Turn on the TV, and there's a better and better chance that you will find an unscripted, so-called reality TV show focused on eccentric characters south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As TV critic Eric Deggans explains, these shows often hinge on exploiting the biggest stereotypes about working-class, Southern people.

ERIC DEGGANS: Oklahoma hand fisherman Skipper Bivins is obviously a man who enjoys his work.


SKIPPER BIVINS: I catch big ole' catfish using nothing but my bare hands and feet.

DEGGANS: Bivins is the star of Animal Planet's "Hillbilly Handfishin'," a so-called reality TV show that turns on a few handy stereotypes about rural, white, working-class people from the South.

Let's call it, for lack of a better term, Redneck TV.


JERRY DEAN CAMPBELL: I've lived on this place just about all my life. I've been hunting wild boars since the 1960s, and I'll do it until the day I die.

DEGGANS: Over on A&E, "American Hoggers" centers on the Campbell Family and their business hunting down feral hogs in Texas. Patriarch Jerry Dean Campbell seems cut from a Rooster Cogburn movie - an ex-Texas Ranger with a sidearm and battered cowboy hat.


CAMPBELL: This is 500 acres and nothing but no-good, mean, aggressive, wild hogs.

DEGGANS: More than anything, these series feed an odd sort of racial stereotype. They're hard-partying, not particularly intellectual, and connected to the land in ways we Yankees can only guess; real-life descendants of the Dukes of Hazzard who wave around the rebel flag and embrace the term redneck as a badge of honor. Which explains the titles for some of these shows: CMT's "My Big Redneck Wedding" and "Redneck Riviera," a show gathering buzz as a Southern-fried "Jersey Shore."

And when the National Geographic Channel built a show around Alabama rocket scientist Travis Taylor, guess what they named it? "Rocket City Rednecks."


TRAVIS TAYLOR: Well, Daddy, we're about to get into this submarine, unload it, and give her a whirl. What do you think?

DEGGANS: Patriarch Charles Taylor was one of NASA's original machinists. But here, he frets about a homemade submarine his son and grandson have built.


CHARLES TAYLOR: We're here getting ready to put the sub in the water. And we've made a lot of improvements on it. But hey, this is still a fertilizer tank and a bunch of beer kegs - when you really get down to it.

DEGGANS: Even when these guys have Ph.Ds in aerospace engineering, the show makes them sound like extras in a "Hee Haw" skit.

Even worse: all this hokum comes from a traditional source of great documentaries, like History and the National Geographic Channel. They show a South with no people of color, and weirdly lacking contact with sophisticated Southern cities such as Atlanta or Dallas. I guess it's tough to play the bumpkin card when you're looking at skyscrapers and a booming technology corridor.

It helps to think of reality TV shows as situation comedies for a new generation. And every TV fan knows sitcoms depend on stereotypes to fuel their best jokes.

On these shows, decades of stereotypes about the South have risen again, ready to make a new generation laugh at the expense of real understanding.

Despite reality TV's tendency to stupefy everything it touches, perhaps its time for these programs to actually get real, and give us a vision of Southern culture that reaches beyond the fun-loving redneck.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times.

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