I've known people who will tell you, and not because you asked, that they do not like and do not care about country music. Too bad for them, and not just because Brad Paisley's latest album, the helpfully titled This Is Country Music, is the shit! These people are also unaware that Country Music Television, the Red States' answer to MTV, has produced some real hairy-eyeball television, especially since it became the property of Viacom's MTV Networks in 1999 and started chasing the reality-show audience. I can't say that I've ever seen any series on CMT that I would characterize as "good", but there have been some amazing contributions to that special category of television that you might stumble across while sitting at home lonely and half-drunk late at night or on a weekend morning, shows to which the only proper response is, as Bob Dylan once put it, to sit there and stare.
Where else where you going to see people celebrate their nuptials by presiding over a mud-wrestling tournament in a show called My Big Redneck Wedding? Or Kinky Friedman's presidential aspirations given the documentary series treatment, in a show that I'm not sure made it past its first episode, before the network sobered up and realized who it was in bed with. Or a competition show where celebrities—some with musical backgrounds, some without—vie for the honor of proving themselves worthy to cut a country single produced by John Rich. In one season, the talent on deck included Shelia E, Mickey Dolenz, Richard Grieco, and the commander of the Mothership himself, George Clinton, making his most extended foray into series television since Tracey Ullman needed a theme song. But the days of weird accidents on CMT may be coming to a close. Tonight's double bill of new series premieres reveals a new, polished ruthlessness at ripping off formats that the big networks have already bled dry and skewing them towards what the executives, with no small degree of contempt, apparently conceive of as their target demographic.
First up is Sweet Home Alabama. This supernatural-themed action series stars Travis Tritt as the ghost of Ronnie Van Zandt, who has had it up to here with seeing the title of one of his trademark songs appropriated by the makers of lame romantic comedies, commercials, parade organizers, etc. So he busts out of Rock 'n' Roll Heaven and goes on a bloody rampage, while disgraced FBI agent and conspiracy buff Buford Beauregard Mulder (Clint Black) tries in vain to convince someone, whoa, sorry, must have dozed off there for a second. As I was saying, Sweet Home Alabama is "The Country Bachelorette". A bunch of self-described "country boys" and penned up with a bunch of lads from the big cities and given the chance to compete for the fair hand of Devin Grissom, a pretty, blue-eyed blonde who has the personality of a very nice rock.
Even before they've laid eyes on her, the country boys all compete to outdo each other in paying tribute to Devon as "a true Southern belle", a phrase that would have to figure heavily in any decent Sweet Home Alabama drinking game. For the record, I was born in Louisiana and have spent most of my life in the South, and I have never heard anyone use the phrase "Southern belle", true or otherwise, in real life, ever. I've never met anyone I could imagine anyone ever using it unironically. Do I just run with a dull crowd, or is there something about a reality TV camera that just brings this creepy, archaic phrase jumping, unbidden, from people's larynxes? As near as I can remember, the last time I heard anyone use it was back in 2002, during the third season of Big Brother, when Amy's friends back home would invariably describe her as "a true Southern belle." That was usually the editor's cue to pull up a shot of Amy sprawled face down on Marcellas's bed, with string cheese hanging out of her mouth.
Devon says that she's interested in meeting guys who may be different from the guys she's known all her life, and that she's "intrigued" by the promise of the city. The women on the old NBC reality show Average Joe always said at the beginning that they were interested in meeting a man they could love for his inner qualities, but by a funny coincidence, they always ended up choosing one of the male model types shipped in as an alternative to the schlubs. Devon is most convincing when she rhapsodizes about guys who "love their football, anything outdoors, hunting and fishing," the kind of man she sums up as "stereotypical country." If there's anything that moves Sweet Home Alabama from the ranks of the fairly boring to that of the mildly depressing, it's seeing how eager the guys are to define themselves as stereotypes for the camera, and how hostile and bewildered they are towards anyone who has a different stereotype—or, God forbid, an actual personality—in his head.
Closing ranks to protect their delicate Southern belle from the influx of Yankee carpetbaggers, the country boys, many of whom favor jeans and shirtless wifebeaters and strategically placed tats, hoot and jeer at the arriving city boys, mocking them for their "costumes" and "outfits." "Everybody came dressed as a stereotype"—there's that word again—"like they'd seen at Halloween." There is one Yankee interloper who stands out as a cartoon: Jeff, an escapee from the "Jersey Thing" episode of South Park, who can't wait to tell Devon that he's famous in his neck of the woods for having made out with Snooki. And, okay, Pete Westwood, "a music manager for independent artists", does look like a heterosexual Michael Musto, if you can get that concept through your head. But for all the country boys' insistence that the city guys look like preening metrosexual weirdo poseurs, for the most part, they just look like… well, guys.
Again, I'm pretty Southern myself, so I really don't think this is my cultural conditioning talking. But when the country boys explode with derision and dismay because the city guys are wearing suits and some of them try to introduce themselves by handing out their business cards, almost as if they were from Dallas or Atlanta, the country guys seem to have the symptoms of not being Southern confused with the symptoms of no longer being in junior high. The true sign of how cultural conditioning works in our times may be that some of the Yankees seem to agree with their country cousins that a Red State girl would naturally be truer and cleaner than one of those Sex and the City sluts you find in the asphalt jungle. After Jeff's bravado backfires and nearly gets him thrown out because of Devon's concerns "based on your lifestyle and people you've dated in the past," he thanks the powers that be for giving him another chance and passionately vows, "I will not bring her to Jersey at all, no, no, no, no, no, no," lest the malign influence of the place transform her into another "of those Jersey whores."
There are no Yankee interlopers, and not even too many men, in the world of Texas Women, A.K.A. "The Real Single Girls and One Housewife of North Texas". The series focuses on four friends: Anna, a stock contractor whose profession gives the show the excuse it needs to slip in the occasional close-up of bull slobber; Hannah, whose occupation is listed as "Party Girl", and who never tires of referring to herself as "Hurricane Hannah" or variants thereof; Brooke, a barrel racer who is married to a fellow named Jason who has a seemingly endless tolerance for being shrieked at in her helium voice; and Ali Dee, who despite her name is not played by Sasha Baron Cohen in drag, to my eternal regret. Ali is the most career-focused of the four. She has a job as a TV host for the Dallas Mavericks, but becoming a country singer is "the most important thing" in her life. Towards that end, she shows up at a local radio station with a gift basket and asks to see the boss. As she tells us, trying to get some airplay or even a meeting by just barging in like this when you don't have a music contract almost never works, but apparently it doesn't hurt if you show up with a camera crew in tow.
The principal drama in the first episode comes from the saga of Anna and Hannah, who have decided to move in together. Anna and her dog arrive at their new house while Hannah and her dog are still on the road, which leads to a phone conversation that goes like this: "Where are you?" "Oh, just heading to you. What're you doin?" "How do I get in the house?" "II have no idea. Break a window or something." "I'm not breaking up a window. Do you have a key?" "I don't have a key." "I don't have a key. You have the key." "Well, I don't have a key either." "You're the responsible one in this relationship. I'm a little hurricane." Samuel Beckett used to sweat blood crafting language that would achieve this effect, and these airheads just open their mouths, and out it spills. (The married version can heard when Brooke and Jason set out to blow up some varmint holes that are mottling their property. She refers to them as gopher holes and then asks Jason, "Are they moles or gophers?" He says, "You can call 'em anything you want." "Scientifically, what are they?" Moles, he says. He also tells her that setting off the explosive charges isn't dangerous, "but they're, like, rigged contraptions, so I think they're dangerous.")
Trouble breaks out in paradise when Anna and Hannah go out to celebrate their new living arrangement and things start to go sour. Anna gives Hannah a playful rap in the head with a menu, and Hannah, seeing the chance to grow indignant over being "belittled" and "disrespected"—two words that loom large in her smallish vocabulary—gives her an open-palm bitch slap to the forehead. The next night, this domestic abuse incident is the talk of, well, the table where the girls meet to get bitchy, then fall out, then reconcile, and repair to a club, where we're allowed to hear one of them tell a guy, "I'm not that kind of girl," but not to hear what he said to her that might help clarify what exactly it is that she's not. Of the four, Hannah is easily the hardest to like, if only because she's the one who most strongly suggests that her corporeal form would dissolve into a loose scramble of atoms if the camera were to suddenly stop paying attention to her. Her sheer vacancy and the flatness of her affect, combined with her confidence that she's the wildest thing the airwaves will ever see, are more reminiscent of Paris Hilton than you'd have thought anyone could be, unless they'd been bred in a lab and designed, from birth, to star in a lower-tier reality show. One of the women says early on that she likes working with livestock because she thinks sweat is sexy, which is part of the problem with both these shows. Plastic doesn't sweat.