Brew Masters debuts tonight on Discovery at 10 p.m. Eastern.

The proximity between the release of TLC’s rhetorically overloaded nature show Sarah Palin’s Alaska and the Discovery Channel’s new reality show Brew Masters is more than unflattering but also rather telling. Comparisons between the two shows come easy for a couple of reasons, firstly because TLC is an offshoot of Discovery and, hence, must have realized the two networks were opening their programs on the same night of the week, one week apart from each other. A more important reason, however, is the fact both shows are centered on individuals that define themselves by their working class appeal.

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Sam Calagione is the face of Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ale, a Delaware-based company whose soundbite-friendly motto is “off-centered ales for off-centered peoples.” Both he and Palin refer to themselves as “mavericks,” and seem to mostly buy lock, stock, and barrel into their woodsy self-images. If “Bitches Brew,” the show’s pilot, is any indication, the good news about Brew Masters is that watching a show about a brewing company that defines itself in such ostentatious terms is more palatable than watching Sarah Palin compare herself to grizzly bears, mostly because you get to see the process of making beer at length in Brew Masters. The bad news is that being told that anyone or any group is representative of good ol’ fashioned American ingenuity by the people in question still sounds like self-serving b.s.

At the beginning of “Bitches Brew, Calagione positions Dogfish Head as an all-American franchise, jokingly going so far as to call beer “quintessentially American:” “That’s why they landed on Plymouth Rock—the dudes were out of beer.” The brewery’s mission statement is similarly taken from one of the greatest American philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

The brewery’s version of that slogan tries to seem less pretentious/antiquated by turning “Whoso” into “Who so,” but they also omit the crucial last sentence of that oft-cited quotation from Self-Reliance, presumably for the sake of brevity: “Absolve you to yourself and you shall have the sufferage of the world.” That last line is so important because it not only positions the whole quotation as a devotion to one’s own resolve but it also suggests that that’s the surest way to earn, though not necessarily get, public approbation. By pointing out that mission statement to us at the on-set of the pilot, Calagione’s done the work—“I’ve been brewing cutting edge beers for over 20 years”—and hence feels he’s earned the spotlight the Discovery Channel’s given him.

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This doesn’t mean that what he and the show’s creators do with that spotlight is inherently interesting; the fact that Calagione’s on display at all is the surest sign that we’re no longer in the land of ascetic Emersonian inner strength. We’re meant to really only parse the sort of truncated form of the Emerson quote. An animated version of it pops up from the wall in the brewery where it’s emblazoned, and key words are highlighted: “noncoformist,” “goodness,” “explore,” and “integrity.” This doesn’t tell me who these guys are, just the buzzwords they want to be thought of with. Granted, this is a local Delaware brewery that’s gotten onto national TV, so yes, they do deserve to puff their chests out a little. But now that their labors are lumped in with blank signifiers of Americana on the Discovery Channel—an opening montage shows America to be synonymous with road-side farmer’s markets and enormous bales of hay in fields of wheat—that chest puffing is a bit much.

Once you can get beyond that wall of rhetoric, which is admittedly the scaffold of this and almost all reality shows of its ilk, viewers may find themselves modestly charmed by Calagione. He personifies the real appeal of the show: an articulate local boy that did good but is more than ready to admit that he’s made some innocent mistakes along the way. He cheerfully laughs about some of the brewery’s bigger follies, including a beer with lavender and peppercorn brewed into it (“like tongue kissing Laura Ashley”) or another with green algae, also known as pond scum, to give the beer a green hue for St. Patrick’s Day. (“Some people liked it, some people said, ‘Hey, that tastes like pond scum.’”)

Still, the bulk of “Bitches Brew,” an episode dedicated to the creation of a new beer to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’s classic eponymous rock/jazz fusion album, is spent aggrandizing and repositioning Dogfish Head's employees as a group of pioneers. Far be it for me to question the veracity of that lofty status, but being told different variations on a theme so grandiose is pretty dreary. Calagione talks about the Brewery as a group of, “Mavericks or cowboys:” “we’re not going to be held in by what generations before us did in terms of beer."

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The stakes are never-not purportedly sky high: The brewers fear being “humiliated” at Savor, a DC-based gourmet food and craft beer convention, if they don’t get their “Bitches Brew” beer right. At the same time, when they actually do get to Savor, you know they’re going to do fine, if only because there’s hasn’t been any ominous, hastily-edited “Next up on Brew Masters” montage clips preceding the next commercial break, nor any tense, string-heavy music to actively hint that something could be about to go wrong. In the world of reality TV, no heavy-handed song cues means no “real” drama with a capital “D.”

Similarly, the struggle to find a missing vent tube in a bottle of beer is initially re-imagined as a major crisis. The brewery is forced to shut down production on its assembly line so that they can inspect all the bottles, whose total value is estimated at $7,000, looking for a bottle that could potentially cause the company a lawsuit. The gravity of this situation is reduced to clips of a couple of working stiffs theatrically grunting things like, “Alright, we’re going to have to start emptying bottles,” though no bottles are emptied on camera. Another moans incessantly, “I thought maybe we’d have some trouble but not this kind of trouble. This is a real pain in the ass. This is killin’ us!”

Before a commercial break, the same guy later says, “We’re losing money, we’re losing beer, we’re losing time—I’m feelin’ a little stressed!” When the show comes back on-air, the search for the vent tube is treated with a considerably lighter touch: The guys questing for it joke about being able to drink it and blame each other jocularly about who was responsible for it falling into a bottle in the first place. The fact that you could only transition from an apocalyptic clamor to this mellow resolution after a commercial break speaks volumes about the schizophrenic split between these guys’ every day personas and the way that they’re filtered through Brew Masters’ cornball reality show structure. Sure, they’ve got real problems that matter and are scary—but they’re also a bunch of red-blooded Americans hankering for a beer while on the job. The histrionics of the former image reveal the manufactured nature of the latter, creating a dissonance that is (wait for it) pretty hard to swallow.

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Stray observations:

  • “15 years ago home-brewing, maybe 20 years ago.” Didn’t you just say that it was 20 years of brewing beers? Which is it? Couldn’t they have edited this in post or redone the segment for the sake of a lil continuity?
  • Calagione’s hip hop group looks like they’re going for a Beastie Boys kind of look, except there are only two of them and they can’t rap. This is funny.
  • I wonder if they used the same models for visualizing what ingredients go into their beers as Ron Howard did for anti-matter in Angels & Demons on purpose or not.
  • I wonder why I remember Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons at all.
  • All the tidbits about the history of American brewing are a little silly. We get it, you’re continuing an American tradition of innovation, yadda yadda.
  • The pace of this episode is a killer. It takes way too long to get from idea to conception, or at least, it feels that way thanks to the various asides the show has to make to keep from being too monotonous.
  • The music video snippet played over the show's ending credits wasn’t as endearing or cute as the producers thought it was. The one time I smiled was because of its use of auto-tune.

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