Living in the farther reaches of basic cable are a growing number of television series about what might be called "ordinary people" at work in what most of us would consider extraordinary jobs. It is lazily tempting, though not quite right, to describe these shows as redneck or blue-collar or rural, but they are mostly set away from big cities in places that -- apart from these shows -- you don't often see on TV: Southern places and prairie places and backwoods places.
You can link their titles into a kind of poetical associative chain: "Ice Road Truckers," "American Joggers," "Lady Joggers," "Ax Men," "American Loggers," "Swamp Loggers," "Swamp Brothers," "Swamp People," "Swamp Wars" -- do you see a pattern emerging? -- "Bear Swamp Recovery," "Lizard Lick Towing," "Black Gold," "Gold Rush" (formerly "Gold Rush Alaska"), "Flying Wild Alaska," "Deadliest Catch," "Hillbilly Handfishin' " and the just-begun "Big Shrimpin.' " They make their home on networks such as Discovery, History, TruTV, A&E; and Animal Planet.
Even National Geographic Channel has its corn-pone science show, "Rocket City Rednecks," which debuted in September. It is a sort of "Mythbusters" with an Alabama accent, whose "backwoods geniuses" make rocket fuel from moonshine whiskey and armor a truck with beer cans.
Cable TV likes to show people at work; it is an economical way to mount a series. There is built-in color there and, with a little help, drama: There is always something that needs to be done (in almost anybody's life) on too little money and with too little time. The series listed above are the muddier cousins of shows like "Cake Boss" and "DC Cupcakes," and of the many "get rich by serving the rich" series so beloved by Bravo.
It is part of their point, which is as often as not clothed as comedy, that the work they show is physically dangerous, because of the landscape and elements in which it is performed and/or because it involves things, machine or animal or human, that might kill you. In Discovery's Appalachia-set "Moonshiners," premiering Tuesday, the stars (Tim the Moonshiner, Tickle the Sidekick, Popcorn the Legend, as a promo spot names them), would appear -- appear -- to be breaking the law, which is a whole other sort of risk-taking. (The network also has "Weed Wars," about the medical marijuana business, beginning Thursday.)
Blue collars and rednecks aside, these series are not really about class. A little financial struggle is good for the narrative, nevertheless, and we're regularly reminded of the money an enterprise is liable to lose when this or that thing goes wrong, but by and large these are not people operating on the margins. Neither is politics, which can be an alienating force in entertainment television, part of the package.
But the work does matter, especially compared to the rest of television, where it is mostly just a decoration. For all the hokum, these are shows about getting the job done. Expertise and capability, which also power cooking and home improvement shows, is just plain attractive, whether it's knowing how to keep a big truck running in arctic weather or how to wrangle a large and deadly snake into a trash can -- for its own good, I hasten to add. (Not all animals are as safe here: You do not want to be an alligator in "Swamp People," about people who kill them; ditto a wild boar in "American Hoggers" or a catfish around the Hillbilly Handfishers. (Their shows come with viewer advisories you ought to take seriously.).
It is probably enough to say that there will be some in the audience who will identify with these characters and others who regard them as interesting specimens. They speak in Cajun cadences, in the accents of Maine and Oklahoma. (Even MTV, which has just ordered "Buck Wild," "following the colorful antics of a group of friends just out of high school in rural West Virginia," is looking in that direction.)
Some smoke cigarettes, and not to look sophisticated. They dress in their own clothes, for comfort or for work. Many could stand to lose a few pounds, to start. With some exceptions -- the female characters tend to be conventionally hot, conventionally -- they are not like people Hollywood casts for lead roles. Some are even old -- the men of "Gold Rush," out of work and prospecting for gold, are almost all in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and that is part of the story. As TV, there is something refreshing about it.
As with most reality TV, the reality in these series is modified and mediated. TruTV's motto, "Not reality, actuality," is a tacit admission that reality is now an empty word, although the network is home to the comically unconvincing repo shows "Bear Swamp Recovery" and "Lizard Lick Towing," which pits its heroes against deadbeat strippers, prostitutes and moonshiners, as boss Ron Shirley delivers his colorful play-by-play: "She's madder than a hornet with no stinger, baby!" But as in professional wrestling, which this oddly resembles, the fakery is part of the fun.