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January 7, 2008 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | January 7, 2008 |

I got myself into a bit of a pickle with this assignment. I pitched it off the cuff to Dustin a while back having not really thought it through. Then I sat down to write and realized, “Huh, encouraging folks to tune into reality shows runs rather contrary to the WGA mission. Whoops.” But here’s the thing, before I was a writer of TV, I was a fan of TV (you’d think that’s the case with all TV writers, it’s not). I’m a big, fat, fuckin’ nerd. I support the strike. I’ll walk in ovals with my brethren. But I’m not turning off my TV for television (and, while I’m sure there are some, I don’t know a writer who has). Then again, watching TV by my ownself isn’t the same as hollerin’ into a microphone (is this thing even on?) suggesting others do the same. So I’ve come up with a compromise: I’ll only get into cable shows (apologies to those with bunny ears) and none that are considered cash cows for their networks (but feel free to “make it work” in the comments section). Somehow, this makes me feel better. Go fig.

Moving on.

“Reality TV” is fairly synonymous with “low quality” and most folks who watch it tend to do so all ironical and/or guilty pleasure-like. Sure, there’s a bounty of it that’s vapid, insipid and tasteless (yes, I just said three things that all mean the same thing) but there’s no shortage of overwrought dramas and humorless comedies either. I guess what I’m saying is, if you happen to be astride one, get off your fuckin’ horse. There is such a thing as a good reality show.

In my mind, a good reality show is individually defined by the ratio of pathos to schadenfreude. If I were super motivated, I’d come up with a fun and exciting graph but … yeah, no … were I to do such a thing, everyone would have an uncrossable line. Most of us enjoy a bit of schadenfreude now and then. I’ve seen and loved every episode of every season of the “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” and that show is all about feeling superior to narcissistic nutcases guzzling cases of Boons before melting blocks of ice with their boobs, aka trash, but I can not handle the “American Idol” parade of delusion. That’s my line. Corpulent, vaguely ethnic-looking, acne-ridden, androgynous nerds in drag warbling Whitney Houston wound me to my core. I have to change the channel.

But there are those who can’t stomach the slightest bit of public humiliation and God bless them for it. Better people than I to be sure. For them there is the crème de la reality crème: Shows that document human struggle and celebrate why we’re awesome. They’re affirming and inspiring, like Leaves of Grass or an In-N-Out burger (God my heart breaks for those that don’t live in California or Nevada). So if your TiVo’s feeling empty, what with the holiday dearth and the seeming abyss of the writers’ strike, squirrel these shows away all nut-like. We have no idea how long this winter will last.

“Nimrod Nation” (Sundance) is an eight part series following the lives of folks in the small town of Watersmeet, Michigan. It’s tempting to compare it to “Friday Night Lights,” as it’s a similarly loving portrait of a small town that’s identity is defined by its high school basketball team (The Nimrods, really). But there’s no explosive conflict. There’s no forced narrative. It’s more like looking through someone’s photo album. Snap shots. An ice fishing trip. Feeding the pig. Basketball practice. Slaughtering the pig. Parent teacher conference. Basketball game. The hunting lodge. It’s a world I can’t imagine living in but it’s presented with such love and respect I kinda wish I could.

“Mythbusters” (Discovery) gives us a couple hirsute Hollywood special effects guys and their minions uh, busting myths. Basically they take a dubious premise like, “a spark from your cell phone can ignite the fumes at a gas pump” or “pissing on the third rail can cause electrocution” and create the most ideal situation in which said unlikely thing might happen. But while the set up is all about applying science to old wives’ tales and the like, it’s really just a thinly veiled excuse to shoot guns and blow shit up. What I find most compelling is the way they make something out of nothing. They’re a bunch of big kids with a super expensive erector set, some high quality Play-Doh and their very own chemistry lab. What can go wrong? They dream up these crazy experiments that involve shit that can’t be bought. Then they sketch and plan and pour plastic and weld metal and voila! It doesn’t work. So they start over and build something new. And after much trial and error, ballistics gel is flying and a car is on fire. Super fuckin’ cool.

“No Reservations” (Travel Channel) is Anthony Bourdain’s show. For those who’ve read his shit, that should be reason enough to tune in but for those who haven’t, Anthony Bourdain is a chef turned scribe. The Hunter S. of food writing. Irreverent, lecherous, debaucherous, wicked smart, silver tongued and hilariously awesome. His memoir, “Kitchen Confidential” was turned into a crappy Fox show that bore about as much tonal similarity to the source material as “The Real World” did to “Fear and Loathing.” “No Reservations” is all about Bourdain immersing himself in other cultures through food, from the Texas/Mexico border to Namibia. And while his sophisticated palette means he appreciates a lot of things I suspect you and I wouldn’t (I’m sorry, I just can’t get behind kimchi), occasionally there’s a boar rectum cooked in dirt to be consumed and unlike those pussies on “Fear Factor,” he’ll do it with a smile. What’s so refreshing about Bourdain’s perspective is that, unless he has a plate of food in front of him, he’s rarely comfortable. But he’s always respectful. Whether it’s being twisted into a pretzel in a Turkish bath or drinking hallucinogenic fermented something or other in the Malaysian jungle, he’ll try anything (except karaoke) and have something insightful and humorous to say about it.

Survivorman (Discovery) is a one man band. Kanuk Les Stroud gets dropped in the middle of nowhere with minimal supplies: a flint, maybe a knife, the clothes on his back and a shit load of camera equipment. You may be familiar with him from Michael Scott’s rousing tribute on a recent episode of “The Office.” Les documents his survival and escape efforts all by himself which means he has to do most everything twice. Climb down an arduous rock face, set up a camera, climb back up it, do it again. Les is serious shit. I’ve learned a fair amount about taking care of myself in a wilderness type sitchiation from the guy. And considering how easily I get lost on well marked hiking trails, this is a not a small thing. But for all his hard-coreness, Les is not hot. However, he does not have a British accent and he does not take his clothes off on a regular basis. Which brings me to Bear.

“Man vs. Wild” (Discovery) is the sensationalized, slicked-up, super-staged version of “Survivorman.” It is hosted by Bear Grylls who was formerly on her Majesty’s Secret Service. OK, not really. He was British Special Forces. Close enough. Though Bear can’t hold a candle to Les in the “keepin it real” department (a well-equipped crew films his journey), he’s no joke either. He free climbs crazy cliffs, feels his way through pitch black caves covered in bat guano, beans rabbits in the brain with thick sticks, then skins ‘em and cooks ‘em for dinner. Most importantly, he often finds a reason to strip naked and, if you’re lucky, do push ups. I mean, come on.

And last but never ever least, The Deadliest Catch (Discovery), hands down my all time favorite reality show. It chronicles the triumphs and failures of a group of crab fishermen on the Bering Sea. These men, most of whom are top contenders for the world championship bout of “Who’s More Grizzled” work 72 hour shifts in sub-zero temperatures, hauling hundreds of pounds of steel into and out of a merciless, violent sea.

(warning: turn your volume down.)

It’s a totally insane job and people die all the time. Hells bells if these guys don’t make me proud to be a human. In my favorite episode, Jonathan Hillstrand, captain of the Time Bandit noticed a guy on a boat about a quarter mile from his own, hanging off the side of the stack, tying down pots (the 900 lb steel cages they use to catch crab). When I say hanging off the side, I mean if he were to fall, there was no deck below him. Just water. And the boat was rocking to and fro so that half the time his back was touching the ocean. Fucking nuts. The captain decides to bust out his binoculars and keep an eye on the guy, just to be safe. And in an INSTANT a wave comes up, recedes and the guy’s gone. Without so much as a breath, Jonathan turns the boat full throttle towards the guy and sounds the alarm, “Man overboard! Man overboard.” The genuine panic in his voice made my heart stop. The crew below deck shot out of their beds and donned these hard core wet suits. In a few moments, they’d reached him, pulled him on board and taken him below deck to get his wet clothes off and wrap him in a blanket. He was terrified and disoriented but alive. The captain tumbled down the stairs, adrenaline still in control. You could practically see his heart pounding through his chest. The guy looked up and said “You saved my life man. You saved my life.” His voice cracked and Jonathan grabbed him. They held each other for a moment, both choking back tears. Now these are tough mother fuckers. I can’t imagine 72 straight hours of anything, let alone intensely physical work that kept me one dumb mistake away from death at all times. These guys sever fingers, attach the shit with band aids and go back to pulling pots. They take cracks on the skull from large chunks of ice falling from cranes above and brush it off like an oak leaf. Watching them fight tears after having snatched someone back from the brink of death is powerful shit. And lest I give you the impression that it’s all heavy life and death shit, there’s always Edgar Hansen who keeps it light by fucking with the greenhorns (aka rookies) and his brother, Captain Sig who reminds everyone to “Shut up and fish.” Words to live by, my friends. Words to live by.

‘Beckylooo Who’ is an aspiring television writer, aka an assistant. She has a deep understanding of the importance of a pleasant phone manner and a well-stocked fridge. Further rantings and ravings can be found at If A TV Falls in the Woods.

Strike Survival Guide: Reality Shows That Don't Suck

Reality-Show Round-Up/ Beckylooo Who

TV | January 7, 2008 |

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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