“Party Down South” and “Southern Charm”: South Carolina’s Turn at Reality Television

When I first wrote about the South in reality television a few years ago, it seemed like a disturbing trend that would hopefully die a quick death. But no. Today, the reality shows that exploit the region have expanded from a trickle to a flood. And even within this genre of programming there are state “franchises,” so to speak, with Louisiana being the best example.  Nearly every state in the region has served as a backdrop for a reality-based show, but not all. South Carolina? It’s your turn.

Mark Sanford's declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.
Mark Sanford’s declaration of love for his mistress at a 2009 press conference.

The state usually takes it on the chin for its conservative politics, or more pointedly, conservative politicians who draw the wrong kind of media attention. Think of former governor Mark Sanford’s tearful display of love for his mistress after he went “hiking on the Appalachian Trail.”  Or of Joe “You Lie!” Wilson. Even the Democratic Party was put to shame when Alvin Green–an unemployed veteran indicted for showing pornographic pictures to a female student at USC–became the party’s candidate for Senate.  And on it goes.

This spring, however, South Carolina is being showcased in two new reality shows, making this a total of three for the Palmetto State. It is already the site of TLC’s Myrtle Manor, a show that covers the hijinks of people who live in a trailer park in Myrtle Beach. But, I digress. The new shows include CMT’s “Party Down South,” filmed in Murrells Inlet (near Myrtle Beach), and Bravo’s “Southern Charm,” featuring a group of poorly-behaved Charleston socialites, a show locals have condemned to no avail. Hint: there’s nothing charming about this bunch.

The cast of CMT's "Party Down South"
The cast of CMT’s “Party Down South”

“Southern Charm” will be out in a couple of months, but “Party Down South”  (PDS) has already cranked up.  The show is produced by SallyAnn Salsano, who is the “mastermind” behind MTV’s “Jersey Shore,” and it does what MTV’s “Buckwild” couldn’t manage to do, which was to create a southern equivalent with characters like Snooki and the Situation.

The gist of the show is that the cast (most of whom hail from Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) is staying at a rented house near the beach, where they share bedrooms, go to bars nearly every night, get drunk (a lot), fight (this goes with drinking), have sex, eat meals together “like a family,” have a “job” by the marina, and show their collective asses. Sound familiar?

So what is southern about the show?  Essentially, the setting, the accents, colloquialisms (“pop a squat,” “cooter,” and “coon ass”) and some good ol’ redneck fun, which usually involves trucks and mud.

CMT has become the primary network for redneck television and “Party Down South” is one in a long line of shows that hit the same tired notes of southern-based reality television. The formula involves working-class southerners, in this case young ones, as imbeciles willing to do anything for a little cash and attention. Being on the show is likely going to be the biggest thing to ever happen to them, and producers know it.  No doubt there were several hundred “hopefuls” who wanted to be on the show.

The thing is, I knew people like this in high school.  Girls that drank too much and got into fights. Guys that would do anything for a laugh.  Many of my classmates may have found them amusing in the moment, but they also felt embarrassed for them. The difference today is that the cast of PDS may never be able to escape their immature past, because it is forever preserved on film and has been shared with millions.

The cast of Bravo's "Southern Charm."
The cast of Bravo’s “Southern Charm.”

CMT and SallyAnn Salsano are the real winners here, as the network may boost its youth demographic and Salsano her financial portfolio. The losers, of course, are South Carolina and this cast.

Bravo promises a different group of southerners in its series “Southern Charm,” but don’t expect much different from what’s on over at CMT.

You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

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The Death of Shain Gandee and MTV’s Cancellation of “Buckwild”

gandeeOn April 1st, Shain Gandee, one of the breakout stars of MTV’s “Buckwild” died along with his uncle and a friend. After going mudding, Shain’s truck became stuck in the mud so deep that the tailpipe on the muffler became clogged.  Because it was cold that evening (and perhaps they had been drinking), the three men probably turned on the heat and fell asleep, and subsequently died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The show was controversial for its negative representations of West Virginia, even drawing ire from Senator Joe Manchin. But during its first season “Buckwild” attracted an audience of 3 million viewers per episode.  And what did the young folks who were being exploited by MTV earn?  A measly $1,000 per episode.  That’s right.  All of you people out there who think reality television stars are making money hand over fist (because they know what they’ve gotten themselves into) need to read this again carefully:  $1,000 an episode.  Viacom-owned MTV on the other hand, reaped some handsome profits.

Now, in the wake of Shain’s death, MTV has canceled the show.  Why? In a press release, the network reasoned that the show could not go on “given Shain’s tragic passing and essential presence on the show.” In effect, his “essential presence” meant that “Buckwild” without Shain Gandee affected Viacom’s profit margin, but nothing near what they made off of this young man’s life.

The kicker is that the producer is furious about the cancellation.  According to an interview featured on HuffPost TV, J. P. Williams (who plays up West Virginia as his birthplace) is determined to save the show, going so far as to say that “My job is to protect these kids.”  Say what? He exploited them to line his own pockets and not even the death of one of them is enough to keep him from being self-righteous (or being worried about his own bank account).

I was in West Virginia last week visiting with family and learned that MTV had NOT offered to assist Gandee’s parents with funeral expenses.  Instead, fellow West Virginians stepped up to the plate and held a “Shain Gandee Memorial Mud Run” to help the family.  Meanwhile, the network is going to have a memorial special to honor Shain, which will likely have a large audience and squeeze a few more dollars of profit from this poor soul.

All I have say about that is shame on you, MTV.

Correction:  J. P. Williams’ company did pay funeral costs.  However, this was after it was reported that the family didn’t have the money to pay for the funeral.

Hillbilly Redux: MTV’s “Buckwild”

A year and a half after writing an op-ed for the New York Times about the South in reality television, I am here again with the latest installment of the trend.  “Buckwild,” MTV’s newest “reality” program, is a look at the shenanigans of a group of young men and women from my home state of West Virginia.  Set in Sissonville, just outside of the state capitol of Charleston, MTV tells us that this show and this group of 20-somethings is going to take over where “Jersey Shore” left off.  My prediction:  “Buckwild” dies a quick death after the first season and none of the show’s cast members will see the kind of money that Snooki or “The Situation” has enjoyed.

buckwild
The cast of MTV’s “Buckwild”

So what do we have in “Buckwild?”  After a first look at the show, what I saw was very contrived.  The cast seemed a little nervous to be on film at all, and their conversations didn’t seem as organic as they likely are when the cameras aren’t on.  There were also several places within the first episode where you could almost hear a producer telling cast members what to do next.  “Okay, you two girls, jump in that mud hole and start wrestling.”  Because that would seem natural for two hillbillies from West Virginia.

If you’re from the state, you have a right to be embarrassed.  On the one hand, the antics of youth can be found anywhere.  But there’s always a spin when the show is set in the South, or in this case, Appalachia.

First, you have the subtitles as most of these shows have, which indicates that the people in this place speak with a foreign tongue–but mainly foreign to urban ears. (I find I am distracted and annoyed by the subtitles in southern-based reality shows, because the speech and/or accents are often perfectly understandable.)  Second, you have some activity that suggests to you that the place is a cultural backwater, literally.  Cue the hoses to create a mud pit and send in trucks to splash through it or young women to roll around in it.

Now, some would say “these people really do exist.”  Sure they do, but are they representative?  I’m from West Virginia and my cousins and their children are all hardworking, decent and smart people.  And they don’t get their kicks wallowing in mud.  Why don’t we see THAT represented?  Because then we wouldn’t have people we could laugh at.

You see, this hillbilly stereotype goes back for more than a century and has often been used for purposes of humor.  Very often this stereotype highlights the urban and rural divide in American culture.  The city slicker versus the country rube.  So, “Buckwild” just continues to perpetuate that long held stereotype, so that urban dwellers can get a cheap laugh at hick culture and feel superior about it while they do.  If MTV, or any other reality show (like “Moonshiners”) truly wanted to represent the diversity of Appalachian culture they would.  But they are content to make money by striking the same note–over and over–much to the chagrin of so many people who live far richer lives there, in those same mountains, than what is presented. That’s a shame, but I doubt we’ve seen the last of shows like these.

Cue a toothless man holding a moonshine jug with XXX marked on the side.