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Disappointing 'Redneck' TV Shortchanges The American South

Originally published on December 7, 2011 12:52 pm

Oklahoma hand fisherman Skipper Bivins is obviously a man who enjoys his work.

Bivins is the star of Animal Planet's Hillbilly Handfishin', a so-called reality TV show that turns on a few handy stereotypes about rural, white working-class people from the South.

Let's call it, for lack of a better term, redneck TV. And you can find it well beyond Animal Planet. Over on A&E, American Hoggers centers on the Campbell Family and their business: hunting down feral hogs in Texas. Patriarch Jerry Dean Campbell seems cut from a Rooster Cogburn movie — an ex-Texas Ranger with a sidearm and battered cowboy hat, who will tell you he's been "hunting wild boar since the 1960s."

More than anything, these series feed an odd sort of racial stereotype. The subjects are hard-partying, not particularly intellectual and connected to the land in ways we Yankees can only guess. They're real-life descendants of the Dukes of Hazzard who wave around the rebel flag and embrace the term "redneck" as a badge of honor.

Which explains the titles for some of these shows: CMT's My Big Redneck Wedding and Redneck Riviera, a show gathering buzz as a southern-fried Jersey Shore.

And when the National Geographic Channel built a show around Alabama rocket scientist Travis Taylor, guess what they named it? Rocket City Rednecks.

Over in Rocket City, patriarch Charles Taylor was one of NASA's original machinists. But here, he frets about a homemade submarine his son and grandson have built. And even when these guys have Ph.Ds in aerospace engineering, the show makes them sound like extras in a Hee Haw skit.

It's even worse that all this hokum comes from traditional sources of great documentaries like History and the National Geographic Channel.

These shows give you a South with no people of color, and they weirdly lack contact with sophisticated southern cities like Atlanta or Dallas; I guess it's tough to play the bumpkin card when you're looking at skyscrapers and a booming technology corridor.

It helps to think of reality TV shows as situation comedies for a new generation. And every TV fan knows sitcoms depend on stereotypes to fuel their best jokes. On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding.

Despite reality TV's tendency to stupefy everything it touches, perhaps it's time for these programs to actually get real and give us a vision of Southern culture that reaches beyond the fun-loving redneck.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Turn on the TV, and there's a better and better chance that you will find an unscripted, so-called reality TV show focused on eccentric characters south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As TV critic Eric Deggans explains, these shows often hinge on exploiting the biggest stereotypes about working-class, Southern people.

ERIC DEGGANS: Oklahoma hand fisherman Skipper Bivins is obviously a man who enjoys his work.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "HILLBILLY HANDFISHIN'")

DEGGANS: Bivins is the star of Animal Planet's "Hillbilly Handfishin'," a so-called reality TV show that turns on a few handy stereotypes about rural, white, working-class people from the South.

Let's call it, for lack of a better term, Redneck TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HOGGERS")

DEGGANS: Over on A&E, "American Hoggers" centers on the Campbell Family and their business hunting down feral hogs in Texas. Patriarch Jerry Dean Campbell seems cut from a Rooster Cogburn movie - an ex-Texas Ranger with a sidearm and battered cowboy hat.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "AMERICAN HOGGERS")

DEGGANS: More than anything, these series feed an odd sort of racial stereotype. They're hard-partying, not particularly intellectual, and connected to the land in ways we Yankees can only guess; real-life descendants of the Dukes of Hazzard who wave around the rebel flag and embrace the term redneck as a badge of honor. Which explains the titles for some of these shows: CMT's "My Big Redneck Wedding" and "Redneck Riviera," a show gathering buzz as a Southern-fried "Jersey Shore."

And when the National Geographic Channel built a show around Alabama rocket scientist Travis Taylor, guess what they named it? "Rocket City Rednecks."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ROCKET CITY REDNECKS")

DEGGANS: Patriarch Charles Taylor was one of NASA's original machinists. But here, he frets about a homemade submarine his son and grandson have built.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "ROCKET CITY REDNECKS")

DEGGANS: Even when these guys have Ph.Ds in aerospace engineering, the show makes them sound like extras in a "Hee Haw" skit.

Even worse: all this hokum comes from a traditional source of great documentaries, like History and the National Geographic Channel. They show a South with no people of color, and weirdly lacking contact with sophisticated Southern cities such as Atlanta or Dallas. I guess it's tough to play the bumpkin card when you're looking at skyscrapers and a booming technology corridor.

It helps to think of reality TV shows as situation comedies for a new generation. And every TV fan knows sitcoms depend on stereotypes to fuel their best jokes.

On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding.

Despite reality TV's tendency to stupefy everything it touches, perhaps its time for these programs to actually get real, and give us a vision of Southern culture that reaches beyond the fun-loving redneck.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.