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30 YEARS LATER, COUNTER-CULTURE CLAMPETTS SEEM DOWNRIGHT PROGRESSIVE - AND SMART

Another fall in TV Land. Shows premiere, reviewers call the new season the worst in memory, audiences squirm, and the schedule is in tatters by Groundhog Day.

It's a ritual so familiar it scarcely needs recounting.But as the TV do-si-do kicks off for the 1992-93 season, it's worth recalling a footloose little sitcom from 30 seasons ago.

Premiering the week before Johnny Carson took over "The Tonight Show," this new CBS comedy was about a poor mountain family that scored a fast $25 million and split for the Coast.

From the first twangs of its bluegrass title ballad, "The Beverly Hillbillies" sent critics into orbit like John Glenn.

"Too absurd to be even slightly amusing," sniffed one of them with the same dismay that snobby Mrs. Drysdale, the banker's wife, displayed toward the nouveau riche bumpkins who had landed in the estate next door.

Another critic glumly forecast that this, "the worst of the new season's entries," would be "the biggest hit of the lot." He was at least half right. That year this surprise smash was TV's No. 1 series, and would remain a hit for nearly its entire run. In fact, seven out of the 50 highest-rated TV programs of all time are "Beverly Hillbillies" episodes.

Meanwhile, the show, like the Clampetts' 1921 flatbed truck, will run forever in reruns. Some 274 half-hours' worth are currently syndicated in 55 cities, and the series is parked on the TBS schedule at 5:05 p.m. MDT Monday through Friday.

Now, on its 30th anniversary, "The Beverly Hillbillies" remains among the funniest, most inspired of all TV comedies - and yet one that even its fans still watch down their noses.

Sneer all you want to, you closet Jedheads. The lofty stature of a show as vilified as this one can hardly be in doubt. A series that in nine years never won an Emmy Award can't be all bad.

Granted, "The Beverly Hillbillies" is generally dismissed as a video synonym for "bleccchhhh."

Granted, even the man who put it on the air didn't like it.

"I HATED it," says Michael Dann, who 30 years ago was CBS vice president for programming. "After screening the pilot, I don't think I ever watched another segment."

But "The Beverly Hillbillies" is attuned to its times - then and now.

When the show premiered, public confidence in science and technology was literally sky-high. Progress was society's passion, and self-worth was gauged by the wheelbase of the family car. No wonder the Clampetts moved to Beverly Hills. With its luxury, glitz, and sprawling lawns, this was the ultimate expression of the American Dream.

But rather than a rags-to-riches story, here was a rags-AND-riches story. When the Clampetts reached the land of "swimming pools and movie stars," these scruffy newcomers enjoyed their wealth on their own simple, incorruptible terms.

Although boy-lug Jethro (Max Baer Jr.) was susceptible to Tinseltown's temptations, patriarch Jed (Buddy Ebsen) kept him and the rest of the family on a firm moral course. With her folk remedies and occult beliefs, irascible Granny (Irene Ryan) anticipated '90s currents ranging from alternative medicine to New Age crystals. And shapely tomboy Elly May (Donna Douglas) upheld gender equality before anyone ever heard of Gloria Steinem.

In retrospect, they seem downright progressive, those counterculture Clampetts. So was their show. Much more than gags about possum innards and fishing in the "cee-ment pond," "The Beverly Hillbillies" continues to tweak a foolish modern world that the Clampetts occupied without losing their souls.

Smirk if you must, but the Clampetts look smarter with every passing season. More than ever, the joke is on the rest of us.