The stars of the History Channel's new reality series are Paul Patranella, a Texan who's a classically trained French chef, and his sidekick, Bill Allen, a mechanic and amateur cook. Both do indeed ride motorcycles, and while Allen is only moderately hairy, Patranella, with his long hair and beard and his mountainous girth stuffed into a pair of overalls, looks like a one-man Black Oak Arkansas tribute band. (To establish that Patranella is some kind of big deal in his field, the opening credits include a picture of him standing alongside George H. W. Bush, who, to judge from the expression on his face, might have posing for the camera at the exact moment that someone was reading him the 1992 election results. In the photo, Patranella is clean-shaven. The mountain man look is definitely the right one for him.) The concept of the show is that the two buddies mount their hogs and, like Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, ride around the back roads in search of the real America while trying not to speed up unexpectedly and crash into the camera truck. In their case, the real America is defined as someplace where they can check in at some down-home culinary establishment or cooking event and have an encounter with what Patranella, falling back on the kind of technical language you can only get from a classically trained French chef on two wheels, refers to as "weird food."
It sounds like a domestic, redneck version of Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show, but like the History Channel's version of Top Gear, this is actually an attempt to expand a popular BBC show into an international franchise. In Britain, David Myers and Si King, the original "Hairy Bikers", have been fronting a series of travelogue-with-cooking shows since 2004. (Their own show started out as pretty much Two Fat Ladies with a gender shift.) Unlike Top Gear, their show hasn't played on BBC America, so they don't have the same level of recognizability and popularity here, but you can find plenty of clips of them doing their thing at YouTube. It's hard to tell from these snippets how exciting their show is, but Myers and King are clearly accomplished TV presenters, with a relaxed, low-key confidence about their ability to hold the viewer's attention.
I don't know from what talent pool these American hairy bikers were drawn, or what kind of TV boot camp they were put through after the History Channel managed to pick out two guys who could cook and ride bikes and were willing to lose their razors. But right now, they don't come across as either seasoned pros (like Myers and King, both of whom had soent enough time performing various behind-the-scenes jobs on film and TV productions before they stepped in front of a camera so that they weren't awed by it) or inspired naturals. Petranella, in particular, lets you seem him worrying about being personable and colorful, so that he gives off am unfortunate whiff of flop sweat. He's also not especially articulate, and few things play worse on this kind of show than someone who isn't good with words but who's afraid to shut up.
Because the H.B.'s aren't able to sell it to you that wherever they are is the place to be, the show rises and falls on the surroundings themselves. The best of the two back-to-back episodes that kick things off is the first one, in which the guys set out for a jambalaya cooking contest in southern Louisiana. But first, they stopped off in Houma to do a little shopping for ingredients. Heavily armed, they clambored aboard a fanboat and went tearing around, blowing the heads off nutria. Maybe because I used to live in Louisiana, these scenes really warmed my heart. For the benefit of those who haven't really read up on displaced vermin, nutria are ridiculously huge, buck-toothed water rats that breed at an insane rate, especially considering they're so nasty-looking that you'd think that even a nutria wouldn't want to have sex with another nutria. This is not the first time I've thrilled to sight of real people shooting real nutria on TV; Dave Attell once tagged along with a group of high-spirited nutria hunters on his old Comedy Central show, Insomniac. Like Attell, the Hairy Bikers had scarcely heard of nutria before, but as soon as they got a look at one, they had to agree that shooting them on sight seemed like a great idea. Pointing out that, in addition to being ugly as sin, nutria also stink to high heaven, the fanboat operator held one up and said, "This is what turns everybody off, especially the women." "I must be part woman," said Paul. It was his best line of the night.
Shooting nutria is one thing, but the Hairy Bikers packed up their repulsive prizes and took them to Spuddy's Famous Cajun Foods for some professional guidance in how to incorporate the meat into their jambalaya recipe. Having established that nutria "tastes like pork crossed with venison crossed with the dark part of the turkey," they rolled the meat into sausages while the words "Sausage making began over 5000 years ago in Sumeria" suddenly flashed on the bottom of the screen, because this is still the History Channel, dammit! Finally, the Hairy Bikers took the sausages outside for a turn inside Spuddy's big outdoor oven. While the fires blazed away, and Bill tended the sausages, Spuddy and Paul took turns offering what they appeared to mean as words of encouragement. "You're handling your meat much better!" "Let's get that nice and tight." "Watch how you're handling your meat. Be very tender." It was like Blood Simple with Tobias Fünke.
At last the Hairy Bikers arrived at the jambalaya contest, only to discover, in what represented a serious black eye for someone on the advance research team, that all the competitors were required to employ the same basic set of ingredients, which did not include water rat. As a lark, Paul and Bill sneaked some nutria sausage into their pot on the sly, thus instantly disqualifying their dish and wasting the time of the people who had consented to taste it. But it was all in good, painfully forced fun. To give it what credit it has coming to it, though, the second episode, set in Oklahoma and featuring combine drivin', sheep testicle eatin', and beer drinkin', was so boring that the little factoids about the history of wheat planting in the United States and the date of Oklahoma's entry into the union were practically high points. When the show cut back and forth between the heroes lackadaisically making burgers in the back of a restaurant to a bunch of bikers in the dining area yelling for their food as if they were reading from an "APPLAUSE!" sign, you got to see the show trying too hard and not hardly trying at all, in practically the same breath. Paul and Bill seem like perfectly likable guys, but for this transatlantic transplant to take, they're going to have to learn to ride a lot harder than this, and learn it fast.