Former International Boxing Association Super-Heavyweight Champion, five-time World Toughman Heavyweight Champion, holder of the Elite 1 Super Heavyweight title in mixed martial arts, professional wrestler, participant in movie projects involving Johnny Knoxville and Carrot Top, and guest voice talent on a very special episode of Squidbillies, Eric "Butterbean" Esch is a man who wears many hats. I'll bet he really tears through the socks and underwear, too. If you doubt that we're in living legend territory here, maybe you should ask yourself how many other people earned their nicknames from a diet they were forced to adopt in order to get down to their sport's mandated maximum weight of 400 pounds? (Wikipedia lists his current weight at 420 pounds. Time to switch back to the zero-calorie soda and baked Cheetos?)
As seen in Big Law, the new reality show about his activities as a deputy sheriff in his hometown of Jasper, Alabama (pop. 14,052), Butterbean carries his legendary status lightly, though he does seem very attached to his superhero name. I don't know how many reasons there can be for watching a show like this, but if the premiere is anything to go by, anyone tuning in hoping to see the star addressed as "Eric" may be disappointed. In fact, his law enforcement colleagues on the show, Adam Hadder and Steve Smith, mostly address him as "Bean". You know you've found your niche in American life you've got a nickname derived from your nickname.
(The fact that everyone calls Butterbean "Bean" also makes it easier to avoid confusing him with the late country comedian and Hee Haw star Stringbean, who everyone affectionately called "String." String and his wife were murdered by robbers in a 1973 case that was immortalized in an episode of A & E's City Confidential. According to Nick Tosches's book Country, the minister officiating at Stringbean's funeral got up and declared, "String had a string of friends. Now there is a string of sadness." If I was writing this for an episode of This American Life, right here is where I'd insert the music cue for Phil Harris singing, "That's What I Like About the South." Sorry about that; I really have been reading those memos that keep appearing on my desk about trying to stick to the subject.)
So, with his trusty sidekicks, Bean hangs out at Jasper's Narcotics Enforcement Team HQ, which looks like one of those stores by the side of a country road where you can still rent VCR tapes. An opening shot of Bean hugging his granddaughter and telling her that he has to "go catch bad guys" establishes his personal stake in the culture of Walker County, where meth usage is skyrocketing, apparently to the point that Walter White could write his own ticket there. Bean explains that he "became a deouty to get this junk off the streets and keep everybody straight."
If Bean thought that the producers wanted to make a show about his criminal law career because they valued his sage insights into those who live in the shadows, he may have been mildly dismayed when he looked at the finished product and saw how much work went into photographing him from odd angles designed to make him look like Mighty Joe Young after chemo. The opening montage includes a clip of him firing his gun somewhere out in a grassy area that can't help but call up memories of the classic YouTube clip popularly known as "Fatty Firing a Beretta". The intended comic highlight of the premiere comes when Bean, in order to complete his certification, has to submit to being tased. We get to see his face in tight close-up as 50,000 volts pass through him. He purses his lips and his eyes widen and almost cross, and then he says "Okay, that hurt" in a funny croak of a voice, though the guys with him (who go into hysterics over this) are quick to point out that most people can't say anything at all in any kind of voice right after the experience. If the contest to see who can best keep his dignity while getting tased on television comes down to Rick Sanchez versus Butterbean, the Bean can add another title to his trophy case.
As for how he's doing cleaning up Jasper, the jury may still be out. When Bean and the boys stage a raid on a shack that may be housing a meth operation, they're disappointed to find that their targets have flown the coop, leaving them nothing to do but stagger through the horrendous mess the culprits left behind and wonder aloud about what kind of people could stand to live this way. (Maybe police departments looking to crack down on meth in their area should work with the producers of Hoarders.) They have better luck with a 19-year-old single mother whose 28-year-old boyfriend is the "ringleader" of a gang of meth heads. (Sorry, I should have written "suspected" ringleader; every time something good threatens to happen on Big Law, a narrator pipes in to caution the viewers that the people you're seeing getting bent over like a pretzel while cuffs are being slapped on their wrists are "presumed innocent until proven guilty.") It's not exactly like outsmarting Professor Moriarty before he can nab the queen's jewels, but it's still more than I've done for society this week. Bean's singular contribution is to have a heart-to-heart with the girl, telling her she needs to cooperate with the authorities in order to do right by her child. "Bean has a way of talking to people," says Deputy Sheriff Hadder, "and tonight it made a big difference."
Whether or not Hadder is just being polite for the cameras, it's sort of nice to see a show of this kind trying to present its star as heroic because of his empathy for screwed-up people and his ability to reach out to them, instead of celebrating him as a Cro-Magnon head cracker. Part of the surprise of Big Law is that Bean, despite the best efforts of the camera crew, doesn't come across as fearsome or scary. He does come across that way in the ring, or in appearances in other media (such as the one on Squidbillies) that are based on the image he projects in the ring, but he must see that as part of his job. Here, he's supposedly just being himself, and the self he projects is sweet-natured and rather mild and quite deferential to the people who've been doing this law enforcement stuff longer than he has.
That's why Big Law doesn't really deserve the comparisons it'll inevitably inspire between it and Steven Seagal: Lawman, the historic landmark in unintentional comedy that grew out of the washed-up action star's ceremonial position as a "reserve deputy" in my old stomping grounds of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Granted, nobody with any talent in any field who's managed to live their lives on a higher moral plane than Jack the Ripper deserves to be compared with Seagal. But Butterbean's niceness, his modesty, his sense of proportion, and the fact that he's doing this where he lives, instead of whichever precinct in the United States would have him and his accompanying camera crew, keeps his show from having the reek of bad faith that attached itself to Seagal's show. The sad thing is that, in its horrible, horrible way, Seagal's show was more fun; watching Seagal (who, at one glorious moment, was recognized by a perp who respectfully addressed him as "Mr. Van Damme") make an ass of himself in front of a bunch of cops who were openly laughing up their sleeves was entertaining in a way that seeing Butterbean come across as well-meaning but clueless while trying to push back the tide of drug-related crime in his granddaughter's back yard never threatens to be. Reality TV: the paradox continues.