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Dramas try to repair stereotypes

'Friday Night' offers realistic portrayal of the South

Primetime television has done little to deprogram viewers conditioned to associate a Southern accent with some sort of mental defect, although a handful of shows are fighting the stereotypes.

“Television just doesn’t get the South,” says Knoxville News Sentinel TV critic Terry Morrow. “The writers just don’t understand Southern people in particular. … Southern characters are still written as these unsophisticated backwards idiots, or they’re these wonderful, naive innocents.”

The universally praised exception is NBC’s unapologetically Southern “Friday Night Lights,” which Morrow calls “the most realistic portrayal of small-town life in the South of any series ever to be on television.”

It’s also one of the only portrayals, realistic or not.

“I’ve always wanted to set a couple of shows in Austin, my hometown, and even despite Austin’s hip reputation, there’s always a reluctance to set a show in the South,” says Rob Thomas, executive producer of “Veronica Mars.”

Thomas says television execs tend to believe “you can (set a show) anywhere in the country and everyone will watch, but go in the South, … and only Southerners will watch.”

Among those few shows centered in the South, the most prominent are played for laughs, such as Fox’s “King of the Hill” and NBC’s “My Name Is Earl” (which parodies Southern accents and sensibilities without necessarily committing to a Southern location).

On the serious side, Fox’s “Prison Break” follows escaped Alabama cons through a series of dusty Southern locales, with a backwoods murderer/rapist as its nastiest villain.

More common is the fish-out-of-water scenario, in which Southern characters are put in a more “cultured” setting (or even an island locale, like Josh Holloway’s Sawyer on ABC’s “Lost”) — almost in an affirmative action way.

“A lot of people in New York, when they hear a Southern accent, probably assume that person is ignorant,” says Georgia native Jack McBrayer, who plays Kenneth on the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” “So I think that gives Kenneth a little bit of power, because half the time he is ignorant, but half the time he does surprise people, which is pretty much how I’ve lived my life.”

The most prominent Southern lead character on television — at least until Oscar winner Holly Hunter’s new TNT series “Saving Grace” debuts in July — might be Brenda Johnson, portrayed by Kyra Sedgwick on TNT’s “The Closer.” Executive producer James Duff, raised in Texas, was a man on a mission when it came to creating Brenda.

“I thought it would be great if, instead of ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ the smartest person in the room had a Southern accent for a change,” Duff says. “I grew up with a lot of pretty intelligent Southerners, and I never see them represented on television.”

That Brenda is played by the New York-born Sedgwick doesn’t undermine the character’s truth, Duff feels — though he admits he didn’t have her in mind when he wrote the part.

“(Sedgwick’s) knowledge and her background when it comes to the South was, I would say, not extensive,” Duff recalls. “But she’s embraced it. … She dives into this part as she would any feature role or Shakespearean role. She goes deep, deep, deep.”

Other shows have estimable characters that live in Southern states but seem Southern in name only, such as Jack Coleman and Hayden Panettierre of NBC’s “Heroes.”

“I love ‘Heroes,’ but I never thought of any of them as authentically Southern,” Morrow says. “It’s so generic, that (setting) actually could be anywhere.”

“Friday Night Lights,” he argues, is indelibly connected to its locale, reflected in both the characters and the way they interact with their community.

And for the Southern-bred actors on “Lights,” such as Lynchburg, Va., native Connie Britton (Tami Taylor), it’s a thrill to play characters they can so readily identify with.

“I love Southern women,” Britton says. “I love women who live in a world that is very male dominated and very traditional, yet are very free spirited and rebellious.”

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