I wrote this story for the Sunday print edition:
For a time in the 1960s, Hollywood was fascinated by the South. Shows such as “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Green Acres” were peppered all over the TV schedule.
In recent years, it’s less the scripted folks and more the reality programmers who are mining Southern accents and
folksy hijinks for ratings gold. They are sifting through wetlands, (History’s “Swamp People”), hip-hop nightclubs (VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop Atlanta”) and rural backwoods (CMT’s “My Big Redneck Wedding”) for material.
This summer, TLC’s summer “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” hit the pop-culture zeitgeist. A spin off of “Toddlers & Tiaras,” the show focuses on 7-year-old Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson from McIntyre — a town of 650 residents just east of Macon — who spouts outrageous comments frequently construed as adorable. Samples: “You better redneckognize!” “A dolla makes me holla!”
Honey Boo Boo, has, in effect, become the “Snooki” of 2012: A polarizing, pint-sized package of blue-collar regionalism that viewers either adore or abhor. She’s been namedropped by both Pres. Barack Obama and his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, and the U.K.’s Daily Mail reports on her every move.
Fans of the show tend to profess their affection not for its seeming obsession with bodily functions but for the way the family members interact.
“It’s one of the most authentic and loving representations of a real family on television,” said Travis Wright, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin and a Tennessee native. “As a Southerner, I get the inside joke and can separate what’s performance and what’s real. I’m not sure my Northern friends can take such a nuanced perspective.”
But not everyone has gotten on the Honey Boo Boo bandwagon. Many consider this kind of national attention more cringe-worthy than a reason to celebrate.
“I have spent years telling my Northern friends that we don’t eat road kill and [dispelling] other Southern stereotypes,” said Cheryl Harris, 43, a customer care representative from Woodstock. “They were starting to believe me. Then Honey Boo Boo came along and wiped away all of that hard work!”
Realtor Jimmy Baron, a former radio DJ on 99X and Dave FM, agrees.
“These shows are geared for people in the North and California to watch so they can make fun of the South,” he said.
The first reality show set in Atlanta was the 2005 Bravo series “Being Bobby Brown,” which highlighted the R&B singer’s dysfunctional relationship with Whitney Houston. Since then, it appears almost every local R&B singer has tried a reality show as a way to boost his or her brand while the traditional music business stumbles: Monica, Keyshia Cole, Kandi Burruss, Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas. TV One recently featured “R&B Divas,” a show based primarily in Atlanta with the likes of Faith Evans and Nicci Gilbert. And Atlanta rap star T.I. has his own VH1 show, “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle.”
Seven years after “Being Bobby Brown,” in the wake of Houston’s February death, several of her relatives, including 19-year-old daughter Bobbi Kristina Houston, are now airing their own reality show on Lifetime.
Perhaps the most entrenched local show is Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” part of a franchise that thrives on catty women behaving badly. The Atlanta version is the most popular show in the franchise, and it’s the only one featuring a mostly black cast. Tonight it enters its fifth season with two new cast members: former Miss USA, actress and film producer Kenya Moore and Porsha Williams Stewart, grand-daughter of the late Atlanta civil rights icon Hosea Williams.
“He would trust my judgment,” said Stewart, when asked how her grandfather would react to her appearing on the show. “I’m just like him. He had a motto, ‘Unbought and unbossed.’ I have a lot of that in me!”
“Real Housewives” fan Jennifer Stewart said the series replaces
the dying daytime soap opera in some ways. “I think the women on that show are actually a perfect cross-section of Atlanta life,” said Stewart, 25, who grew up in Roswell but recently moved to Los Angeles. “In some weird way, watching it makes me feel like home again.
Despite their popularity, neither “Housewives” nor “Honey Boo Boo” are the most popular reality shows out of Georgia. That crown goes to “Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta,” which averaged nearly 3.5 million viewers per episode over the summer.
The show features low-level hip-hop artists and producers grappling with relationship issues in restaurants and clubs all over metro Atlanta in a highly stylized, heavily edited production. The primary story lines revolved around cheating men and the women who love them.
Not everyone is a fan, though. Many African-Americans were dismayed by how the shows portray life in Atlanta.
Special K thinks the show’s popularity underscores a generational divide.
“Younger people don’t have the perspective of image and perception,” said Special K. “As you get older, those things start to matter.”
And as a writer for Smiley’s new sitcom on TV One, Special K said the over-the-top drama ladled out by these reality shows “makes it hard to script something that’s equally entertaining for people.”
But V-103 radio personality Egypt Sherrod, host of “Property Virgins” on HGTV,” thinks critics are overly sensitive. “I can understand the frustration of forward thinkers who feel that this type of programming sets us back and creates a dysfunctional landscape for our future,” she said. “But much of it is not truly reality. So I recommend that everyone just take it at face value. If it’s not your cup of tea, just turn the channel.”
Not all Georgia reality shows perpetuate stereotypes
. TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta” (and its spinoff, “Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids”) gives the world a taste of upper-crust society where women can afford to spend $10,000 on a wedding dress. The battles have a Southern twist, but they are universal: mom vs. daughter, tradition vs. modernity, economics vs. luxury.
“We may be a little more sassy, but we have traditions and core values,” said Lori Allen, who runs Bridals By Lori in Sandy Springs. “We show the good side of the South.”
On Discovery Channel, Paul Brown stars in “Auction Kings,” where his consignment shop, Gallery 63 in Buckhead, auctions off all sorts of goodies, many with fascinating back stories about the South, including letters from the Civil War and a Prohibition-era speakeasy piano that doubles as a bar.
Initially Brown said he was hesitant to participate in a reality show, fearing he would be mocked. But once he was assured that wouldn’t be the case, he has embraced his role on the show.
“I try to carry the torch for this town,” he said. “I want to dispel the myth of the ignorant, uneducated Southerner. We try to conduct ourselves in a responsible manner.”
Because of the cyclical nature of things, TV’s fascination with the South will likely wane again. Until then, Southerners will continue to debate the pros and cons of reality TV attention. But when it’s gone, they might discover that they miss the national spotlight.
As Barney Fife once said on “The Andy Griffith Show”: “If there’s anything that upsets me, it’s having people say I’m sensitive.”
A sampling of Georgia-based reality TV shows
“The Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Bravo, fifth season debuts Nov. 4 at 9 p.m.
“T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle.” VH1, airs 9 p.m. Mondays
“Property Virgins.” HGTV, 9 p.m. Tuesdays
“The Houstons: On Our Own.” Lifetime, 9 p.m. Wednesdays
“Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids.” TLC, 9 p.m. Fridays
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” TLC, holiday specials and season two forthcoming
“Auction Kings.” Discovery, fourth season starts in January
“Love & Hip Hop Atlanta.” VH1, second season forthcoming
“Small Town Security.” AMC, season two forthcoming
“Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta.” TLC, fifth season in production
“R&B Divas.” TV One, no word on a second season