New Orleans Off and on for a week from folks living in Arkansas, Montana, and Colorado, we kept hearing about this show they were all watching on the History Channel, called Swamp People. Since we were representing Louisiana on Rock Creek, there was an expectation that we were big fans of the show or at least experts on the subject matter: alligator trapping.
Truth be told, it was all news, all the time to us, though we all found ourselves repeating their favorite saying from the show endlessly and with great affection, which was: “Choot ‘em, Lit-bit!” Or, as we learned translated from the Cajun patois, “Shoot ‘em, Elizabeth!,” which turned out to be one of the trappers admonition to his wife and partner when it was time for the kill shot on the gator. Now that I’m home and have finally seen one episode of the show, I can report that “Lit-bit” also threatened to “kick his ***” if he didn’t stop calling her “Lit-bit,” rather than “Liz.”
So, as you can now tell, by the mysterious magic of the remote control, channel clicker in boredom and exhaustion, finally home to the humidity of south Louisiana, the television gods magnetically drew me into a Swamp People rerun on A&E, the Arts and Entertainment channel. Riddle me this, joker, how is Swamp People, a sort of reality TV thing on something called A&E. Discuss, and get back to me!
I have to honestly admit to having never watched reality TV that I can remember. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. I think I watched an episode of Ozzie Osbourne and family on MTV some years ago, but one was enough.
But, I was interested on several levels. Flying back from Missoula, I had just finished the chapter in Vicki Mayer’s excellent book, Below the Line: Producers and Production: Studies in the New Television Economy where she examined the niche job that has emerged in modern television of “reality casting” as well as brilliantly dissecting the blurring lines between amateur and professional roles in this part of TV as well as other areas of “new media,” like the camera shooters for the Girls Gone Wild type of shows swarming New Orleans on Mardi Gras for their flash in the pan phenomena. The reality casters troll for “big” personalities that can fill the screen and hold the viewer. It was little surprise that they might find it in the rich Atchafalaya delta swamp land.
The show is actually kind of boring, making it a long hour no matter how intriguing at first glance. Swamp People tries to set up a competition between four boats of trappers with tags to fill on their quota of alligators for the month long hunting season. Watching the final episode, the show was trying to create drama in the fake competition and excitement out of small details (wet gunpowder, huge legendary gators, etc) as the trappers did their jobs.
Surprisingly to me they made alligator trapping look mundane, which I would not have imagined possible, but they managed to do so by inadvertently stripping any sport out of the hunt, and reducing the entire process to plain and simple hard work, which I would wager is more reality, than they actually wanted to show. It was about as exciting as watching a trotline baited and the catfish pulled up. The trappers laid out strong rope with huge hooks baited with dead chicken and all manner of mess, and then checked to see if the line was down. If they had a gator, they pulled the rope and when the head was sufficiently up in the water, one of the trappers shot it dead with a 22 caliber rifle, often one handed, which gives a pretty good sense of the lack of risk and care involved in the process. Now dead they would haul the carcass into the boat, run the tag through a slit cut in the tail, and power on to the next spot.
This is not to say there is no excitement, since these are large, fierce animals and therefore they sometimes do make fools of even these seasoned hands, and the couple of seconds between pulling the gators to the boat and the kill shot is riveting (Choot ‘em, Lit-bit!). The camera work though somehow manages to even take the beauty, power, and eerie danger out of the swamp environment, which I would have thought a constant character in Swamp People because the producers only understood that they were casting the swamp as “strange” and possible “different,” rather than fecund, dangerous, deadly, and dramatically powerful. The attraction of diversity is compelling, but shallow. The show communicates some of the symbols without any of the substance.
Damn shame, but, hey, Choot ‘em, Lit-bit!