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Don't Cry For Me, Appalachia

Screen shot 2013-01-08 at 5.42.55 PM


A couple of years back, when I worked almost entirely from home and my schedule never involved meetings, lunches and so on, I used to make it a point to try to carve out an hour of my day to watch Maury. Yes, Maury. If you're somebody who's paid to be a snotty little shit online, Maury is required viewing and therefore I considered my daily dose of the show to be something akin to research. There's no better barometer for how depthlessly fucked-up we are a society than watching a cavalcade of gold-toothed illiterate black caricatures and white trash guys clad in wife-beaters and plaid shirts with Caesar haircuts and goatees stomp onto a TV studio set in Stamford, Connecticut -- arms raised, proudly basking in the ire of the studio audience -- to find out whether they are the father of little Nevaeh (cleverly, "Heaven" spelled backward) or if one of the 27 others guys who apparently slept with her grossly overweight mother gets the honor.

Is it cruel to laugh at the kind of human zoological experiment regularly on display on a show like Maury? Maybe. But as callous as this may sound, I've always believed that you can't save everybody. Sometimes you just have to shake your head and use it to sharpen your mockery skills, MST3K-style, because there's really nothing else you can do -- and this, my friends, is the essence of one very specific genre of reality TV.

A whole lot of money has been made over the last few years mass-marketing American subculture to TV audiences. Obviously, the most famous recent show, the one that launched a thousand new ships full of people willing to have their exploits exploited in the name of potentially becoming famous, is Jersey Shore. It managed to last six seasons, which is almost unimaginable when you consider that every season was pretty much exactly the same; hell, every episode was exactly the same. You'll remember when it debuted, Jersey Shore drew the wrath of Italian-American groups, terrified that having survived The Godfather and The Sopranos Americans of Italian descent would have to endure yet another round of cultural stereotyping, this time from a bunch of drunk, promiscuous Guidos and Guidettes. Meanwhile, there were others -- myself included -- who basically just saw the show as one more step on the road to the end of American preeminence. For the record, I confess to having spent a couple of lazy Saturday and Sunday afternoons indulging in Jersey Shore marathons and I actually grew to have a minor fondness for the show and its cast of characters.

Well, in the years since Jersey Shore grabbed our popular culture by the balls, a hell of a lot of other, infinitely more depressing shows that exist for no other reason than to provide something to gawk at have assaulted us. As Joel McHale joked, we're now living in the golden age of shows about people who battle each other over storage units. If you're someone who inexplicably enjoys Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which I truly believe to be the final nail in our society's coffin -- something with absolutely no redeeming social value -- then you're probably going to love MTV's latest and most made-to-be-controversial subculture venture, Buckwild.

I'm not going to bother running down the details of what Buckwild is all about because all you really need to know is it's Jersey Shore set in Appalachian West Virginia. In other words, it's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo: The Teenage Years. The cast is predictably dopey and harmless and the fun they engage in is about as stereotypically "redneck" as you can imagine. But the blast they seem to be having just being "themselves" and the money they're poised to make living up to everyone outside of their region's expectations is of course pissing off a lot of the Appalachian intelligentsia -- and no, I can't believe I just typed that either -- who believe that the entire area is going to once again be held up to America as nothing more than the butt of a joke.

You're probably already aware that Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, is pushing MTV to cancel Buckwild, which is of course thoroughly laughable and should immediately remind everyone of the initial reaction to Jersey Shore. There's no way in hell Buckwild is going anywhere and all Manchin is doing is giving the show exactly the response from "grown-ups" that MTV had hoped for. MTV's producers and managers are almost certainly turning cartwheels over Manchin's impotent crusade and will probably be sending him a fruit basket for all the free promotion. Add to that a column today over at Salon by a University of Kentucky philosophy professor named Alexandra Bradner that could stand as the most humorless piece of writing ever cranked out by anyone who isn't the New York Post's Andrea Peyser and you've got, again, exactly the kind of publicity a network trying to launch a show couldn't pay for in a million years.

In her column, Bradner takes serious umbrage at what she claims is the ongoing caricaturization of those who live in Appalachia, the people everyone else in this country might call, derisively, "hillbillies." According to Bradner, what makes the ridicule of the people of West Virginia, the kind profiled on a show like Buckwild, so insidious is that really what everyone's making fun of is their poverty, and that poverty can be attributed to decades of destruction at the hands of the coal industry. Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Bradner wants to know why no one's highlighting all the people of Appalachia who read the Economist and go to gay bars -- the simple answer, of course being, that that would make for really crappy TV. Yes, it's unfortunate, but there happens to be a very pronounced archetype associated with Appalachia, and definitely with Appalachian youth, and of course MTV wants to focus on that rather than focusing on the hardships West Virginian kids face on a regular basis. The network's not trying to change perceptions; it's under no obligation to make the world a better place and broaden the minds of its viewers and it never really has been. It deals in crap.

Now, are the kids on Buckwild being exploited in some ways? Of course. But they've gone along willingly on this little ride, one that's likely to make them a whole hell of a lot of money and if they play their cards right change their lives for the better forever. Does the show itself, in the big picture, do a lot of damage to the reputation of the Appalachian region? (Again, I can't believe I just typed that.) You can't judge that right now. Sure it pushes stereotypes but those stereotypes exist because there actually are a lot of people in rural West Virginia like that. All of them? No, of course not, but a large enough amount to create a pronounced stereotype in the first place. When Jersey Shore debuted, remember, every hyper-serious Italian-American group and defender of Jersey's honor claimed it would cast Italians and the state in a bad light but in reality it eventually did exactly the opposite; it led to tourism and an almost nationwide embrace of the "guido" subculture as something actually kind of cool.

There's certainly the risk of people watching Buckwild the same way I used to watch Maury all those years ago, essentially to make fun of the parade of human flotsam. But there's also a strong possibility that people will find the characters of the show endearing. I'm dreading the day in the very near future when they become inescapable, but that's the way things work in our current media climate -- everything becomes oversaturated.

Now, am I going to be watching Buckwild? Are you fucking kidding me? My parents live in Central Florida; if I wanted to see high-school dropouts eat crap and turn a pick-up truck into a swimming pool all I'd have to do is book a ticket back home. Still, it could be worse. At least these kids aren't the pretentious assholes from The Hills that MTV was shoving down our throats just a few years ago. Those kids sucked.

And besides, credit the forward thinking at MTV: Producing Buckwild is a great way of creating a farm team for Teen Mom.