick for the series’ finest, for Sommers immediately goes to town building out the show’s world, first by introducing a dog (Higgins) to the ensemble — Hillbillies used many animals, but making a specific creature a cast member in its own right presages what Green Acres would do with Arnold Ziffel (whose parents, it should be noted, were around in Petticoat‘s first year) — and then by dedicating more story to Hooterville and its residents, including a busybody rival for Kate named Selma Plout (Virginia Sale). This goes a long way in providing Petticoat Junction more story opportunities, while also setting the table for Sommers’ next series. Additionally, Two also boasts five appearances from Homer Bedloe — his most after One — and the three iterations of the Bradley girls who, simply by their proximity to Henning’s initial conception of them, have the most personality. In other words, then, this is the year that best displays the series’ strengths, with an air of progression and exploration that’s a valuable, optimistic engine. Season Three is another strong one by these standards — almost on par with Two — for although Sommers goes off to create and oversee Green Acres, he also stays on as Petticoat‘s head scribe too, putting his name on fewer scripts but obviously remaining a part of the story-generating and dialogue-polishing. And because Sommers was able to set Acres in Hooterville, the first season of his new series and the third season of Petticoat enjoy frequent crossovers — with Sam Drucker becoming a major recurring presence on both — and this yields a continuity of people and place that aids both shows and gives them more comedic depth. In fact, Petticoat becomes slightly zanier and more laugh-seeking as a result, shedding an ounce of its humor-subjugating warmth in mimicry of the always funny Acres. If there’s any drawback to Three, it’s that new cast members Lori Saunders as Bobbie Jo and Gunilla Hutton as Billie Jo end up losing their characters — Bobbie Jo becomes less intelligent and more ditsy (per Saunders’ presence) and Hutton’s Billie Jo becomes less of a sexpot, more of a straight shooter. And they all, Betty Jo included, become less distinguishable.

Season Four, the first not yet on DVD (as of 2020), sees bigger changes. Sommers gave up his position to focus on Acres exclusively and is succeeded by Charles Stewart, the former Danny Thomas, Real McCoys, and Andy Griffith writer who stays in charge for the rest of the run and definitely has an understanding of comedic story and character, but doesn’t push Petticoat to improve itself in the same way Sommers did. Four shares script contributions from some of the prior two years’ best authors, but from here on out, most credits belong to Stewart and Dick Conway (The Life Of Riley, Leave It To Beaver, The Munsters), with a sense of sameness becoming pervasive. Fortunately, Four isn’t all bland, and actually, I think it’s the last solid season, for although there’s another casting swap — Meredith MacRae becomes the third and final Billie Jo — which really pivots the show away from character (she has none) and into a more folksy, homespun affair with one part comedy and one part music, the decision to introduce Mike Minor as Steve Elliott, initially a possible (and maybe spin-off-able) love interest for Billie Jo, shows an understanding that Petticoat is in need of some conceptual evolution. Meanwhile, with Elvia Allman joining the recurring cast as the new version of Selma Plout, there remains a foundation of dramatic integrity connecting the series with its origins and contrasting it favorably against the years ahead. For Season Five is a precipitous descent — not only does Bea Benaderet miss ten episodes in the latter half due to a cancer diagnosis, thereby removing the series’ anchor and its only actual star, the stories are also commandeered by the real-life romance between Linda Kaye Henning and Mike Minor, which was written into the show for them, ratcheting up the sweet sentimentality that displaces humor and allows predictable plot beats to supplant any attempt at suggesting characterizations. And again, the girls’ personalities continue to evaporate (while the two train operators are phased out shortly after Burnette’s 1967 death).

From here, it’s a downward trajectory. Benaderet came back for the sixth season in the fall of 1968, but was only able to appear fully in two episodes, and then briefly in two more, before she bowed out permanently and passed away. She’s a big loss. Just before her death, the series scrambled to replace her, settling on June Lockhart (from Lassie) as a “lady doctor” who sets up shop in the hotel. But with even less of a personality than Kate and no Paul Henning scripting her one, Lockhart’s use in the final two seasons epitomizes the series’ reputation for blandness. It’s also during this year that The Beverly Hillbillies begins crossing over into the Hooterville Valley, for after short stints in early ’68 where Benaderet’s absence was filled by both Rosemary DeCamp and Shirley Mitchell, Petticoat knew it needed help, turning to the highest rated of the Henning trilogy and calling on Granny to pop in and care for the Elliotts’ new baby (oh, yeah, they thought a baby would help things — it doesn’t), which begets several holiday crossovers and an intertwining of all three shows that would continue into the next season. Unfortunately, Hillbillies is also by now in decline and can’t do much to help Petticoat, which reaches its seventh premiere after rejecting a cliffhanger that poised the Elliotts to have another baby. Actually, the 1969-’70 season wanted to try moving away from the series’ gentle, cornpone reputation to become more adult and contemporary, and no new kids were wanted. In addition to stories about timely real-world issues, like the Vietnam War and Women’s Liberation, the year also tries giving the other two Bradley girls recurring boyfriends, one of whom is Orrin (Jonathan Daly), the bumbling game warden. As expected, it’s a bust, and these modern topics are handled with as much realism and depth as they are on the other Henning shows — which is to say, none at all — and their inclusion here feels like an insult to our intelligence, especially when they do nothing to improve the series, and frankly, make it worse: a place where character doesn’t exist and comedic story, the only thing that could sustain the show right now, is harder to find. Like Henning’s other rural comedies, Petticoat fades out on a weak, shell-of-its-former-self note.

Now, I took you through my thoughts on the series’ trajectory to illustrate the consequences of both ill-defined characters, forever the single biggest problem for any situation comedy, and a concept that doesn’t have abundant story-offering conflict, which was necessary for almost every sitcom in the premise-led 1960s. This is in contrast to both The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, which excelled at either character or premise but really had both in decent supply. Petticoat Junction then is deservedly the forgotten middle child of the trio, even if it should get credit for the important Hooterville link. As of this publication, the series is not yet released in full on DVD, allegedly because of music rights issues in the later years, but also probably because it’s just not as popular — it isn’t now and it wasn’t then. It decreased in viewership with every passing season — not after the move from Tuesdays to Saturdays and the death of Benaderet, but even before that, when it was behind Red Skelton, which improved its numbers every year while Petticoat went in the opposite direction. To wit, many look at Petticoat‘s cancellation in 1970 as the start of the Rural Purge, a programming development that, as we’ve studied here, was as much about profitability in the wake of the constricting Prime Time Access Rule as it was the commonly held belief that CBS was rejecting its mainstream viewers for young, progressive urbanites. But Petticoat was on the bubble the year before it was cancelled, and when it was finally axed in ’70, it was, on the whole, the least commercially successful of the Henning trilogy, despite its Nielsens finally becoming stable in its last few seasons. And from a creative standpoint, with characters who lacked dimension (heck, most had zero personality) and stories that were light on conflict and comedy, it was never one of the decade’s best. So, there aren’t many truly great episodes comparable to Hillbillies’. However, because I had to watch the entire series to provide this commentary, below is a no-frills bullet point list of 60 outings that I would consider highlighting if I thought Petticoat Junction deserved full weekly coverage.

SEASON ONE (1963-1964)

  • Episode 1: “Spur Line To Shady Rest” (09/24/63) — establishes characters
  • Episode 2: “Quick, Hide The Railroad” (10/01/63) — funniest Bedloe show
  • Episode 6: “Please Buy My Violets” (10/29/63) — strong first Fred Ziffel scene
  • Episode 9: “The Little Train Robbery” (11/19/63) — ensemble show, solid script
  • Episode 10: “Bedloe Strikes Again” (11/26/63) — Bedloe still novel
  • Episode 14: “Cannonball Christmas” (12/24/63) — sample of series’ warmth
  • Episode 20: “Last Chance Farm” (02/04/64) — amusing scheming Joe premise
  • Episode 27: “The Ladybugs” (03/24/64) — Beatles parody, Sullivan tie-in
  • Episode 30: “Kate And The Dowager” (04/14/64) — guest Doris Packer
  • Episode 34: “Bedloe And Son” (05/12/64) — Steve Franken as Bedloe’s son

SEASON TWO (1964-1965)

  • Episode 39: “Betty Jo’s Dog” (09/22/64) — debut of Higgins as the Dog
  • Episode 43: “As Hooterville Goes” (10/27/64) — fine small-town show
  • Episode 45: “The Great Buffalo Hunt” (11/17/64) — see Sommers’ broader style
  • Episode 47: “Bedloe’s Nightmare” (12/01/64) — the year’s best Bedloe show
  • Episode 51: “Smoke-Eaters” (01/05/65) — playing with Hooterville ensemble
  • Episode 55: “A Matter Of Communication” (02/02/65) — Arnold Ziffel’s debut
  • Episode 56: “Kate Bradley, Girl Volunteer” (02/09/65) — comic centerpiece
  • Episode 61: “A Borderline Story” (03/16/65) — likable premise, small-town-y
  • Episode 65: “Bedloe’s Most Fiendish Scheme” (04/13/65) — each lead shines
  • Episode 69: “The Chicken Killer” (05/11/65) — VERY much like Green Acres
  • Episode 73: “The Hairbrained Scheme” (06/08/65) — funny Joe scheme 

SEASON THREE (1965-1966)

  • Episode 75: “Dear Minerva” (09/14/65) — Kate as star, fine use of Sam
  • Episode 76: “The Baffling Raffle” (09/21/65) — Uncle Joe as comic engine
  • Episode 77: “The Dog Turns Playboy” (09/28/65) — Dog used like Arnold
  • Episode 79: “Joe Carson, General Contractor” (10/12/65) — Acres crossover
  • Episode 84: “Betty Jo Goes To New York” (11/23/65) — city vs. country
  • Episode 86: “The Crowded Wedding Ring” (12/07/65) — sweet, funny for Kate
  • Episode 96: “Jury At The Shady Rest” (02/15/66) — amusing hotel premise
  • Episode 97: “The Invisible Mr. Dobble” (02/22/66) — Green Acres-esque
  • Episode 100: “The Windfall” (03/15/66) — Uncle Joe shines, fun fantasy scene
  • Episode 105: “Every Bachelor Should Have A Family” (04/19/66) — discord?
  • Episode 106: “The Young Matchmakers” (04/26/66) — Kate’s great, Gabor too

SEASON FOUR (1966-1967)

  • Episode 110: “Birdman Of Shady Rest” (09/20/66) — first entry with Steve
  • Episode 115: “Kate Grounds Selma Plout” (10/25/66) — Elvia Allman debuts
  • Episode 116: “The Almost Annual Charity Show” (11/01/66) — more Selma
  • Episode 117: “How Bugged Was My Valley” (11/15/66) — more scheming Joe
  • Episode 134: “Author! Author!” (03/28/67) — Kate does beatnik bit
  • Episode 136: “That Was The Night That Was” (04/11/67) — wacky, Acres-ish
  • Episode 138: “Kate’s Cousin Mae” (04/25/67) — Shirley Mitchell as Mae 

SEASON FIVE (1967-1968)

  • Episode 141: “Is This My Daughter? ” (09/09/67) — again, city vs. country
  • Episode 142: “It’s Not Easy To Be A Mother” (09/16/67) — Kate as center
  • Episode 143: “One Dozen Roses” (09/23/67) — Eb as Betty’s secret admirer
  • Episode 147: “Mind If We Join Your Wedding?” (10/21/67) — ensemble fun
  • Episode 149: “With This Gown I Thee Wed” (11/04/67) — the big wedding
  • Episode 154: “Kate’s Day In Court” (12/09/67) — focus on Kate, town
  • Episode 157: “All Sales Final” (12/30/67) — funny script, good use of Kate

SEASON SIX (1968-1969)

  • Episode 174: “The Valley Has A Baby” (10/26/68) — the birth show, bittersweet
  • Episode 175: “Granny, The Baby Expert” (11/02/68) — Granny brings big hahas
  • Episode 177: “The Lady Doctor” (11/16/68) — first with Dr. Janet Craig
  • Episode 182: “A Cake From Granny” (12/21/68) — Homer’s last, drunk cake bit
  • Episode 183: “The Feminine Mistake” (12/28/68) — Lori Saunders’ best
  • Episode 188: “The Cannonball Bookmobile” (02/01/69) — Betty White guests
  • Episode 194: “The Great Race” (03/15/69) — amiable premise, Joe and train

SEASON SEVEN (1969-1970)

  • Episode 197: “Make Room For Baby” (09/27/69) — sweet show for Dog
  • Episode 199: “The Other Woman” (10/11/69) — Haney crosses over
  • Episode 205: “A Most Momentous Occasion” (11/22/69) — Haney again
  • Episode 209: “The Golden Spike Ceremony” (12/20/69) — Hillbillies gag
  • Episode 215: “Steve’s Uncle George” (01/31/70) — Don Ameche in fun role
  • Episode 218: “Whiplash, Whiplash” (02/28/70) — best Selma showcase
  • Episode 219: “Last Train To Pixley” (03/07/70) — unofficial series finale




Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned for more Beverly Hillbillies!