Lately, Discovery Channel has specialized in the kind of shows that make whatever life stresses you have seem infinitely manageable. Problems with your boss? Fighting with your spouse? Sure, OK. Still probably better than getting your hand chomped off trying to catch alligators or tangle with horrifying machinery and bone-chilling cold while panning for gold. Moonshiners comes from the same school of shows like Swamp People and Hillbilly Handfishin': it either makes you appreciate your relatively mundane life with all its complications, or it makes you want to run away to a rural corner of the American South and live off the land. Or, for me, both at the same time.
The way Moonshiners is set up a little bit like The Wire, if The Wire was a reality show set in rural Virginia. It's main content is the incredible stressful tediousness of policework and criminal activities, even with the added thrilling overtones of danger. We see the trade from both the side of Tim, an enterprising moonshiner perpetually clothed in overalls with nothing underneath, and Jesse, an alcohol control agent who bears a fleeting resemblance to John Goodman's Walter in The Big Lebowski. My allegiances immediately went to Tim based on attire alone, but also because the grounds for making an enormous case over moonshine seemed pretty shaky. I know it's sexier to imagine corn liquor as some sort of hillbilly version of heroin, but Jesse's logic—that the illegal whiskey industry fuels more crime than legal whiskey—seems dicey, though I'm no expert.
In any case, Jesse's missions this week, despite the Discovery Channel's choice of extreme tension music at every turn, weren't exactly things to write home about. Twice he approached the equipment of potential moonshiners, and twice he was forced to back down due to logistical concerns. It's certainly good policy to make reasonably sure of your surroundings and what you're up against before you storm into a house full of heavily armed bootleggers, but it makes for flat television.
But maybe it's just that I was so immediately taken with Tim and his ridiculous entourage. Tim spent the episode sneaking ineffectually in his banged up pick-up truck, cobbling together the bits of his still on a patch of creek that he deemed worthy of the cause. For someone who seemed concerned about the legality of his activities, Tim seemed to advertise what he was doing at every opportunity. There are, for example, several bumper stickers on his truck, including the classic mischievously peeing-Calvin over the word "moonshine." No need to call in Sherlock for that one. There was also the scene—maybe my favorite of the whole episode—where Tim, scouting a suitable source of water with a shotgun balanced across the dashboard, gets blocked on a bridge by a concerned neighbor and his gun-toting wife on an ATV. The resulting stand off is part manners and part menace. "What would you say if someone set up a still along this creek?" Tim asks enterprisingly. "Well, I don't think I'd allow that," the leery neighbor admitted. Then, just as casually Tim mentions his shotgun. "I can shoot pretty good, from a squirrel to a grown man." The neighbor amiably backs off and then drives away across a neighboring field.
The other members of Tim's team, his son J.T. and his companion Tickle, are there for manual labor and commentary on the patriotism of their endeavor. As Tickle sees it, bootlegging is about protecting the heritage of America, and not just making several thousand dollars tax-free. (The numbers on this were conflicting, but it seemed like in the three month moonshine season you could definitely make enough for it to be worth your while). "If you really love your country," Tickle informs us seriously, "You're gonna have to love moonshine."
Well, maybe not. But Tickle does raise the good point that the interest in moonshine versus plain standard whiskey is that, well, "what's legal isn't as much fun." In my personal experience, moonshine is nasty stuff (think the scene in Parks and Recreation when Ron Swanson, Leslie Knope, and the first Tammy are sitting around a gallon jug full of the Swanson's family brew, Leslie takes a swig and utters a single word: "Poison") but it sure sounds cool. Similarly, I appreciated the footage of the famed (and now, sadly, late) Popcorn Sutton, the artisanal moonshiner who claimed to have started drinking and smoking at the age of 6 and looked like a hillbilly from The Simpsons come to life. Which is why I think that Moonshiners has potential. You can't make it without corn mash, and it's pretty hard to make a show about it without some great characters.
Moonshiners debuts tonight on Discovery at 10 p.m.