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For real: this is reality?

Our Sunday Comics author takes a look at Louisiana's Reality TV boom and the state governor embracing it.

“Learning”, “History”, and “Arts & Entertainment”, were all grand but fitting titles for cable networks that actually started out that way decades ago.  I myself produced a lot of work for their ilk, and even directed a New Orleans music series, called “New Orleans Now”, for A&E in 1986.  But much time has passed, almost three decades, and in 2014 the content of those revered institutions has simultaneously fallen into the aesthetic black hole and the economic Valhalla of cable/TV ratings systems.

Consider, please: 

It was The Learning Channel that brought willing audiences the degradation of human childhood depicted in “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”.  

(As an aside, actor/writer/comedian/activist Harry Shearer and his wife Judith Owen produced a scatologically hilarious spoof of this series, available on-line as “Here Comes Honey Poo Poo”.)

It was The History Channel that dug the lowest common human denominator from the algae-covered muck to produce “Swamp People”.

And it was indeed the Arts & Entertainment Network that made moronic behavior the norm on “Duck Dynasty”.

The common denominator?  All of these shows are produced in my home state, Louisiana.  And all are hugely successful.

Though the “Duck Dynasty" fanclub has diminished from the 11.7 million viewers it enjoyed at the start of season 5 to only six million at its close.  This was brought about by the mere on-the-record public exposure of the Duck scion as what he shows himself to be weekly on the show. But tonight, 13 JUN 2014, bringing it all back home, the Governor of this state is appearing on the first episode of that much-diminished season six.

Louisiana Governor “Bobby” Jindal on “Duck Dynasty”

Much-diminished.  But still, after all the sociological hubbub, six million people continued to watch. 

The series comes back after widely distributed statements by one of their stars disdaining gays and people of color, and in the process features the Louisiana Governor, who calls on all his fellow dyed-in-the-wool tea party conservatives to support a bigot’s right to be bigoted.   And that sets me wondering.  After all, this is the same man, born as Piyush Jindal after a few weeks’ of his parents’ American residency to an Indian couple just arriving on green cards.  The same man who at age four asked that his name be changed to “Bobby” after becoming fixated on the “Brady Bunch” TV show character of the same name, and was granted that wish.  

Jindal’s tube fetish does not have appeared to have diminished in the intervening years.

Reuters remarked on the odd sight of, again, that same Bobby pushing a “birther” bill through the Louisiana legislature to try and exploit the faux-controversy over Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and to cement the deal by releasing a picture of his own document.

The flap started when Jindal said last month that he would sign a state bill, if it reached his desk, that would require candidates for federal office on the Louisiana ballot to show proof of birth in the U.S. 


The bill was a response to doubts about President Barack Obama's Hawaii birth raised by possible Republican presidential candidates such as businessman Donald Trump. 

 

Obama recently released his full birth certificate to squelch the doubts. After Jindal endorsed the Louisiana "birther" bill, the Baton Rouge daily newspaper, The Advocate, on April 22 published a critical editorial.

 

"Piyush Amrit Jindal is the last man in America who should give his blessing to a birther bill," the editorial said.

 

Jindal's office angrily responded that the newspaper had got the governor's middle name wrong. "Amrit," was the name of an ancient Middle East city, Jindal's office said, and not his middle name.

 

Jindal offered to release his birth certificate to prove it. The Advocate received the birth certificate, apologized for use of an "incorrect middle name" and removed "Amrit" from the online version of the editorial.

His middle name was wrong.  That was his complaint.

Jindal also believes that he is doing a good job at home.   And he has evidence.   Today, WED 11 JUN 2014, The New Orleans Advocate, reported on page 6B:   “Through 2022, the state’s employment growth rate is expected to remain 20 percent above the national average.” 

Interestingly, Governor “Bobby” Jindal’s mother, Raj Jindal, for thirty years the Information & Technology Director  of the State of Louisiana Workforce Commission, and making a cool $117,915 a year, was quoted confirming the fact, saying:  “Louisiana has kept up.” 

His Mom says everything is ok.  Just like in the “Brady Bunch”.  Bobby, Bobby, Bobby… and yet the Governor only makes $130,000 a year, just a little more than Mom’s $118K.  Reality, Bobby, reality is not TV.

As a small counter to the above optimistic statements, the same edition of the same paper on the same day reported that the state’s workforce is down by 8,000, all laid off at the hands of the Governor.  And only a week earlier, The Advocate asked in bold headlines  “Why Are We Not Out in the Streets?”, dismayed about the state’s huge cuts in funding higher education.  A further note about reality shining on the Real:  the first time I viewed this webpage, immediately to the right of the above headline, there was a mackweldon.com advertisement reading in bold face “Wear Better Underwear”.  I can only think this appropriate and premeditated journalistic placement. 

The unrepentant Piyush now controls/affects the lives of everyone in this state on a daily basis, though more often he is elsewhere, running for the 2016 presidency.   When he is not on the “Duck” set.  After all, his episode is entitled “Governor’s Travels”.  (Do the Duckers regularly read Jonathan Swift?) But Jindal believes that “Dynasty” is where America lives.  And unfortunately he may be right.  Continues the Advocate:

Work at the Legislature grinds to a halt when Billy the Exterminator stops by in a leather-and-crucifix ensemble or when “Swamp People” star Troy Landry gamely hollers “Choot ’em” in the House chamber.

 

Now, Jindal is embracing the reality TV craze and boosting his profile.

Perfect. 

At this point I advise forgetting Jindal and his penchant for the surreal, to move just beyond his purview and that of the three shows profiled above, and have a look at just a few of the other shows that make up TV Reality.

This is a picture taken at the 2014 Mardi Gras by Simon Albury, a grand friend and former CEO of the UK’s Royal Television Society.  The women’s marching group, all dressed in homemade bustieres personally crafted by each member from recycled Carnival beads, is marching down Royal Street the Friday before Mardi Gras Day.  Their krewe’s theme this year was old television shows, and the inventive young woman in the foreground is dressed as “The Twilight Zone”.  This is rather how I feel when I see what is being offered as “non-scripted” programming by every channel out there.  I may still be in black and white mode.  May I offer examples:

"Wives with Knives”  on a channel called “Investigation/Discovery” seeks to legitimize women’s needs to brutally do away with their husbands.  Fear of the law or possession of any moral sense whatsoever does not seem to enter either the stars’ or the producers’ mindset.

And speaking of sharp objects and the feminine persuasion, how about E!’s series “BRIDALPLASTY -- Extreme Makeover Bridal Edition” female “reality” competitors vie for “plastic surgery procedures and a celebrity-style dream wedding”. 

You think I am kidding?  Entertainment Weekly describes:   “On this show, the ‘ladies’ compete in ‘challenges that will help you become closer and closer to the perfect bride.’ It’s like True Beauty and The Swan wrapped into one dripping, greasy, liposuction/chicken rollup. At stake: An all-expenses-paid dream wedding and an all-you-can-eat plastic surgery buffet…”

I can’t make this stuff up.  I wouldn’t dare.

In another episode:  “You needed to win a syringe in order to be admitted to the exclusive injectables party. ‘Three brides. Two syringes.’”  Oh.  Musical syringes.  Of course.   Family fare.

Many viewers are looking for the opposite of shockers and dazed sensibilities, though, and find refuge in other still-distorted entertainment patterns which at least hold onto a remnant of something familiar to them.  For networks, the search for wholesome, however, is not altruistic, but rather a scramble for the big bucks couched in traditional religion.  The lust after an audience that certainly carries philosophical weight, and cash.

Like in the new “It Takes a Church” on GSN, which of course on its programming schedule follows “The American Bible Challenge”.   

As the New York Times headlines its review, the mission of the program  is “Seek and Ye Shall Find a Hottie:  In ‘It Takes a Church,’ the Congregation Helps Pick Your Date”. 

Say it ain’t so, Reverend.  Please, say it ain’t so.

The Times further reports:

Each week, one unsuspecting single who has a desire to find a mate, is surprised to learn that their church is coming together to help them find love, led by their own Pastor, who speaks to the situation and gives advice on the potential suitors. The partnership provides ChristianMingle[.com] with in-show integration throughout the season; plus all of the daters who are not ultimately chosen will receive annual memberships to the dating service.  In addition, GSN will produce a custom short form micro-series for ChristianMingle that will air as interstitials throughout the commercial breaks of the show. Terms of the arrangement were not disclosed.

So the dating service actually integrates into the “reality show” to make money off morally deluded singles hoping to get sexually-attractive dates.  Sounds like this show should serve a useful purpose, convincing many people of like mind and soul to find happiness in the comforting philosophical arms of atheism.

Of course, some producer in New Orleans, looking to take advantage of the state’s production tax rebates, is trying to push it further and lamer with "Mommies of the Big Easy".  But, after we have seen “Bridalplasty” on one end and “It Takes a Church” on the other, are we are supposed to be satisfied with “Mommies”?  I think not.  Louisiana will have to do better, bigger, grosser.

Over a year ago, commentator William Widmer valiantly explored the conundrum, again for the Times:

NEW ORLEANS — “If I had a dollar every time they asked me for the next Honey Boo Boo Child,” said James Bearb, a Louisiana native and the president of Hollywood South Casting, “I swear I would be the next millionaire.”

 

Such is life in the Louisiana reality TV boom, which began in earnest in 2010 with the record-setting premiere of “Swamp People” on the History Channel and has apparently not diminished. In April, “Duck Dynasty,” about a close-knit family and their duck-call business in north Louisiana, set a ratings record for A & E with 10 million viewers… There are more shows on the way, prompting the question of whether there actually are any interesting people left in Louisiana.

…“My first angle was hot country girls who like to do masculine things,” said Shaun Sanghani, a business-savvy 32-year-old who runs a production company called SSS Entertainment out of the lobby of a hotel in Alexandria, La. …

… A year before “Swamp People” aired, Mr. Sanghani said, he was told about the “Duck Dynasty” family but he figured he could never sell anything like that. “And back then, I couldn’t have,” he said with some regret.

…There are still some, like Gerard Sellers, a veteran location scout for feature films, who cannot understand why it became so big in the first place. Mr. Sellers has been alligator hunting many times and even helped make a documentary about it, years before “Swamp People.” He thinks of it as a largely tedious exercise of checking traps.

“I mean it’s dangerous at times,” he said, “but only if you’re drunk.”

There it is:  a booming entertainment business that actually only works if you ignore the reality of the reality.

I wonder if the stalwart six million faithful viewers who closed last year will be back tonight for “Duck Dynasty”, season six? 

Or if may be they have moved on to what I have heard is an imminent new Arizona-based hit series, “Horned Toad Housewives”?

About the author

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. His New Orleans novel Unimportant People is available via Kindle.