FROM THE "IT'S THE FIRST DAY OF SUMMER AND ALL WE'RE
DOING IS WATCHING LOUSY TV SHOWS" DEPARTMENT:
The maw of reality TV has finally affected the Beast. This last week we were bereft in posting because we flew home to “assist” one of our family members as they prepare to be a contestant on an as-yet-unnamed show that sounded like some strange melding of The Amazing Race and Fear Factor. To prepare for this dubious honor (including the requisite confidentiality agreement and the signing over of seemingly all of one’s “image rights”), my family member watched a lot of reality TV “for research” and related a peculiar trend: “There are a lot of shows about white trash people doing strange jobs.”
As if this was any stranger than a lot of shows about rich people and their “strange jobs,” or lack thereof. But as a counterpoint to the Kardashians and the Housewives, the new breed of “hixploitation” reality shows seemed to have sprouted like mushrooms growing out of the dirt on the bottom of some mountain man’s feet. It makes sense, seeing that what the “Richsploitation” programs have going for them is the admittedly fascinating spectacles of rich people not doing anything but partying, arguing and sitting around checking their iPhones; “Hixploitation,” on the other hand, seems to be the counter to that point. People who are poor have to do something, right? They have to be something that you aren’t or live somewhere you don’t/wouldn’t, right? They have to have funny accents and weird hair, wear a strange mix of outmoded fashions and possess a more organic outlook on dental care than you or I. And let’s not forget to mention those funky-ass ways to make money or just kill time. What’s sort of odd is that there’s plenty of idleness and alternative job choices for both the rich and hix genres.
Turn on the cable box right now and you probably can run into at least three of the following types of Hixploitation TV: Hix with specific talents at harassing and annoying live critters (Hillbilly Handfishin’, Gator Boys, Lady Hoggers, Snake Man of Appalcahia, Swamp People, Call of the Wildman) or stuffing dead ones (American Stuffers…really?); nouveau-riche hix who have parlayed said talents into commercial gain and thus can afford some sort of rural version of the Kardashian lifestyle (Duck Dynasty, Big Rich Texas, Bayou Billionaires) or assist the betterment of science (Rocket City Rednecks); hix with no specific talents (Finding Bigfoot, Lizard Lick Towing, Buck Wild, My Big Redneck Vacation) or a talent for mere surviving off the grid (Mountain Men, Moonshiners); hix by other names (American Colony: Among the Hutterites, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding) whose lives are so bizarre and "Not Us" that one has to watch with a growing sense of fascination and dread.
For a second, one might think we are back in the late 1970’s during the Malaise Years of the Jimmy Carter administration, whose nuclear-physicist commander-in-chief played up his New South liberalism and status as an Allman Brothers-lovin’ peanut farmer with an embarrassing alcoholic brother right out of Hee Haw! The pop culture mirror began reflecting a hayseeds-in-the-teeth, back-to-the-country ethos that writer Mark Andrejevic later called “agrarian nostalgia”. In the theatres, the hixploitation genre was born with films like Deliverance (which celebrates its 40th birthday this year), Jackson County Jail, Macon County Line, Citizens Band, Smokey & the Bandit, The Klansmen, Walking Tall, Convoy, Every Which Way But Loose, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, Outlaw Blues, Two-Thousand Maniacs!, The Hills Have Eyes, Mother’s Day, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Greased Lighting, The Great Texas Dynamite Chase, Grand Theft Auto, The Gumball Rally, Motel Hell, W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, White Lightning, White Line Fever. TV was an able, if vapid, co-conspirator in the zetigeist: The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, The Dukes of Hazzard, BJ and the Bear, The Waltons [pictured below], the John Denver TV specials, Dallas, Little House on the Prairie, Hee Haw!, Flo, Enos, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters, Harper Valley PTA, The Fall Guy, Matt Houston, Mama’s Family, McCloud.
I mean, is it any coincidence that we’ve got Dallas and J.R. Ewing on TV as we had then? Is it something about having a Democratic president in office? Maybe, but then again, when we had good ol’ boy from Arkansas W.J. Clinton we also had an unprecedented economic boom, where marbled steaks, cigars (ahem) and generally indulgent behavior reached some sort of cultural apex that evaporated on 9/11/2001. Now, as during the late ‘70s/early 80’s, we are in some sort of financial freefall where even the best of us have had to make up new words to describe our new Great Depression (“staycation,” “mancession,” “funemployment”). It comes as no surpise that we'd be inundated with shows that demonstrate the hardy D.I.Y. lives of people who were poor when the rest of us weren’t? Where survival by one's wits is a constant, natural state that one just maintains on a thrillingly day-by-day basis.?
With a few exceptions, however, the movie theatres have been a little bereft with new takes on the rural folk. Just look at a recent film which, although a theatrical release, has taken on the feel and voyeuristic pleasures of the hixploitation genre of old with some tabloid flourishes of new. Despite being a documentary about a legendary West Virginia bunch of modern Hatfields, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2009) carries with it the smells and sights of the pilot of a new reality series, right down to the faux-Western font of the credits, a long sequence in which a chick named Mousie gets out of prison and drives all over the state to “kidnap” her no-good cheatin’ husband for some quickie sex, and the fact that Johnny Knoxville’s Dickhouse Productions released the film.
Of course, The Beast was moved to develop some pitches for Hix TV:
Real Life Smokey and the Bandit* – Sometimes the most obvious ideas are right under your nose. We already have “race” shows, so why not some sort of absurdist version of this popular Burt Reynolds franchise where celebs race the clock to deliver truckloads of gypsum or pineapples and other celebs try to stop them? We're thinking for the first season: Snoop Dogg in the Burt role, Kellie Pickler in the Sally Field role, Artie Lange in the Jerry Reed role and Brad Garrett as the redneck sheriff. Burt Reynolds and Norm MacDonald make cameos as Big and Little Chubby....uh, Enos.
*Alternate pitch: Real Life Cannonball Run – Cross-country race show jam-packed with C-list protoplasm like Corey Feldman, Pauly Shore, Wayne Cotter, rapper Snow, Jim Belushi, Rhonda Shear, Nia Peeples, "Super Dave" Osborne, The Iron Sheik, Kate Gosselin, Nick Carter and his d-bag brother, Tara Reid, Daryl Strawberry, Randy & Evi Quaid, Obama Girl, Eddie "The Big Ragu" Mekka, Bethany Gastineau, Chyna. Add your own suggestions if you like.
Real Life B.J. and the Bear – Where a cross-country trucker who never seems to be delivering anything or really going anywhere (i.e., Lost in Space with mudflaps) has to maintain his professional trucking credentials (i.e., not lose his CDL License for that misplaced plutonium) by taking with him a moderately medicated chimpanzee; that is, until “the Bear” dips into his stash of bath salts and chews off B.J.’s face, eventually parking the the semi into the side of the 64th floor of the Sears Tower.
Skunk Drowners of Hazard County – Actually should be titled “The Real Life Dukes of Hazard,” but why not go ahead and answer the age-old question: Before they joined the NASCAR circuit, what exactly did the Duke boys do all day besides jump gulleys and police cars in slo-mo while some country singer injected his annoyingly folksy rhetoric? Why, trappin' polecats in their specially built traps and then plunkin' em in the crick and watchin' 'em drown of course!
The Boys – A spin-off of sorts referencing a now-infamous episode of the TV series Top Gear [see below], where host Jeremy Clarkson and his mates graffitied offensive messages on their sports cars as they raced through the American South, inevitably pissing off an angry service station owner in Alabama. After a lot of yelling, the woman turned to one of her employees and growled, “Call the boys." Within seconds, out of nowhere, arrived two pickup trucks bearing battle-ready crackers. This poses the question: Who are "the boys"? And where do they come from? Are they waiting just beyond the treeline like some overalled version of the Home Guard? This should be good fodder for at least 10 seasons until it's inevitable cancellation.
Bon Iver Hunts Himself – Across the frozen moraines and valley yaws of central Wisconsin, bearded loner Justin V. [pictured below] takes us on an extended hunting trip, looking for musical inspiration in frozen twigs, cold-weather sunsets, deerflops, beaded condensation on kitchen windows and membranous spider webs in old barns smelling of dirt and wood rot. Occasionally there will be a special guest, like director Terence Mallick, who bumps into Justin V. while filming a 19-hour documentary about an oak leaf, or Kanye West with new girlfriend Kim K., who sits around in her fuzzy moonboots, constantly texting and complaining about the lack of Wii Fit at the hunting cabin. Alternate pitch: Bon Iver hunts hip endorsements.
America’s Got Them-There Song-Poems – The “song poem” tradition of non-professional outsiders setting their strange lyrics to prerecorded music advertised in the back of tabloids and pulp comics (alongside the X-ray Specs and Sea Monkey ads) finally gets its prime time shot with this series following four song-poem writers/enthusiasts/lunatics as they construct their “songs” and take them on tour through county fairs all over the Midwest and South. The winner gets to make an album produced by either Daniel Johnston, Roky Erickson or Brian Wilson -- we haven't really figured that out yet.