The tragedy instantly sparked questions about voyeurism in pop culture and the dangers that exist between the words “reality” and “TV.” Most specifically, did the push for provocative TV featuring reckless and stunt-prone West Virginia 20-somethings fuel Mr. Gandee’s abandon away from the cameras?
So far, the answer to that question isn’t known, though MTV is picking up Gandee’s funeral costs. But those who knew Gandee describe him as one of the most genuine on the show, whose actual personality and behavior didn’t change too much when the cameras rolled. The men died of carbon monoxide poisoning after getting their truck stuck in a mud hole in a late-night adventure.
“Buckwild” was already controversial before Gandee’s death, particularly for its portrayal of young self-described American rednecks and questions about whether the show was intended strictly to make fun of rural Americans – a sort of “hillbilly-sploitation.” It also had its share of real controversy. Recently, Gandee’s co-star, Salwa Amin, was arrested on drug charges involving heroin and meth.
Down to earth and slightly off-kilter, the crew escaped rural boredom by spinning wheels in mudholes and, occasionally, making swimming pools out of dump truck beds. Their alcohol-fueled love fumblings added to a sense of parody, but their overall travails and search for good times seemed to act as a link between an increasingly urbanized America and its agrarian and pioneer roots.
In that respect, Gandee’s death has, for many viewers, provided a moment to consider the cultural stereotypes that drive the show and have made white, rural Americans the ripest, and most acceptable, demographic for parody.
The kind of reckless escapades perpetrated by the “Buckwild” crew are, on one hand, simply laugh fodder for “urban supremacists,” says cultural critic Jim Goad, author of “The Redneck Manifesto.” Yet there may be a deeper, more genuine appeal, he adds.
“Masculinity has been demonized and people have been denatured, so maybe [redneck reality shows] harken back to some genetic memory … where something that seemed authentic got [lost] and smashed in this increasing push to urbanization,” says Mr. Goad.
Critics panned the show, but viewers loved it, making it one of the top cable offerings every week, with more than 3 million viewers. After Sen. Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia wrote a letter to MTV saying “Buckwild” played to “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia," Gandee took issue.
"All them old people in West Virginia cannot go back and say that they did not do all that stupid stuff, because if they did, they're lying," he claimed. "I mean, they all had trucks, and they's all being goofy, making our own stunts ... just ours was caught on film."
In a country that has grown increasingly worried about personal safety, “Buckwild” – and now Gandee’s death – also served as a reminder of how “redneck” shows in some ways hearken back to lives lived with greater danger, perhaps, but less anxiety.
“You can talk a redneck into a challenge,” Jase Robertson, one of the stars of “Duck Dynasty,” another popular reality cable show about self-described rednecks, said on a recent episode. “That’s why rednecks die in strange ways.”
MTV has not decided whether to cancel the show altogether, but Gandee’s death has for many only cemented the stereotypes it set out to mock. “The show only enhances the negative stereotype[s],” Charleston, W. Va., Mayor Danny Jones told TMZ.
Other Hollywood experts predict MTV will eventually continue production, since it’s hard to argue that the show itself contributed to Gandee’s death.
“Reality TV doesn’t cause people to act recklessly, but it can often put a spotlight on folks who were already perhaps over-the-top to begin with,” talent agent Alec Shankman told FOX News.
But whatever Gandee’s death says about America’s attitudes toward unapologetic rural raconteurs, the young West Virginian joins a growing roster of people associated with reality TV who have died.
Two people involved in the French “Survivor” show died in recent weeks, one by suicide. More than a dozen other former reality TV stars have died in recent years. Several, including Julien Hug of “The Bachelorette,” Matt Hughes of “Storm Chasers,” and Joseph Cernigalia of “Kitchen Nightmares,” were suicides. In February, Mark Balelo of “Storage Wars” was found dead in his car from self-induced carbon monoxide poisioning, two days after an arrest on drug charges.