I'm disappointed by Buckwild. I know that's a ridiculous thing to say about a reality show premiering on MTV in 2013, but it's true. In the lead-up to last night's series premiere, I'd been quietly (or not so quietly) hoping that this show would be like an extended True Life episode, the way Jersey Shore was supposed to be but never was. You know, actual people who seem like people doing actual things that they do in life. Plus the setting — rural West Virginia, Appalachian land of hollers and hootenannies — is undeniably fascinating. Years ago I was riveted by the excellent, and somberly serious, Frontline film Country Boys, a grim look at the effects of Appalachian poverty on youth with only the slightest glimmers of hope dancing at its edges. So maybe, I thought, this silly Buckwild show would play as the counterbalance to that, a show about not-so-rich holler folk having good times, enjoying life, facing nothing grimmer than figuring out plans for a Friday night. But I thought stupidly. It's not that at all. In some ways, Buckwild is even more depressing than the documentary version of Buckwild that was supposed to be depressing.
The show follows a group of post-high school kids, some in college and others content to join the work force and put money in their pockets. This seems pretty much drawn along gender lines, with the girls living in "the city" (Morgantown, home of West Virginia University) and going to school and the boys staying back in the country, particularly Wolf Pen holler, and working jobs like trash collecting and at a spark plug factory. The lead country boy, a genial good-timer named Shain, seems reluctant to venture too far from home, and seems the most "authentically" country of anyone in the cast. Truth is, most of these kids resemble anyone from something like MTV's Two-a-Days, about a reasonably well-to-do football community in Alabama, or really any kid out of an Atlanta suburb. With the exception of Shain, they've all got smartphones and Hollister clothes and all that other boring anytown middle class America stuff. Good for them — I'm not saying that MTV should have gone out and found the poorest kids they could just so I'd be better entertained — but the all too generic nature of these kids has caused the show, and in turn the cast, to try to amp up the characterizations, and the stakes. These are good kids who go to school or work good jobs and that's about it. But MTV wants you to think they are a rare and fascinating species, giving us lots of subtitles when we only occasionally need them (Shain is really the only one with a thick accent) and forcing the kids into staged situations that are painfully obvious in their insincerity.
That's the biggest problem with Buckwild, and it really is a glaringly big one. At the beginning of the first episode, the girls are spending the summer in a house in Morgantown, but mostly want to hang out with the boys out in the country. And wouldn't you know it, one night a "crazy neighbor" shows up and yells at them for having a party and suddenly they're being evicted. So, they decide to move to the country to be near the boys! My, how convenient. Once they get there, with new city girl Cara in tow, sudden dramas pop up like mushrooms in the night. Specifically one between Cara and Tyler, the cute-boy ringer they bussed in for the role. The two form an immediate connection, he taking her to what amounts to Morgantown's Makeout Point, she flirting in an awkward and stilted way that seems nudged by a producer's hand. I know real-life kids don't need a lot of preamble — things can sometimes transform from flirting to making out to formally going steady over the course of a weekend — but this Cara/Tyler stuff all seems very synthesized and hurried. As tends to happen on these shows, this core relationship ripples throughout the cast. Shain had eyes on Cara so presumably he's upset with not-so-nice-guy Tyler, while the girls are mad at Cara for having sex with Tyler (it goes there, this ain't high school) in someone else's bed. That someone else would be Anna, the leader of the group who clearly has eyes for Tyler. (That's always an interesting but problematic MTV reality show character, the girl who pines away for the unattainable boy and lashes out at other girls because of it. Producers love to sow discord among girls. We even saw a little of it in our beloved Amanda Lorber.) So by the end of the second episode last night, Cara had stormed off because the girls were angry at her, Tyler revealed himself as a shoulder-shrugging jerk, and poor Shain was left doing a sad little soft-shoe by his lonesome.
Still, I'm not really sure how badly we should feel for young master Shain. He seems pretty in on the gig, throwing out country adages and pearls of hillbilly wisdom with a frequency and a certain dramatic flair that feel awfully coached. The whole show rings remarkably false — even for an MTV reality show — especially in contrast to the show's supposed mission, which is to shed a light on backwoods kids who just don't give a good god darn. They say over and over again, in voiceover and in conversation, that this is how country folk do, meaning they do what they want. But curiously all they seem to want to do is exactly what's expected of them as young stars of a reality television program. I suspect producer foul play, but we must also wearily acknowledge that the kids have something to do with this too. And maybe that was the most upsetting thing about last night's premiere, the realization that there are very few preserved pockets in the nation; everyone is newly shrewd and camera-savvy, even in mysterious West Virginia. These kids all know the score, they know their parts, and they are eagerly playing them. Not terribly well, mind you, but they're giving it the ol' college try somethin' fierce nonetheless. I'm sure this is largely my East Coast urban naivety at work here, but MTV did promo the hell out of this thing on the premise that these were raw finds. Say what you will about Jersey Shore, but in the beginning those mooks had know idea what they were doing and that was undeniably interesting. These Buckwild youngsters are all too aware, and it's dispiriting to watch.
I suppose I'll stick around to see more of Shain's shenanigans and to see if Tyler makes his way through every girl on the show, as it seems he will. It could be interesting to watch Anna's seething a bit more, and I'm curious about this Salwa, a self-professed country girl whose parents are Bengali. But what could have been a lightly fascinating cultural glimpse is instead going to be an often eye-rolling reality automaton only meant to be gazed at dumbly. There's nothing wild about any of these kids, they're as arranged as any animal exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. That's their prerogative in 2013 America, and I suppose I can't begrudge them that, but I guess I hoped that somewhere there were still some unspoiled kids, who'd nonetheless be willing to do a reality show. Well, they ain't in West Virginia, it seems. Maybe MTV should just go and see if the Ramapough Indians are interested. At least then they wouldn't have to drive so far.