Lock ‘n Load premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on Showtime.

Showtime’s Lock ‘n Load is delightfully non-partisan about America’s gun obsession, so much so that you almost want it to take a point of view at some point in its first season of six episodes. Still, there’s something about its relentlessly unopinionated trip through a world where everybody’s scared of some non-specified menace and thus wants to own a gun that ends up being compelling, even if the show occasionally seems intent on being all things to both gun nuts and those who find gun nuts a little terrifying. Lock ‘n Load isn’t trying to understand gun culture so much as it is trying to simply get down in the midst of it.

Lock ‘n Load’s individual episodes don’t even have anything approaching an overarching storyline. They consist of a long series of relentless vignettes, marching along and each telling their own little story about the people who come in to The Shootist, a gun store and firing range on the outskirts of Denver, and either buy guns or go down to the range to fire them. The primary guy doing the selling is Josh T. Ryan, the series co-creator and co-executive producer, who refers to himself, somewhat irritatingly (and completely irritatingly in the press notes) as a “gunslinger” because he’s decided it sounds cooler than gun salesman. The vignettes all follow a pretty reliable pattern. Someone enters The Shootist. Ryan asks them what kind of gun they want. They decide (or go down to the firing range to test the gun out), and then they explain why they want the gun in the first place. Most of the threats they fear are non-specific, like a soon-to-be father who just has a vague feeling that he should own a gun to protect his wife and imminent child, but a few were recently victims of a violent crime or, y’know, bear attack. (Ryan, to his credit, tells the bear attack victim that a pistol isn’t going to stop a rampaging bear.)

Ryan, a theatre actor at night, conceived of the series when he decided he had an interesting job that would play well on TV, which led to him selling the series to Showtime and outfitting his store with hidden cameras that capture his interactions with customers. This has a jarring effect at first – everything seems like it was shot from security camera angles for a while – but it eventually makes the show feel more real than most reality shows in the workplace reality subgenre. There are moments that are obviously staged, like a contest between Ryan and a customer at skeet shooting in tonight’s episode, but the majority of the show is surprisingly documentary-like, though it skews a little too close to being about all of the wacky yokels who wander into Ryan’s store at times.

The series is also a constant reminder that America’s relationship with guns is a supremely complicated one. The people who come into The Shootist run the gamut of possible reasons to want to own a gun, from just really liking the feeling of a gun in their hands to legitimate safety concerns to hobbyists of all shapes and sizes. Customers from other countries come in to complain about how they can’t buy guns in their nations, and Ryan always seems flabbergasted by this. Guns are such a part of the America that he and his customers live in that he seems honestly baffled as to why anyone would ever want to get rid of them. The varieties of guns that Ryan’s customers come in to try out run the gamut as well, from pistols to rifles to even bigger stuff.

Ryan’s canny enough to understand that this series is going to simultaneously play as a horror movie for one audience and a celebration of a misunderstood subculture for another. He includes segments in every episode that are seemingly designed to walk both sides of this line, including a long series of shots of kids who seem way too young to be seriously into guns who are, nonetheless, seriously into guns in tonight’s premiere. Also, there’s a pastor in tonight’s episode who comes in to buy a gun and talks sans irony about how the ownership of guns is a Biblically based value. In addition, Ryan takes pictures of heavily-armed customers for them to use as family photos, and in one episode, there’s a vignette that seems to consist entirely of people enthusiastically fondling firearms.

Because all of this is presented entirely without editorial comment, it ends up playing far more broadly than you’d ever expect a series about a gun store would. A large segment of the audience is going to spend most of the above sequences cringing when it considers the fact that there’s a huge subculture that seemingly fetishizes firearms. And a large segment of the audience is going to simply nod, say, “Yep, that’s how it is,” and roll its eyes at the thought that anyone would ever find something as innocuous as this deeply unnatural. It may be impossible to speak about this show and this subject without getting into gun control issues, but Ryan has done his best to make a series where such things never enter the equation. He wants to entertain both sides of the aisle.

I don’t typically like shows in the workplace reality subgenre, since they tend to work really hard to either over-dramatize workplaces that aren’t inherently dramatic or turn genuinely interesting workplaces into fodder for typical TV story arcs. Ryan avoids almost all of these pitfalls by just presenting what’s purported to be a typical day at his gun store. The usual office politics and forced soap opera dramatics of these types of series are absent, with the story of how the store came to be doled out in bits and pieces over the course of the season. This is just a parade of customers interacting with Ryan. It’s inherently episodic, and that means the series rises and falls entirely on the basis of whether Ryan’s an interesting guy to follow around. For the most part, he is, not trying too hard to be entertaining and genuinely engaged and knowledgeable about what he does. He’s the kind of guy you want behind the counter when you walk into any small business, and that proves to be a surprisingly fun guy to build a reality show around.

I don’t want to oversell Lock ‘n Load, which is a well-done show in its subgenre but nothing that you’re going to be so involved in you’ll carve out time to watch it every week. It seems like the sort of show you let pile up on the TiVO and then watch a marathon of on a rainy Saturday afternoon. But I grew up around the kinds of people Lock ‘n Load depicts, and it’s rare to see them on TV without them being presented as completely goofy dumbasses. The show's dedication to just showing this world the way it is ends up being weirdly admirable. And it has more going for it than just that. Despite the fact that I could load and fire a gun if need be and the now useless knowledge from a hunters’ safety course I took at age 12 rattling around in my brain, I now don’t have a gun in my house and am generally skeptical that if everyone had one, the world would be a safer place. But Ryan could probably sell one to me, and that ends up making the show way more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Stray observations:

  • There’s a pretty amusing segment in the third episode that shows exactly how those background checks you’ve heard so much about work.
  • I like the fact that between vignettes, the camera zooms out to what feels like a God’s eye view of all of the cameras before zooming back in on one of them. It makes the show feel more action-packed than it really is.
  • I’m not sure we need the constant reminders that the sounds of guns booming on the soundtrack are coming from the downstairs firing range, but maybe people really would forget that from episode to episode.

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