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.

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Double Divas or Our Cups Runneth Over with Southern-based Reality TV

As I’ve said many times, the explosion of southern-based reality television series make it difficult for me to keep up.  One of the more recent is Lifetime‘s Double Divas, starring Molly Hopkins and Cynthia Richards, owners of LiviRae Lingerie in Kennesaw, Georgia. Lifetime may refer to it as a “docu-series,” but that’s just a highfalutin term for reality show.

The premise of Double Divas is that Molly and Cynthia are out to help women, one bra at a time, who’ve been frustrated in their effort to find one that fits.  Their motto “no bust too big or too small” is the premise of their business, although there’s nothing particularly southern about that. Women from all over the country can appreciate a well-fitted bra.

While Lifetime describes the show as one that brings “southern charm and hospitality,” a claim made by many southern-based reality shows, what makes it “southern,” in my opinion, are Molly and Cynthia’s accents.  Having grown up in the South, I truly appreciate a southern accent, of which there are several variations.  Yet sometimes it seems that Cynthia lays it on a bit thick with hers, almost to the point where I have to hit the mute button.  Still, I can’t help but wonder if the production company is behind the exaggeration.

NorthSouth productions, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, (and Knoxville?), produces this show and others in the greater Atlanta area, including Say Yes to the Dress, where a strong southern accent seems to be a requirement. The company also produced You Don’t Know Dixie, a show that promoted southern stereotypes, as I’ve written about previously.

Despite the exaggerated accents, there is something very likeable about Molly who seems genuinely interested in helping women find a bra that boosts their confidence as well as their breasts.  And while Cynthia’s accent can get on my last nerve she, too, seems to really want to help women by creating the right bra for them.

I think women are watching this show (and heading to LiviRae Lingerie in droves) because so many of us are eager to get a bra that fits. That’s no joke. Even I might make the trip to LiviRae for that reason.  Still, you don’t really need a southern accent or characters to sell you on that simple truth, but in the world of reality TV it’s a big part of what sells the show.

Duck Dynasty: Those Beards are Nobody’s Fool

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Image credit: A&E Television

The guys with the beards are back.  On reality television that is.  Duck Dynasty’s new season premiered last night and its legions of fans tuned in to see the latest happenings in the Robertson family, especially those of the hirsute men of the clan.

Duck Dynasty has become the most successful of the reality shows set in the South.  It’s part of what I like to call the “Louisiana genre” of reality TV that includes other successful show like Swamp People and Billy the Exterminator.  Though let’s not forget the lesser known Cajun Pawn or Cajun Justice.

What makes Duck Dynasty different, for me at least, is that the guys with beards are nobody’s fool.  So much of southern-based reality TV seems geared toward stereotyping people from the region.  Very often they are placed in ridiculous situations for comedic effect and their speech is accompanied by subtitles. This is most famously the case with the Thompson Family in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.  Not so with Duck Dynasty.

One gets the impression that Willie and the boys are very much in control of their show and while there’s humor, it’s the kind where we can laugh with them and not at them.  Uncle Si might be the one in the family who’s picked on, but “hey,” he and the rest are in on the joke.  Moreover, the show about these self-made millionaires, whose company Duck Commander makes duck calls among other products, seems more like a strategic move on the family’s part to further their brand.  And it’s worked like a charm.

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Uncle Si Robertson and his catch phrase on a T-Shirt

Now the brand includes the show itself.  The success of Duck Dynasty has resulted in sales of all sorts of items that have less to do with duck calls and more to do with the family’s keen marketing sense.  Products range from bobble heads of father Phil and his sons Willie and Jase to shirts and coffee mugs with Phil’s saying “Happy, Happy, Happy,” to images of Uncle Si and his catch phrase “Hey!” printed on t-shirts. The Robertson women are also in on the boondoggle with products of their own.

One of the reasons I enjoy the show is that I can see that the Robertsons are very grounded, self-aware, and clearly wise to the ways of the world.  When their fame dissipates, they will still be doing well financially.  Unfortunately, this is the exception to the rule when it comes to southern-based reality TV.  True, many of those stars may temporarily be enjoying some windfall, but they are not as savvy as the beards.  And that’s too bad.

Call me “Professor Swamp People”

Troy Landry, one of the stars of History Channel's "Swamp People"

I was recently interviewed by Cara Bayles at the Houma Courier in Louisiana about the flood of reality television shows that are set in Louisiana.  We had a terrific talk that lasted a good half an hour, but all that ended up in the paper was a couple of sentences, which you can read here.  Just before we hung up the phone, I asked Cara “How did you find me?” to which she responded “I Googled ‘professor swamp people.'”

When I set out to write Dreaming of Dixie, I had no idea that it would lead to my becoming some “expert” on reality TV shows set in the South, although “Professor Swamp People” has a nice ring to it.  It began with the op-ed in the New York Times, which led to an interview about “hixploitation” for the Louisville Courier-Journal(KY) and similarly-related articles elsewhere.

Ernie Brown, Jr. a.k.a. "Turtleman," from "Call of the Wild Man" on Animal Planet

It may seem a huge leap to go from an analysis on the impact of Gone With the Wind to that of Swamp People, but from where I sit the purveyors of popular culture have, since the early nineteenth century, simply decided to emphasize what it believes to be the South’s cultural distinctiveness–whether or not it applies to the broader region.

And yet, therein lies the problem. So often nonsoutherners (including seasoned journalists) who don’t know the region’s history and have not spent time in the South, will often buy into those differences they find in popular culture. And as long as they do, I will continue to answer to the name “Professor Swamp People” when called.  Choot’em!!

Billy the Exterminator in Arizona?

Billy the Exterminator

I watch a lot of reality television and am always on the lookout for new southern-based reality shows, but one I liked almost right away was Billy the Exterminator.  The show, which is set in Louisiana, follows Billy and his brother Ricky (with help from his parents Donnie and Bill, Sr.) whose company Vexcon is set up to help people get rid of snakes, wasps, cockroaches, and raccoons, among other critters that have invaded their homes.  Billy, the show’s star, does his work while wearing all black (in the Louisiana heat and humidity) spiked wristbands, very often a hat, and his trademark thin sunglasses.  He’s a bit wild man, and a bit rock ‘n’ roll.

Billy and Ricky in Arizona with captured Javelina

This season the producers have taken Billy on the road to assist people in catching vermin in other states–Texas, Florida, and even Arizona, but I’m not so sure that Billy the Exterminator on the road is such a good idea.  Some people might like to see him try his hand at catching a Javelina (which looks like a miniature wild boar) in the Arizona desert, but something about that episode didn’t resonate with me. While Billy is certainly the star of the show, in some ways so is the State of Louisiana.  Louisiana is like another of the show’s characters.  Having Billy and Ricky work in the desert may have seemed like a good idea to the producers, but he looks out of place and the show’s chemistry seems off.

I don’t think the producers should mess with what is clearly a successful formula. They might be able to take Billy out of Louisiana, but you can’t take Louisiana out of the show.  That’s just not right.