I waited a few weeks after the debut of the new ABC sitcom set in rural Nebraska - “Bless This Mess” - to write my review of the program in hopes that it would get better. It hasn’t.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good show if you enjoy watching Nebraskans depicted as flannel shirt-wearin’, tobacco chewin’, watermelon seed-spittin’, cousin-kissin’, outdoor pissin’ rubes who are wholly disinterested in anything not having to do with crops, cows and...well, that’s it, just crops and cows.
The super unsophisticated hick stereotypes fairly leap off the screen in “Bless This Mess.” I’m pretty sure the producers believe that the state motto is “Keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant.” (Which would be a slight improvement over our “Nebraska: Honestly It’s Not for Everyone” tourism slogan.)
The people responsible for the show seem to believe that Nebraskans have no inkling what’s going on beyond the borders of the state. They also think Nebraskans are caught in a time warp driving trucks and wearing clothes from the 1970s. I remember when Hollywood depicted Russians and Cubans in this manner. Now we’ve joined that select company - Russians, Cubans and Nebraskans.
Being a hairstylist on “Bless This Mess” is the easiest job in Hollywood. You just give everybody the worst haircut imaginable. “We’ll call this the ‘Nebraska Cut.’”
Of course it’s not often we see anybody’s hair since every single man in Nebraska constantly wears a ball cap as if we’re some giant baseball team.
In the premiere episode a couple, played by Dax Shepard, a talented comedic actor, and his wife, Lake Bell, relocate from New York City to Nebraska because they want to lead a slower lifestyle. They move into an inherited farmhouse with a hole in the roof. Picture “Green Acres” minus the laughs. The episode peaks when the wife comes face-to-face with a cow and freaks out as if it were a rabid rhinoceros in heat about to mount her. (Which would’ve made for a better show.)
Our first clue of the comedic stereotyping that was to come occurred earlier in the premiere when the wife told her mother she and hubby were moving to Nebraska with the inflection on “Nebraska” similar to if she said they were going to Neptune.
In promotional materials the producers claim the program is actually making fun of the New Yorkers, which it is, as they’re portrayed as morons with the IQ’s of cornbread. But nobody comes out of this well. The Nebraskans on the show are dirt-caked hyper-disturbed weirdos who always seem as if they’re about to crack and shout out the location of where all the bodies are buried.
Weirdest of all is Ed Begley Jr., a broke, divorced man who lives in Dax and Lake’s barn with a goat named after his ex-wife. He speaks in a flat, halting “Nebraska monotone.” He’s supposed to be charmingly eccentric but comes off more like a skinny John Wayne Gacy pre-arrest.
Episode two centered around the New Yorker wife being invited to a potluck lunch by a farm wife who seems to be full of abject hatred for everybody and everything. To win over her new neighbors the New Yorker wife proceeds to get drunk at the potluck which doesn’t work so well. The Nebraskans were already skeptical since she’s wearing clothes that look like they were purchased in the past ten years and didn’t come from a yard sale at Larry The Cable Guy’s place.
Lest anyone label me a city boy who’s unfamiliar with rural Nebraska I was born on a farm outside Columbus and while we moved to Omaha when I was young all four of my grandparents lived on farms where I spent my summers. So I know our farmers aren’t all monosyllabic schizophrenics.
“Bless This Mess” does have its moments. The first episode ended with everybody in the town of Buck-Snort (I’m not making that up) coming to the aid of the New Yorkers when rain moves in. They all pitch in to help plug the hole in the roof. The show got that right. It’s pure Nebraska - everyone showing up to help in a time of need.
Unfortunately producers took a giant step backward by naming the town Buck-Snort. It’s a terrible name and I write that as a man who once spent an evening (or was it a month?) in an actual Nebraska town called Worms.
I can only imagine the rejected names before Buck-Snort was chosen. I’m guessing they’d be “Dung Acres,” “Crab Corners” and “Moo.”
It’s all pretty frustrating because the premise has great promise. So many people these days want to escape the hustle of the big city, simplify their lives and move to a place with a slower pace. But the creative team behind the show clearly doesn’t get the Great Plains or its people who would seem to be the core audience for “Bless This Mess.”
Perhaps what’s needed is a comedy writer with a Nebraska background. If so I may be available to consult.
The show has had just enough positive moments to make it worth fixing. For example in episode two the New Yorkers get into a legal dispute with a neighbor and during “arbitration” at a kitchen table discover that Buck-Snort is so small their attorney also represents the opposing side. Now that’s inspired.
In episode three the New Yorkers refuse to kill the chickens they’ve raised and that they’ve given names. This was an appealing and funny concept. If only every single Nebraskan in the episode wasn’t portrayed as such an enormous bumpkin.
The “Bless This Mess” creative team probably needs to spend some time in the state, which I am guessing they presently couldn’t find on a map. It’d also help for them to actually meet at least one person from Nebraska. Then they’d realize we’re not all backwoods hicks with borderline personalities stuck in the 1940s. Sure, I’ve just described the current Nebraska Legislature but that’s another column.
Hopefully they’d also realize there aren’t often mountains in the background of Nebraska farms. (These mountains look suspiciously like the ones I once lived behind in Burbank, Calif.) It makes about as much sense as setting “Lawrence of Arabia” on a beach.
By spending some time in the state they are portraying the producers would realize that many of us are intellectual and curious about the world. (Thank you, Facebook!) We’re well-read and one of the most highly educated states in the nation with 44.2 percent of us having college degrees. That includes many college grads who choose to live in the rural part of the state.
Many Nebraskans also speak in complete sentences and have passable grammar. Some of us have even been spotted in public sans ball cap containing a tractor logo.
Rural Nebraska has produced a number of scientists, best selling authors and several acclaimed poets. But you’d never know that from the show. Personally, I’m just waiting for the episode where a citizen marries a sheep.
Another thing that's completely unrealistic: the series is set in rural Nebraska but so far I haven't seen one meth lab. (Just kidding!)
“Bless This Mess” isn’t the first time Hollywood has portrayed people in Nebraska as hayseeds and it won’t be the last. I know it’s part of the humor. But a little realism might make this sitcom a lot funnier.
Hopefully the creative team will consider my suggestion to spend some time here. Should the producers decide to visit I’d be happy to host them at my house. Just as soon as I fix the hole in the roof.
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Brad Dickson is a former writer for "The Tonight Show," a humor columnist for the Omaha World-Herald newspaper, a best-selling author of two books and a professional speaker. You can find Brad on Twitter at @brad_dickson.
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