Buckwild—MTV’s latest attempt to capture the hearts, minds, and hormones of America’s most bored demographic—is full of warning signs. I don’t mean “warning signs” in the “early indications of cultural decline” sense of the phrase, though that definition would apply as well. I mean literal signs: title cards, the standard “Do not attempt!’s” preceding acts of daring. They wouldn’t be notable if there weren’t so many of them. In addition to a screen before the broadcast that weirdly and winkingly refers to the cast’s behavior as “wild and crazy,” text pops up whenever the show’s roster of delightfully irrepressible youths is about to perpetrate some dumb, dangerous feat. And while it’s unclear how much of the gang’s supposedly typical leisure activity is contrived to impress the viewers at home, the things they come up with are definitely that. They roll each other down hills inside of tractor tires. They demolish and then set fire to an old car. They speed their pickup truck through the backwoods, beers in hand. It appears that MTV has a strangely contradictory safety policy. Several weeks ago, executive producer John Stevens refuted criticism about the show’s exploitative potential by claiming kids at home would watch these carefree hooligans “and wish they could be them.” Yet with its reliance on all of this moralistic caution tape, the network seems to be emphatically retreating from that argument. Be like them, the warning signs say, but don’t do anything they do.
The truth is that, in addition to serving as a liability waiver, the signs also seem designed to sensationalize a product conscious of its own pointlessness. When Senator Joe Manchin wrote his now-infamous letter to MTV, he decried the network’s decision to “[play] to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.” But if Buckwild is any indication of what people in West Virginia are actually like, it will probably debunk more myths than it will bolster. The show’s stupid stars—who largely spend their days devising ways to waste time—seem pretty much like stupid people everywhere, albeit more willing to exhibit their recklessness (for the boys) or cruelty (for the girls) on camera. Despite their oh-so constant declarations to the contrary, their hometown pride and country upbringing don’t manifest themselves in any fascinating or unusual lifestyle quirks. At least, not that I can tell. That’s not to say that the specific brand of their stupidity isn’t flavored by the ingredients available to them. They go “muddin’” (literally just driving a pick-up truck through big puddles of mud) and, in the second episode, turn a dump truck into an ad hoc swimming pool with the aid of some mattresses and a waterproof tarp, but they’re not stupid in any discernible West Virginian way. In fact, Shain—who, with his impenetrable accent and stalwart provincialism, is arguably the most stereotypically West Virginian of them all—is also easily the most likeable member of the posse. It’s possible that he’s hamming it up as much as his friends are, but if he is, he’s the only one that comes off as charming in the least.
O, were that Buckwild were all about Shain! Instead, viewers are saddled with a retinue of reality-TV stock types that has become as predictable as commedia dell’arte. Anna claims the coveted role of The Bitch early on, rivaled only by Cara, who is shaping up to be quite The Conniving Hussy. Tyler is The Flirt, which we have to take on faith since outside of his good looks, he might as well be a mannequin. The rest of the cast is, at least by the end of the second episode, either indiscernible from each other or too boring to mention, save Katie, who stands out by virtue of her baffling helplessness, and Joey, whose immaturity oscillates between endearing and frightening.
Adherence to type isn’t a problem per se, but Buckwild lacks the narrative engine to drive its types toward any kind of compelling conflict. The net result is a series of confusing and poorly manufactured fake problems. Anna is incensed and outraged when the woman who lives next door comes over to complain about the gang’s party, even though the express purpose of the shindig was to upset their neighbors (see: the title of the episode). Sure, the woman is a little rude, but Anna manages to escalate from using her indoor voice to breaking out in fisticuff in less then ten seconds. Later on, when Anna learns that Cara inexplicably chose to have sex with Tyler in her bed, Cara storms off in a self-righteous fit of rage. “Make your own fucking chili!” she screams, just before climbing into her SUV and driving away. Why is she upset again? And where the hell is she going?
If these dramas seem female-centric, it’s because they are. While the ladies engage in irrational yelling matches and share meaningful silences, the males of the clan pass the time with simpler and infinitely more entertaining hobbies: setting fires, hitting each other with whatever’s handy, unsafely hitching rides on construction equipment. (It’s a shame that Jackass is already a thing.) If the show has one thing going for it so far, it’s the hilarious dynamic that exists between the girls, who attempt to engulf the group with their self-demeaning histrionics, and the boys, who are so absorbed in the pursuit of pyrotechnics and cheap thrills that they barely even notice them. When Cara ditches her friends to go make out with Tyler, she solemnly tells him that her friends can’t know about their canoodling. Firstly, it’s not at all clear why this arbitrary piece of information needs to be a secret. But secondly, and more importantly, it’s very clear that Tyler is barely listening. In an earlier scene, at the same time that Katie tells her roommates that they are getting evicted in the foreground, Shain and Joey wrestle in the background, screaming like morons and destroying deck furniture. The only way the juxtaposition could have been better would be if the two doofuses were actually conscious of the fact that they were trolling the very fabric of which they are a part, bringing it down from the inside like a pair of hillbilly moles.
With its almost concerted effort at complete flatness, Buckwild feels oddly like MTV is making amends for the insensitivity of Jersey Shore. The venture into Appalachia tiptoes around the same tastelessness in which its Garden State predecessor frolicked. And, true to the stereotype, it’s completely toothless. I almost wish the network had incited a bunch of rubes into inadvertently lampooning themselves and their home state. At least then there would be something to talk about.
- The intro states that West Virginia was “founded on the freedom…to do whatever the fuck we want.” It was actually founded on freedom from enslavement, but potato, potahto.
- Katie’s gendered perception of her own helplessness is actually pretty disturbing. For example, when she and the girls are planning to move, she says, “We definitely need the boys to help us. We can’t move things.”
- “What I like about Cara is her style, and she’s got a good brain on her shoulders.” What? Gross.
- I really hope that Cara deals with every problem by getting in her car and driving away.
- Is it just me, or does it seem like Shain’s feelings are really hurt by his friends’ “good-natured” jabs about his accent? Also, if he doesn’t have a phone, how does anyone contact him?
- “When you don’t have much, you gotta be creative.” Too true, MTV. Too true.