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The seeds of today's redneck TV shows were planted years ago

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 07:36 PM

They're hoggers and hunters and pudgy little pageant queens. They're fishing with bare hands and making moonshine by the pale moonlight. They're hooking rockets to bass boats and making duck calls when they aren't killing beavers with assault rifles.

They're all on your TV.

Welcome to the Redneck Renaissance.

Cable channels are swamped these days with shows that either feature Southern characters, Southern settings or made-up drama worthy of Tennessee Williams.

We're a long way from October 1960, when homespun comedian Andy Griffith brought "The Andy Griffith Show" to life on CBS, featuring himself as the common-sense sheriff of Mayberry, N.C. America fell so in love with his aw-shucks manner, it spawned an entire genre of television highlighting the best and worst of what Hollywood perceived to be Southern life.

And it never really went away.

Looking to feed off the recent popularity, Horizon Christian Church on St. Cloud Avenue in Valrico will hold a Bay Area Redneck Festival, or B.A.R.F. for short, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. There will be a mud run, a truck contest, a "petty zoo" and barbecue. Sort of a redneck starter kit.

If you can't make it to the event, you can rely on your TV for an immersion in all things redneck.

Over on the Discovery channel, moonshiners make potent squeezins in the woods of Virginia just out of the reach of the law.

On A&E, female game hunters are taking on fierce wild hogs around Florida's Lake Okeechobee.

History Channel has its own offering, "Swamp People," which follows teams of Louisiana gator catchers as they comb the Atchafalaya swamp for giant reptiles during the hunting season.

But the princess of reality redneck TV has to be 7-year-old Alana Thompson, better known to reality TV viewers as Honey Boo Boo Child.

Originally seen on TLC's "Toddlers & Tiaras" series, Thompson and her mother, June Shannon, were so indelible as child pageant competitors that they got their own show in August, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo."

Reaction to the show has been powerful. Critics dubbed it as exploitative, mean and cartoonish in its depiction of life in a rural Georgia town. Others decried its depiction of HBB guzzling a pre-pageant mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew.

Some, though, can't get enough. Actress Miley Cyrus claims to be a fan. Comedian Jimmy Kimmel asked HBB her choice for president on his late-night talk show. Rosie O'Donnell told People magazine's website that she likens Honey Boo Boo to Shirley Temple.

"She has a presence and an intellect that goes way beyond her years," O'Donnell says.

Speaking of which, a photo posted to Facebook recently compared the shiny, dimpled, curly-haired Temple to Honey Boo Boo, who was shown gathering her ample mid-section with both hands to make a rather large, doughy appendage. She calls it "belly talkin'."

The accompanying caption: "America … What the hell happened?"

In a way, it was inevitable for TV to head south again when looking for programming. After Andy Griffith became a hit, a raft of shows, including the "Beverly Hillbillies" and "Gomer Pyle," appeared on the (then) small screen. Throughout the resulting decades, Americans have flirted with the South, turning shows like "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Hee Haw" into cultural touchstones.

When America needed laughs, it looked to cartoonish types like Vicki Lawrence on "Mama's Family." In the 1970s, Polly Holliday, the twangy waitress on "Alice" got her own brief spinoff show, "Flo," on the strength of her massively popular "Kiss my grits" catchphrase.

The South as a punch line ebbed and flowed through the years, especially as America chose governors from Georgia and Arkansas to be president. There wasn't as much need for Southern characters on TV then. It was already on the news – and "Saturday Night Live."

The South came back full-force after the turn of the millennium in the form of reality television shows, as if they were the spawn of guests from "The Jerry Springer Show" in the 1990s.

Mississippi native Martha Foose, author of the cookbook "Screen Doors and Sweet Tea: Recipes and Tales from a Southern Cook," is a connoisseur of the current crop. Foose can't resist the Animal Planet show "Call of the Wildman," which features Ernie Brown Jr., aka "The Turtleman".

"He removes nuisance snapping turtles that have bitten the udders off cows and things like that," she says.

Foose thinks "redneck chic" is an answer to the "Real Housewives" shows almost no one can relate to. TV viewers want a sense of authenticity. They want to watch people who can laugh at themselves and their situation. Part of it is backlash to hipsters dressing like rural folks without any idea of the life there, she says.

"There are a lot of people these days wearing trucker hats non-ironically," Foose says.

Still, she thinks this might be the year it all reaches maximum density. There's only so much you can say in a twang. The swamps can hold only so many TV crews. If a Chinese dynasty can end, so can a duck dynasty.

You've heard of jumping the shark?

"This year we might be jumping the possum," she says.

If it does, don't worry. As Andy Griffith shows, the South shall rise again on TV.


jhouck@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7324

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