CMT, home to Trick My Trucker and My Big Redneck Wedding, is still trying to attract audiences with “countrified” imitations of other networks’ hits. Which is fine: In a universe that may see more than one "Hatfields and McCoys"-related series, it would be a lot to ask of a niche basic cable channel that it be the one standing firm and tall for originality. But it’s still embarrassing to see an established network resort to such a bare-faced rip-off of Survivor this far into the 21st century. When Survivor was brand new, there were a number of shows that tried to catch its tail wind, but that added some twist of their own, so the producers could still look at themselves in the mirror. (Remember the one where the contestants were made to dress like the characters on Gilligan’s Island? How the hell did that show fail? It had a theme song performed by Bowling for Soup!)
Redneck Island differentiates itself from Survivor mostly in ways that point up howcheap it looks. There are fewer contestants, and they’ve been parked on a stretch of Mexican beach that looks as if there’s probably a place ten feet off-camera where you can buy fireworks and beer. The host is Steve Austin, who apparently doesn’t go by “Stone Cold Steve Austin” anymore, even though it only increases the odds that someone will ask him if he ever hears from Jamie Sommers. Lumbering into camp, he explains the ground rules to the contestants and says that, every week, “Whoever can’t cut it, I’ll send their ass home.” Jeff Probst never got that brusque even with the guy who kept writing down nicknames of his own devising at Tribal Council, so that Jeff had to violate the sanctity of the secret ballot to ask him who the hell he'd meant to vote for.
Of course, the big reason for this show’s existence is right there in the title: They’re all rednecks, and and you’ve never seen a group of people so proud to be reduced to a cultural stereotype. Which, again, would be fine, if they were identifying themselves as rednecks because of some deep attachment to family tradition or the culture or history of a place, instead of asserting their love of football, suds, and the oeuvre of Hank Williams, Jr. (Are we all completely convinced that Hank Williams and Hank Williams, Jr. came out of the same gene pool? Where’s the birth certificate, you know what I’m saying?) If the show has a designated pot-stirrer, it’s Eric, who wears a headband, a bandana wrapped around his wrist, and a huge tattoo on his bicep, and who disdains the title “redneck.” “I’m not just smarter than the average redneck,” he boasts. “I’m smarter than every redneck. Every hillbilly, every country boy, every Southern belle.”
The fact that Eric can’t shut up about his intellectual superiority to a bunch of folks he’s hoping will vote to award him “$100,000 cash money” is the first hint that he might not really be as bright as all that. Evidence continues to accumulate throughout the hour, as Eric goes from hanging out with his new friends to losing a team challenge to facing the chopping block at this show’s version of Tribal Council, without ever catching on to how thoroughly hated he is and how hard everyone is plotting against him. When Eric wins the position of team leader by the luck of the draw, Bobo, the other alpha male in the group make the best of the “keep your friends closer, but your enemies closer” strategy. At one high point, he encourages Eric to get in solid with the rest of the island population by sending him out farther and farther into the ocean to look for seafood. While Eric flails about, trying to keep his footing, Bobo tells the camera, “The farther out to sea he goes, the deeper he gets. He’s liable to catch some crabs, but otherwise, it’s just deeper water for him to drown in. Win-win situation.”
The two teams aren’t divided up at the start according to gender, the way they were during the last season of Survivor, but the other team captain, Dove, has the same breakthrough idea that Kim Spradlin rode to victory, of forming an alliance between the women players. The women have an extra vote in Adam, a haggard-looking gay man who is happy to be identified as “really” one of the “girls.” This note of token diversity only emphasizes how lily-white the show is. It seems that there are gay rednecks—which isn’t really a surprise, though it’s nice that we’ve reached a point where one of them can hang out on a beach with a bunch of good ol’ boys and make it out alive, so long as there are cameras recording their time together and legal contracts have all been signed—but no black or Latin rednecks. It’s not that the term “redneck” should be an all-encompassing rainbow, but that the show is more boring than it had to be because of the casting director’s slavish devotion to what a “typical” working-class Southerner has to be. On Survivor, Coulton, with his eye-rolling snarkiness and his identification of himself as a gay Republican (“I do not believe in handouts.”), livened things up because he challenged any attempt to reduce him to a familiar caricature. Redneck Island is all about reducing people to familiar caricatures, and about them loving it, because otherwise, they’d have no identity at all.
If Redneck Island has anything to say about Southerners—and any show that defines people by a label is saying something, even if it’s “all in good fun”—it’s that Southerners are dumb as shit. The contestants aren’t required to construct their own shelters, and in the context of what else goes on in this show and how close it is to Survivor in the general outlines, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the producers didn’t trust them not to die of exposure if they weren’t provided with four walls and a roof. However, the big prize in the first reward challenge is a “golden luxury outhouse”, which is the centerpiece of a contest that involves locking and unlocking people in a row of portable toilets. It also carries an implicit message about the health and stamina of the typical redneck: Two contestants are taken out of the game for medical reasons in the first episode. (One of them drops out after suffering an injury in the challenge, though Steve Austin makes it clear that the injury didn’t look that bad to him and he thinks the fellow is a pussy. The other is a diabetic who does some manual labor in the sun and is carted off on a stretcher, with a blood sugar level of 333. Explaining his decision not to return, he says, “I don’t see my daughter enough as it is, and being found dead on a beach somewhere isn’t gonna help that situation at all.”) Redneck Island carries a discouraging message about the state of evolution, whether you see it as a sign of the current state of reality TV or rednecks.
- Line I have mixed feelings about having lived lone enough to hear someone speak on TV: “I’m afraid I might die in the crapper with Cathy.”
- Line that, if I had to hear it said by anyone, but especially Steve Austin, I’m just glad he was on TV, on a family channel: “All right, let’s kick some ass and get it goin’. Come over here and I’m gonna lock you inside these outhouses.”
- Bobo, passing judgment on the guy who drops out because of his diabetic episode: “They didn’t say ‘redneck vacation.’ This is Redneck Island.” I know where he’s going with this, but technically, many islands make excellent vacation spots. I’m just sayin’.
- “I felt just as useless as [bleep!] on a warthog.” Okay, I’m guessing the censored word was “tits,” because I am familiar with this sentence construction when it ends with the word “bull.” That makes sense, because all bulls are male. But some warthogs are female, and though I haven’t made a study of this, I’m guessing that, like other mammals, they suckle their young, which means that plenty of warthogs have tits and make good use of them. Again, I’m just sayin’. “Useless as tits on a bull” is a perfectly good, logical, easy-to-understand figure of speech. There’s no need to make yourself look stupider than you have to by trying to improve on the wheel.