Truck Stop, Missouri debuts tonight on Travel Channel at 10 p.m. Eastern.
The Travel Channel's "docu-series" Truck Stop, Missouri is set at the Midway Truck Stop, which, as its name suggests, is located dead center between St. Louis and Kansas City. The truck stop itself actually houses twelve businesses, including a diner, a motel, an antiques store, a fireworks stand, and a tattoo parlor. The star and host of the series is Joe Bechtold, the general manager who oversees the whole sprawling enterprise. It's a family business: Joe, as he's called throughout, got as far away from it as Australia, where he started his family, only to be summoned back home to take the reins and honor the legacy of his father, who started it all. This information is barely sketched in during the opening credits, even though it hints at a rich back story that you might expect the show to want to do something with. That might be a deliberate choice. The show is so single-minded in the way that it strives for a light-hearted tone that the producers may have decided to just steer clear of anything that might touch an emotional chord, either in the people on the screen or in the viewers at home.
It's easy to imagine how, in any previous pop culture era, a phenomenon like the Midway could have inspired a TV series. A producer on a cross-country vacation stops there, or hears about it or reads a human-interest story about it in the paper, and automatically thinks, "This place is a gold mine!" The next thing you know, a simulation of the Midway has been constructed on some soundstage in Los Angeles, and a live studio audience is gathered to watch some sitcom veteran or actor whose movie career has peaked hustle around the set, simulating an anxiety attack as he has to deal with a procession of character comics playing the wacky tattoo artist, the daffy switchboard operator, the wise-cracking coffee shop waitress, etc. Forty or fifty years ago, it might have been Bob Denver in the lead. Now, it might be someone like Ed Helms, whose oeuvre Joe does in fact appear to have studied in preparation for his TV debut.
"Authenticity" in pop culture is one of those ridiculous yet vexing non-issues that keep popping up over and over, long after everybody thinks they've been set aside and buried for the last time. I used to hang out at Salon's Table Talk chat board before they started charging people for the privilege, a move that I am convinced was specifically designed to chase me off. I got into a number of silly arguments there, but none seemed sillier than the one that soon emerged, principally on the subject of Survivor, over "authenticity" as it relates to reality TV. Once it became clear that the producers of that show were "manipulating" the footage to provide misdirection and simplify people's characters and create the appearance of a streamlined narrative—in short, to make the shape the footage in way that would make it entertaining—some people, who had apparently been hoping to basically watch unedited security camera footage of a bunch of strangers on a desert island—reacted as if Mark Burnett and CBS had been caught inserting Imperial storm troopers into the Zapruder film.
A lot of reality TV has flowed over the airwaves since then, and some of it more morally questionable than the rest. Maybe all of it is aesthetically questionable, but I think most of us learn to make our peace with the shows that hold us, whether it's The Amazing Race or Breaking Bonaduce. I can't argue that there's anything morally wrong with Truck Stop, Missouri, which is basically a reality sitcom. But watching it often feels awkward as hell, because you can see the people "acting", trying to come across as the lovable, amusing oddballs that the concept requires them to be. They seem perfectly happy to turn themselves into sitcom cartoons, especially Joe, who's the put-upon but perennially good-natured boss-of-all-trades, and Ben, his young "right-hand man". Watching them, it occurred to me that the issue of "real people" who are obviously acting for the camera doesn't come up more as a glaring problem in reality TV. But maybe it's not that the people who made Truck Stop, Missouri know their craft any less well than whoever makes the Real Housewives shows. Maybe it's just a reminder that it's easier for untrained performers to pull off a tantrum or a hissy fit or act like a scheming bastard or even someone falling in love with someone they barely know than it is to pull off comedy.
The show is full of scenes, such as the one where the motel is invaded by a bunch of Civil War re-enactors who are reluctant to break character long enough to work out a deal for their rooms ("Will you take a government I.O.U.?"), that might have actually been funny, if only the people themselves didn't overly pleased with themselves for being so hilariously eccentric. There's also the resident guy who's weird even by the standards set by the "normal" weirdos—call him the Kramer or Exidor or Reverend Jim figure. This is Ken, who keeps tying his team of horses to the Midway's gas line, explaining that there's nothing else he can do until Joe builds him a hitching post.
Ken, who wears what looks like a ten-year-old's attempt to make Jed Clampett's hat out of construction paper, finally offers to leave the gas line alone if Joe will permit him to sell his homemade womens wear selections on the premises, and also permit him to hang around to try to badger people into buying it. Somebody in the editing room found Ken so irresistible that a good chunk of his appearance in the first episode turns up again in the second.(To their credit, none of these people actually double over laughing on-camera, because they think they're so funny. Say what you like about them, they're not Dennis Miller.) Other scenes, such as Ben taking a break from his chores to have his car washed by a squad of bikini-clad cheerleaders and getting a phone call from Joe, who's standing right beside the car washing him, are so Sanford-Schwartz cornball they'd be tarred and feathered if they showed up on NBC's Thursday night comedy block, but Joe seems mighty tickled to be doing them anyway. It's like watching somebody making funny faces and do pratfalls in videos of their vacation.
The most entertaining thing about this series so far may be the brief visits with some of the people who pass through the Midway, who are given just enough camera time to be tagged with identifying captions such as "GRIFFIN, COFFEE DRINKER" and "MATT, HITCHHIKER," and get off some loopy non sequitur. (One old dude who looks like Martin Short after a vampire attack says that he comes to the Midway because it's a "stress reliever" and adds, "I just filed for divorce today, so I really need it.") No matter what else is going on in Truck Stop, Missouri, the show can't completely destroy the allure of its location. There's still a romantic allure to the idea of the great American road trip, and part of the romance attaches itself to the places where you stop along the way for sustenance, bathroom breaks, and the almighty knickknacks. I doubt I'm the only person who's ever pulled out of a place like that wondering what kind of life goes on there day in and day out, year after year. Just enough of that comes through here to give this show a reason for being. I just wish it really did feel more like a "docu-series" and less like something concocted by a Carnival cruise entertainment director.