Following the mind-bending “Dog the Bounty Hunter” on A & E’s Wednesday night line-up is “Billy the Exterminator,” a docu-reality show about a family-run pest control business located in Louisiana. I didn’t have any reason to believe that it would differ from its lead-in, revealing itself a vulgar, mouth-breathing circus of marginalized bottom-feeders. I mean, on the TV ads there were men with mullets chasing rodents, so surely, Billy would be some sort of psychotic, a guy who happened to find a niche that allowed him to satiate his need to kill by becoming an exterminator. I could almost hear his demented, wheezing giggle as he explained how to decapitate a pigeon. And so I was expecting to see a profoundly dysfunctional clan of rednecks, drunkenly turning on one another as they drove pick-ups through the Bayou, firing wildly at Gators.
This, I think, is the kind of show that the producers want to suggest, but never deliver.
Billy, instead of being a skuzzy trailer park cliché, is a former US Air Force sergeant, and although he has a mullet, he has a special mullet. His mullet was not cut by a stoned girlfriend over the sink, but was fussed over and professionally sculpted, perhaps even by gay hands. Teased, primped and streaked, this is a mullet that’s seen the bright lights of the big city. This fancy hair gives Billy the appearance of a Vegas magician, the white guy in the background of an otherwise black jazz band, or perhaps a motivational speaker who’s trying show the kids that Christianity can be cool.
To give the appearance of rebellious individuality, Billy is always dressed in black, like a Gothic bringer-of-death or Criss Angel. Behind sunglasses and underneath a black cowboy hat, Billy, sporting a soul patch, wears a black t-shirt, that like the pick-up he drives, is adorned with a skull and bones. Essentially, he’s a kid’s idea of a superhero, but no matter how many studs Billy bedazzles onto his wardrobe, he’s obviously a bright, articulate, well-adjusted and likeable guy, somebody that’s entirely professional rather than anarchistic.
The show itself follows Billy as he leads his family (wife, brother, mother and father) in the day-to-day operations of their pest control business. Primarily, we watch as Billy goes off on calls and confronts all manner of creatures.
On a recent episode, Billy was summoned to take care of a bat infestation at a baseball stadium. Enlisting his brother Ricky, who looks like a shorter version of ex-Big Leaguer Randy Johnson, they head off to do the job. Although there are several shots of Billy high up on a ladder, absolutely nothing dramatic happens — nobody got attacked by a bat or morphed into a vampire, nothing was bleeped or fuzzed out, and the police were never summoned. Instead, the brothers took care of the job, imparted a few kind of interesting facts about bats (they eat their own weight in mosquitoes every day!), and then left.
More promising perhaps was a call to a tattoo parlor where a big snake (maybe a rattler!) was loose. The tattoo parlor had attitude, as coffins and skeletons were part of the décor. The owner, terrified, watched from the street, his face and palms pressed up against the window. Drama everywhere! Billy was fearless but respectful of his prey, calling his wife Mary to bring him his chaps. She does so, and upon her arrival makes a point of appearing frightened and concerned. It wasn’t particularly convincing, nor was the crazy editing that suggested the capture of the snake was nothing but chaos and danger.
No matter, what we discover is that Billy is not a killer, and like with the bats before, Billy relocates the dangerous snake, telling his audience “you can’t go killing things you’re afraid of and don’t understand.” Really, it’s not Billy the Exterminator, but Billy the Gentle Relocator of lost animals.
Sprinkled throughout these vignettes are little splashes of color provided by the family, presumably to add the soap opera flourishes that are needed to sustain our interest in reality TV. The central figure in these is Randy, the black sheep brother of Billy.
As Randy is single and obviously imperfect (he was recently arrested for marijuana possession), his mother placed a personal ad for him on-line in one episode. Randy acted infuriated by his mother’s interference but quickly pushed aside his adolescent frustrations and played along.
It would have been easy enough for the show to make fun of some of the women who were trotted out for family inspection before being passed on to Randy, but they didn’t. The only person who was teased was Randy, who rattled on about how he thinks he might have been Jim Morrison in a previous life, and that he, Billy and their father all scored in the genius range on an IQ test. His date makes fun of his hair and for monopolizing the conversation, but it’s gentle, and it’s clear that she likes him just fine, as he does her.
“Billy the Exterminator” has no appetite for cruelty or exploitation, be it of the people who appear on the show or the creatures that slither and scurry through it. The program is actually entirely wholesome and kid friendly. It doesn’t have a single mean bone in it. The pests are essentially misunderstood and rescued, usually getting relocated to more appropriate habitats, and the people who call Billy in, cured of their problem rather than revealed as negligent slobs.
Instead of tunneling in on the decrepit homes and lives of individual people in the city, “Billy the Exterminator” takes a commercial approach and tends to go to various businesses about town. This is advertising, plain and simple, as the businesses are always cast in a positive and responsible light, and Billy, of course, comes off as a professional, good-natured guy, and the pests? Well, they get to go to a zoo or some other nifty spot. It’s sunshine everywhere!
Of course, left out of this equation is the viewer, who’s given little more than an affable infomercial. For an exterminator, Billy really stays on the surface of things. The show would be an awful lot more interesting, and adult, if it burrowed down into the rot of our cities and showed us the particular lives and circumstances of the people who have little choice but to exist amongst rats and cockroaches, instead of giving us the “Sesame Street” rendition of this very dirty and honest job.