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Despite 'Buckwild's' Ignominious End, Reality Television May Not Be Done Ridiculing Rural Americans

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RURAL AMERICA REALITY TV
This undated image originally released by MTV shows the cast of the new reality series "Buckwild," from left, Shain Gandee, Anna, Katie, Salwa, Joey, background center, Ashley, Tyler, background right, Cara and Shae. MTV said Wednesday, April 10, 2013, it is canceling its West Virginia-based reality TV show "Buckwild" a week after the accidental death of 21-year-old star Shain Gandee. Network spokesman Jake Urbanski confirmed the news, saying it was "not an easy decision." (AP Photo/MTV, file) | AP
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MTV's "Jersey Shore in Appalachia" reality series "Buckwild" had a very brief and very unhappy lifecycle. It launched amid censure from critics and lawmakers, over its largely cheap depiction of kids from rural West Virginia communities. It concluded ignominiously, with one cast member arrested on drug charges, and another dead of carbon monoxide poisoning, the results of a tragic accident unrelated to the filming of the show. One week after that cast member, Shain Gandee, died, MTV opted to cancel "Buckwild."

Since this crass experiment in rural poverty voyeurism ran badly off the rails, one would imagine there wouldn't be a rush to recreate it. Well, one might be wrong. A memo obtained by The Huffington Post -- authored by Katie Zwick of the Creative Artists Agency, delineating "network needs" to their client production companies -- indicates there is still a strong interest in a "Buckwild" redux. More specifically, the memo describes a "BUCKWILD replacement i.e. a show set in the south with loud, unpolished, young kids" -- among other ideas.

The CAA memo reads as follows:

From: "Zwick, Katie" [EMAIL REDACTED]
Date: April 26, 2013, 8:06:22 PM EDT
Cc: "Zwick, Katie" [EMAIL REDACTED]
Subject: Network Needs as of 4/26/13

CAA ALTERNATIVE TELEVISION

Disclaimer: The information contained in this email is constantly changing. The network needs listed come from numerous sources and are as current as of the publication of this email. The email is for the benefit of CAA and its clients. Please do not forward it or share it with anyone.

Please note that Network Needs come out as often as we get the information which is not necessarily daily.

MTV - Below is a list of categories that MTV currently feels like they are missing in their current programming:

1) A Latin American family docu i.e. The Latin version of RUN’S HOUSE.

2) A BUCKWILD replacement i.e. a show set in the south with loud, unpolished, young kids.

3) A big, loud competition show whether it is a music competition or social experiment.

4) A docuseries about an African American choir.

5) A MEET THE OSBOURNES replacement i.e. a docuseries based around a celebrity family.

6) Their next version of TRL or some kind of live music/event show.

7) A dating show that skews younger and is somewhat out of the box.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Whether or not MTV actually "feels like they are missing" these concepts "in their current programming" is an open question. The network has disavowed this memo completely. In a statement, a spokesman told The Huffington Post, “This memo did not come from MTV and does not include accurate information.”

Multiple attempts were made via email and phone to contact CAA for comment. All have gone unreturned.

Dee Davis, the founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies, still finds the memo "disappointing." Back in 2003, Davis's organization mounted a successful campaign to halt CBS's production of "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," in which a poor rural family would be relocated to Hollywood, with cameras recording the resulting culture clash for cheap laughs.

"Every community has aberrant people, easy-to-exploit exceptions for reality television producers looking to put reckless behavior on display," said Davis. "All of the producers of these shows say that they are trying to augur some authenticity, but in the end, they end up using their subjects for ridicule."

"There are certain people who they feel they have permission to ridicule," Davis added, and the rural poor are one such group.

Davis echoes one of "Buckwild's" original critics, University of Kentucky philosophy professor Alexandra Bradner, who wrote about the show for Salon back in January:

MTV would have us believe that the kids of “Buckwild” are free and creative in ways that alienated, urban kids with cellphones will never be. But there are deeper reasons why Grandee says: “I don’t have no phone. I don’t have a Facebook. I don’t have none of that Internet stuff.” If we were to interrogate those reasons, we would have to care about him and help him. And that’s no fun.

[...]

The non-Appalachian viewing audience needs this manufactured other, in order to see itself as sophisticated and cosmopolitan — as better. Bradley and her more urban peers seem to need their “country boys” in this way as well. Without the foil, we would have to face our own poverties, our own barbarism, our own shelteredness, our own actual lack of sophistication.

There are responsible ways to document the reality of rural life without having to sacrifice the dignity of the larger community. Back when we first took up the issue of "Buckwild," Huffington Post politics editor Paige Lavender -- who is both a native West Virginian and a graduate of West Virginia University -- recommended that people instead seek out and support "Hollow," a documentary project centering on the residents of the state's McDowell County. As "Hollow" story director Jason Headley says:

Most of the thoughts and opinions of our state are formed by outside forces looking in. A project like this gives us the opportunity to do the exact opposite. To let people see West Virginia from the perspective of the people who live here. We can show the good and the bad. And the surprising thing for most people will probably be that the good is awfully good. And that the bad is much more real and nuanced than the cliches and stereotypes.

This seems more in keeping with the way Davis would prefer residents of poor rural communities are depicted on screen. "I don't want to pretend that we're so precious and noble," he said. "The reality is that there's a lot of things that these communities are dealing with that are not pretty. But when they make these people an open target for ridicule and derision, it sends the message that they aren't like you and me, they aren't a part of 'our culture.'" And that, Davis says, puts a layer of distance between those within these communities and those who live outside, which, in turn, makes the very real struggles of rural America seem unimportant.

"Reality television," Davis said, "should come with a higher threshold of responsibility." His reaction to the proposal delineated in the CAA memo? "I hope they don't do it."

Seconded. But I am nothing if not charitable, and since this strain of reality television seems to do nothing but latch onto someone else's original idea to make a cheapened version of it, might I suggest something like "The Real Locovore Hipsters Of Portlandia"?

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

This story appears in Issue 48 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, May 10.

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