The rise of 'redneck TV'

Why TV's plunge into backwoods family, danger, and colloquial wisdom transfixes America (and the world). Do the shows depict caricatures or gritty authenticity?

Zach Dilgard/A&E Networks
Ron and Bruce Mitchell (r.), stars of History Channel's 'Swamp People,' are seen in this network promotional photo. 'Redneck Reality' TV shows are the subject of the cover story in the Oct. 6 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly.

The alligator, a six-footer at least, peeks his armored eyeballs out of the swamp to stare coldly at the man passing nonchalantly in a flat-bottomed aluminum boat. Perhaps realizing who he’s looking at, the gator winks away quickly into the cypress-studded waters of Louisiana’s eerie Lake Pontchartrain.

The man in the Go-Devil swamp craft is Bruce Mitchell, arguably one of the most recognizable men on the planet, if not by alligators then certainly by humans. He’s wearing his trademark Liberty overalls, American flag head wrap, and camouflage Crocs. His shoulder-length mane flies as the boat glides through the coffee-colored waters. 

Mr. Mitchell is a star of “Swamp People,” the cable TV reality show that chronicles a raffish band of Cajuns through Louisiana’s 30-day alligator hunting season. It documents in high-definition the life-or-death struggle, even hand-to-hand combat, between humans and the defiant reptiles – a culture that the show’s producers say “dates back 300 years” and, they warn, “images may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”

“Most people worry about dying,” quips Mitchell. “I worry about living.”

“Swamp People” is now beamed to at least a dozen countries around the world, and Mitchell’s bayou brogue, along with that of his fellow alligator slayers, is translated into German, Croatian, Portuguese, and French.

It has become one of the most popular shows on what is called the “redneck reality TV” circuit – the burgeoning number of cable programs about rural Southerners living primal forms of existence. While America has always been fascinated by its share of backcountry bumpkins – think “The Beverly Hillbillies” in the 1960s – the new shows are about real people doing seemingly unreal things in a modern world. 

As a new television season kicks off, series about strange subcultures of survivalists or blue-collar families, many of them with Spanish moss beards and grins that need some dental work, appear at almost every click of the remote. There are “Yukon Men” who confront the bestial elements 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, tuna fishermen who war off the coast of New England, and “Mountain Men” who navigate America’s uninhabitable ranges. 

But the hog hollows and swamplands of the South are a particularly rich tableau for many of these programs, with series about hirsute duck callers in Louisiana and moonshiners in Virginia. Other shows chronicle hillbillies who catch fish with their hands, a family that captures wild boars, and people who get hitched at redneck weddings. 

Even children are flashing their bubba patois (the exploits of 9-year-old Honey Boo Boo, ready or not, will be returning for a fifth season). The only show that’s missing, perhaps, is one called “CSI: Redneck.” Actually, a version of that exists, too: “Rocket City Rednecks” follows a group of Southern “geniuses” who “git” together on weekends to use hillbilly ingenuity to solve everyday problems. 

The rise of redneck TV has paralleled one of the toughest economic stretches for the American worker since the Great Depression, a time of polarized politics and economic data that shows the middle-class dream is slipping away. Some experts believe this malaise has pushed Americans toward the visual equivalent of escapism and comfort food: shows about family, adventure, danger, elemental nature, and colloquial wisdom, such as “Swamp People” star Jeromy Pruitt complaining about a tough day on the bayou: “It’s hard as Chinese arithmetic out here, boy.”

Of course, some of these laughs come at the expense of the redneck life and its peculiar progenitors. Critics see the genre as glorifying backwardness and perpetuating stereotypes, particularly of the South. 

But others respect many of the characters on these shows for what John Nolte, writing on, calls their masculinity and independence. In fact, he says, people like Mitchell mostly come across as “selfless and surprisingly decent.” 

“Swamp People,” for all its vicarious pleasures, also whispers another message: that there may yet be salvation in the swamp (or on the high seas, or the Yukon gold fields) – that beyond the Interstates and sushi bars, some of those crazy country cousins who stayed behind during the great class migration to the cities and suburbs are now having an “I told ya so” moment as they hunt prehistoric reptiles and walk away with coverall pockets full of cash.

“There have been these types of good old American characters from the get-go,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “These are the people who picked up pitchforks and muskets and fought the Revolution. Our identity came from giving up all those fancy-schmancy European cathedrals and art museums in order to come here to wrestle bears and put up sod huts. This is deep in American mythology.” 

•     •     •

Mitchell is on an early morning reconnaissance mission through his home territory south of Hammond, La., up the rivers, channels, and creeks that crook off Pontchartrain’s gnarled north shore. He’s looking for spots that might make good alligator hunting grounds – and presumably good film footage as well.

The boat seems empty without Tyler, Mitchell’s longtime canine companion. The dog, known for his love of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes, became a star in his own right long ago. When Mitchell was at a recent autograph signing, a woman collapsed in grief when he informed her that Tyler was now hunting alligators in heaven. EMTs were summoned to help the sobbing woman recover. 

Mitchell is a true son of the swamp. Swatting sand flies during a break in boating, he says the swamp for him was a simple choice – it was that or construction work. Ignoring his dad’s admonishment to get a real job, Mitchell built his uncanny ability to catch frogs, grasshoppers, turtles, catfish, and gators into a life, and now, almost inconceivably, international stardom. “The money’s not as much as you think,” he’s quick to point out.

His office cubicle is Manchac, a community on the marshy edge of Lake Pontchartrain where massive cypress groves were machine-sawed to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. It’s also where, in more recent years, hurricanes have cleaved the landscape, leaving broken fish camps and a reordered geography that is a reminder of the power of nature. 

Manchac’s stained waters course with mullet and big bass, and eagles’ nests the size of Volkswagen Beetles overlook long sets of catfish trotlines running past elephant-foot-like cypress stumps. The raccoons and nutria his grandfather Louis Hebert chased through this low country are still there, as are the old Indian clam dumps that reinforce America’s connection to this mysterious place. 

The swamp’s effect on people can be romanticizing and tragic. The poverty in some of the Southern backcountry is stunning. But for people like Mitchell who still try to tame it, or at least live off it, the swamp can be galvanizing, bestowing the satisfaction of a life forged by survival. 

It is this type of primordial purity that some of the reality shows’ originators say they are trying to convey. When Marc Pierce, the producer of the hit show “Mountain Men,” about a group trying to survive in the untamed ranges of America, began poking around for a pitch to the Animal Planet network, his mind wandered back to his childhood on a tributary of the Mississippi River.

He thought of the Steinbeckian characters who mined the river and its culture for sustenance. He also realized that America’s rivers were allegorical – they were, and to a large extent remain, the lifeblood of the nation, whether it’s the Mississippi, Ohio, Potomac, or Tennessee. 

“I started thinking about when I was [younger]. The people that live right on the river – they were some real characters,” says Mr. Pierce. “They were the families that lived below the flood line, kind of, and forged their living from the river system, whether they were fishermen, turtle trappers, whether they rented canoes or raised bait. They were never affluent people, but they’re the kind of people who become fascinating TV characters. A lot of people don’t get to peek into that world, and understand what that kind of life is like.”

•     •     •  

Arguably, the true trailblazer for Mitchell and his backwoods showmen is Davy Crockett, whose passion for both the American wild and self-promotion would have likely made him a reality TV star today.

Seen that way, redneck TV shows are hardly new, but there are far more of them today than ever before. Many of the earlier examples of the genre were situation comedies – from “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” in the 1960s to “The Dukes of Hazzard” in the late 1970s and ’80s. At its peak, “The Beverly Hillbillies” regularly drew 70 million viewers to laugh at the adventures of a dimwitted but lovable mountain family in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Today, reality shows about working-class people with peculiar vernaculars eking out hard and often dangerous lives don’t draw the audiences of those earlier shows, but they do dominate cable ratings nonetheless. “Swamp People” has set numerous ratings records for the History Channel, with more than 5 million people tuning in for a recent season finale.

Despite the massive viewership of the World Cup this summer, “Duck Dynasty,” about the Robertson family of Louisiana and its successful duck-call business, hovered at the top of the rankings after becoming one of the biggest cable hits in history in 2013. “Swamp People,” “Mountain Men,” and a handful of other rural reality TV shows competed for slots in the Top 25, and others garnered significant viewership. This included “American River Renegades,” which chronicles the lives of fishermen from the Great Pee Dee River in South Carolina to the northern reaches of the Mississippi.

For producers like Thom Beers, who created the groundbreaking show “Deadliest Catch,” about crab fishing in the Bering Sea, culturally marginalized characters who like to tell fish stories while they actually fish are a narrative gold mine. This and other shows are rife with colorful colloquialisms and distinct dialogue, especially as the specter of danger lurks just outside the frame, or explodes into it. 

In a single “Swamp People” episode, hunter R.J. Molinere might mutter after a shot that kills an alligator: “He heard the noise. He went to sleep.” Or Troy “King of the Swamp” Landry might admonish one of his wiry sons to “choot ’em!”

Women increasingly brandish guns and backwoods idioms as well. Liz Cavalier and her daughter, Jess, have become a formidable duo on “Swamp People,” swapping stories and squabbling as they hook onto 800-pound alligators they’ve shot and winch them into their small aluminum boat. 

The resolution of the show last season saw Liz expressing new admiration for her sharpshooting daughter, which was a long way from the mother’s earlier admonition as they prepared to battle a big bull gator: “All Mama got to say is, you better have your big girl pants on.”

Those kinds of authentic, even heart-rending, moments are what make “great television,” Mr. Beers told Variety last year.

•     •     • 

“Great” is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. While there’s plenty of family warmth and nostalgia in the swamp, on the muddy rivers, and around the backyard still, there’s tragedy, poverty, and despair, too – uncomfortable themes that aren’t often shown on the screen. No one wants their reality TV shows too real.

Some criticize the shows because they seem lowbrow, indicative of an unseemly interest in so-called white trash culture intent on pulling America backward. Others don’t like the views and values some of these characters espouse on or off the screen (consider the 2013 uproar over Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” quoting the Bible to criticize homosexuality, for which he was suspended and then reinstated).

What’s more, critics ask, isn’t the entertainment really at the expense of these unreformed country boys with their guttural accents? Isn’t Hollywood really just exploiting them to make a buck?

(OK, on that point, a key question for Mitchell: Does he mind being subtitled, which he regularly is? “Naw, it don’t bother me,” he says. “Why should it?”)

In an essay for the New York Post last year, Southern author Charlotte Hays bemoaned America’s fascination with what she calls “white trash,” seeing it as a sign of social disintegration “when society takes its cue for manners and customs from the underclass.”

In that vein, the rise of redneck TV may also be problematic for rural residents who lay no claim to the redneck lifestyle. In a collection of essays about the image of the South in popular culture, Mark Glantz, a media studies expert at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., suggests that representations of redneck culture fail to illuminate the diversity of the South and instead “perpetuate such an objectionable portrait ... that it may strike at the self-identity of any individual who would otherwise identify with Southern or rural culture.”

Still, producers probably run few risks of a backlash in playing up redneck antics. Bevie Tyo, in a recent college thesis called “Coming to Appreciate the Redneck Stereotype,” writes, “The portrayal of Southerners as slow or dumb due to accent and dialect, or the representation of the assumed living conditions in the Southern region as humorous, is historically grounded in the assumption that this stereotype is accurate and acceptable.” Thus, though
 “[t]elevision programs featuring stereotypes of gender, race, or class are likely to threaten and anger social groups ... for some reason the negative Southern stereotype is still accepted in our culture.”

Some of these shows resonate with people not just because of their entertainment value – however stereotypical – but because, as writer Charles Homans has noted, they “gnaw at our relative comfort.” 

“These programs ... show there is another way besides college followed by a desk job,” says Doug Terry, a radio producer and fan of the shows. “They promote the idea that doing things in a more concrete and active way is a better way of life. They show people living on the edge.”

Quentin Donnaud grew up in the Atlanta suburbs, but his dreams reach back to his “crazy” cousins and uncles in Louisiana, where he was born, in St. Charles Parish. He’s a big fan of “Swamp People.”

The chef at Atlanta’s upscale Coast fish house, Mr. Donnaud sees “Swamp People” dovetail in small ways with America’s burgeoning “buy local” movement. In other words, for him at least, his cousins back in the swamp, who are hauling in crawfish, catfish, and drum, are informing his professional decisions in the kitchen.

“I credit a lot of chefs with making this stuff important again: A lot of chefs today want to connect with the ingredients and the people who grow or catch those ingredients,” he says. “The closer I get to the person who pulls them in, the more motivated I am to cook something really awesome with them.”

At the same time, the show tugs at his identity, stirring a yearning to return to his bayou roots. But, he says, ruefully: “Not sure my wife would go for that.”

Others look at the shows and identify with a simpler form of life and a simpler time in America. 

“There’s more independence there. There’s more satisfaction in doing things that make you closer to the land or nature, or forging a living with your hands,” says Pierce, the “Mountain Men” producer. “And even for people who don’t do that kind of work, I think that those audiences – who skew male, of course – it’s voyeurism for them. They’re living vicariously or contemplating vicariously through these characters: ‘What would it be like? Would I be happier? Is he more of a man than I am?’ ”

•     •     • 

Mitchell isn’t interested in any existential debate about what “Swamp People” may say about the American economy or zeitgeist. He thinks what draws people to the show are simply scenes of people helping each other, families getting together for fried alligator and frog legs, and moments such as when hunters Junior and Theresa Edwards retire for a steak dinner to their one-room floating “love shack,” as Theresa calls it. People like to see the reflection of their own values – in this case, family and faith – on the little screen, he says.

Mitchell’s life has certainly changed since “Swamp People” first aired. He’s no longer turtle farming, which for a long time was his main income. Instead, he signs autographs, visits children’s hospitals, and has a new cookbook coming out. To his wife’s chagrin, most outings involve fans sitting down next to them at dinner and chattering away as though they’ve known Bruce forever. Some might even say he’s become what Mr. Homans, in a 2012 New York Times piece, calls that “least authentic of creatures: the minor celebrity.”

Mitchell says such critiques of him and his reality TV colleagues are “all fine and good.” He’s comfortable with who he is and what he does. After all, he says, when someone like Jase Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” proclaims redneck logic, such as, “When you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s best to do it quickly,” it’s not just a joke. It contains an element of wisdom. 

Mitchell might have included a backwoods maxim of his own, such as the one he enunciated after an angry gator lunged out of the water and grabbed his gun: “Better a broken rifle than broken fingers – or gone fingers.”

For all the notoriety he has gotten, Mitchell still revels in the simple and sustaining life of the swamp. Before he heads off to Middendorf’s, a legendary local seafood restaurant, for some catfish and selfies with fans, he steers his Go-Devil into a narrow channel and quiets the airplane-loud motor. He points to a spot that once held a rickety fish camp. It was here, as a boy, that he met the archetypal “Cat Man,” a savvy old man of the swamp with a beard and hair down to his knees, living in a broken-down Manchac camp. 

Young Bruce would sit with a pole on Cat Man’s dock and throw every white perch he caught over his shoulder; a crush of feral cats would tussle for the scraps. The state heard about the man, took him to a rest home, and shaved and cleaned him up. He died two weeks later. 

“That’s how it used to be done: Old people would go into the swamps so they wouldn’t be a burden on their family,” Mitchell says. “But it’s also where they wanted to be.”

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