Is there no shame? Is there no shame? In network television, no. If television can return to "Gilligan's Island," then there is nothing beneath which it will not stoop, a point proven to a dour new turn tonight with "Return of the Beverly Hillbillies," a two-hour tragedy of errors at 9 on Channel 9.
The cornerstone of the onerous Aubrey era of CBS success in the '60s, "Hillbillies" (1962-1971) was not really such a terrible show -- though it isn't hard to comprehend how its charm was lost on some people -- but it led to a mass outbreak of moron rube-tubism. Both "Petticoat Junction" and the even lamer "Green Acres" were spun off "Hillbillies" by producer Paul Henning, who wrote tonight's painfully embarrassing exhumation.
What the original show had going for it was a certain zest for making rich people look foolish and poor people look smart (a pretty respectable American comic tradition), and Irene Ryan, the longtime vaudeville and movie performer who found the role of her career in Granny, the boisterous and big-hearted Clampett family matriarch. Ryan died in 1973 after sharing her success with young actors and actresses through a scholarship fund.
Without Granny, and without the old insouciance, the show is nothing. From the original cast, Buddy Ebsen returns as Jed, "the poor mountaineer," to quote the original title tune, "who barely kept his family fed" until one day when he discovered oil on his property and moved to "the hills of Bever-lee." Donna Douglas, looking disturbingly thrashed, returns as Elly May and Nancy Kulp reprises her role as Jane Hathaway, whom the script insists has ended up with the Department of Energy. This could kill it faster than Reagan can.
The nominal plot has the government trying to get hold of Granny's old white lightning recipe as a possible alternative energy source.
Other roles have been inherited by other actors: Linda Kaye Henning, the producer's daughter, once Betty Jo on "Junction," plays secretary to Jethro, formerly played by Max Baer Jr. and now by an oafish Ray Young; Werner Klemperer (of "Hogan's Heroes") plays a pompous bureaucrat and Imogene Coca is cruelly humiliated as Granny's "Maw." She is running an old folks' home so sternly that Kulp exclaims, "Auschwitz!," which Maw mistakes for a sneeze. This is one of the points where Henning's script departs from senility for simple tastelessness.
The title tune isn't sung until the final credits, where it is updated to say, "and if you should come back again, the door will have no latch," so as to clear the way for future reunions. The heck with the latch -- get out the deadbolt locks and chains. This door must never be opened again.