Do the Alaskan Bush People get paid? We asked! Read our interview with the Brown family.
— Ryan Berenz (@ChannelGuideRAB) October 22, 2015
Season 2 Recaps: Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5 | Episode 6 | Episode 7 | Episode 8 | Wild Times | Episode 9 | Episode 10 | Episode 11 | Episode 12 | Episode 13 | Episode 14 | SHARK WEEK! | Episode 15 | Episode 16 | Lost Footage | The Wild Year
“You do not choose Dance Moms,” Lori Acken once said. “It chooses you.”
Lori writes brilliantly about top-flight shows with interviews of stars high atop the A list, yet she could not unburden herself of the Abby Lee Miller albatross. Her weekly recaps of a terrible show about generally unpleasant people were wildly successful, but I did not envy her.
In early 2014, our editorial staff was looking for the next Dance Moms. We had success covering brand-new, somewhat obscure reality shows on cable networks (regrettably, no one cared about quality shows on the broadcast networks). The idea was to try to get on the ground floor of niche shows that few media outlets were going to cover. The pond is smaller, but we’d be the only ones fishing in it.
Our editor in chief, Barb Oates, has a keen eye for what reality TV shows and personalities tend to draw interest (i.e. controversy). She attended the TV critics press tour and was there for a panel Animal Planet held for this new Alaskan Bush People show about backwoods Billy Brown, his wife, and their seven kids. Barb said the Bush People were a hoot, and one of us should write a recap of the premiere episode. Discovery Channel (the show got promoted to the mothership) had sent us a link to an online screener, and a quick recap of the highlights seemed like something I could bang out quickly.
I watched the first episode and was bored within 10 minutes (the flat tire). Within 40 minutes I was disappointed (the tree almost falling on Bam). And by the end of the episode, I was skeptical (Lumber Guy Rick). The Browns didn’t seem all that “bush” with their SUV, using milled lumber to build their house and running back into town for everything. I learned nothing about living in the wild other than burying meat and digging “hip holes” where you sleep. And, on the most fundamental level, it made no sense that someone who truly wants to live off the grid in the Alaskan wilderness would desire to put himself and his family on a reality TV show, one of the aforementioned grid’s waste products. I posted a mildly snarky recap, relieved that I wouldn’t need to do another one, because nobody was going to watch this show, at least not for very long.
And then Alaskan Bush People chose me.
I was shocked that people were not only watching this show, but they had strong opinions about it. Many of the commenters on that original recap weren’t convinced that this family was real, that their accents were fake, that their clothes weren’t practical for the bush, etc. Many other commenters loved the Browns and wanted to live with them, pray for them or write them checks. I was amused that people got worked up over Not Yet Another Alaska Docudrama Show. And I was pissed that I would have to keep watching it and writing about it.
(Digression! That’s the media culture now. Everything has to be EXTREME to break through the noise. Whether it’s extremely good or extremely bad does not matter. You don’t get excited about TV shows that are OK. You don’t share YouTube videos about sensible people doing rational things. You get excited about stuff that is legitimately AWESOME or stuff that is so bad that it becomes AWESOME in its badness. Guess which one applies to Alaskan Bush People.)
I snarky snark snarked my way through two more episodes, trying to appreciate the show on an ironic level. It wasn’t until “Fight or Flight” that I had my Plato’s Cave moment. The “shooting” incident marked a point in which ABP had gone from a contrived docuseries to something outright deceptive. A commenter tipped me off to Zaz Hollander’s investigative piece in the Alaska Dispatch News, and I’d never see the show the same way again. You can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube. I went from wondering what was fake to just assuming everything was fake. And then in June Discovery aired “The Wild Life” special in which the Browns protested too much that they were real and tried to explain the show’s inconsistencies. Billy backed off his “government burned our cabin down” statement, so now you have cause to doubt the very reason for this show existing in the first place.
Discovery couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me if the show was going to be picked up for Season 2, but I assumed it was. A few months passed with no word. And then in late October, commenter Talkeetnachris tipped us to this:
Billy brown was just charged with stealing over $13000 filing fraudulent PFD claims in Alaska. His near life will be in prison. A few other family members were also charged. This guy and his family are frauds.
The Browns crossed from simple, harmless reality-TV smoke-and-mirrors land into the realm of criminal fraud accusations. And these aren’t just your everyday, run-of-the-mill, bad-check-cashing fraud allegations. This is fraud that, if proved, collapses the entire Brown Family Universe. I prematurely pronounced Alaskan Bush People dead and canceled. No way Discovery was going to continue with it after this, right?
I was wrong. (FRAUD!) The ADN again had the story. New episodes of ABP were being filmed, but no Season 2 premiere date was announced. I maintained the believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude, but then the announcement came and Season 2 premiered Jan. 2.
Season 2 was brutal to watch. At the end of Season 1, I expected ABP, if it returned, to be even more absurd. And it was. What I didn’t expect was Season 2 to be IDENTICAL TO SEASON 1 BUT OVER TWICE AS LONG! We suffered through eight episodes to only get to the MIDSEASON FREAKIN’ FINALE? Maybe we’ll discover all of Season 2 was just a dream Billy had while comatose. My guess is we’re going to get maybe two more episodes like “The Wild Life” with unaired footage and more half-assed explanations of how everything is real and we’re all idiots.
That’s how we got to now. Thanks for getting this far. Now what?
There’s been a changing of the guard at Discovery Channel, and it may determine the future of ABP. Discovery networks have taken a beating over their pseudoscience shows like those about mermaids, Megalodon and real scientists getting duped into contributing to fake Shark Week shows. New Discovery Channel president Rich Ross seems to understand this, and appears to be taking the network in a different direction by expanding its slate of scripted programming, particularly history-based dramas. Ross fielded questions about that at the TV Critics Association Winter Press Tour in January, as reported by Broadcasting & Cable:
[Ross] also addressed the network’s current slate of unscripted programming, signaling that a shift in tone is imminent. Asked whether projects such as Mermaids and other documentaries with fictional elements will continue to have a place at the network, Ross said, “It’s not whether I’m a fan of it. I don’t think it’s actually right for Discovery, for Discovery Channel, and it’s something that I think has in some ways run its course. I don’t think you’ll be sitting here next year asking me a question about something I put on, whether it’s a series or a special, that that’s the dilemma.”
Ross pointed to another new hire — that of John Hoffman as executive VP of documentaries and specials, announced Thursday morning — when fielding a question about criticism from the scientific community about Discovery’s Shark Week programming.
“[Hoffman] has a long history of telling great and authentic stories and working with scientists and doctors and everybody in between,” Ross said. “It was not just a signal. It was a message that it’s very important to us and very important to me that when people are telling stories and delivering information that it’s true and that it can be entertaining as well.”
Based on that, I imagine Ross leading an angry mob of Discovery Channel execs to chase the Brown family off Chicago Bears Island and off the network’s lineup for good. Then there’s this in the news today:
Discovery’s Gold Rush was the number one program in all of television among men for the eighth consecutive week while Alaskan Bush People was the number one program on cable for women on Friday, February 20 in L+3. “The Brown family and everyone’s favorite gold miners from Gold Rush on Friday nights have continued to build an audience with viewers of all ages,” Denise Contis, EVP of production and development, tells Cynopsis. “We’re excited so many men, women, and their families have invited Discovery Channel into their homes each Friday night.”
Ratings competition is fierce. Discovery Communications is a business, not a public service for the common good. Squeezing every last ratings point out of low-budget unscripted fare is good business for them, at least in the short term. I don’t see how Discovery jeopardizing the credibility of its cornerstone Shark Week franchise or cramming its schedule with phony Bush People benefits its brand over time.
Let’s shoot down the “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it!” argument. If the viewers who hated on the show stopped watching, the audience would be a third of what it is and the show would be canceled. There’s as much fun and entertainment to be had in hating a TV show, personality or character as there is in legitimately enjoying one. [Update: Watch this analysis debunking the Don’t Like, Don’t Watch argument]
TV critics and bloggers fittingly call it “hate-watching.” This is how the Kardashians remain in the spotlight. It’s better to be hated than to be ignored. Your hate has made them powerful.
Shows like ABP are designed to be absurd. Doing and saying stupid things, and building failed huts out of plastic wrap are all part of the Brown family’s act. Eventually their act will wear thin (if it hasn’t already) and they won’t be worth hatin’ on any more. The show will be canceled and the Browns will go to wherever they go when they’re not pretending to live in the bush, or wherever the Alaska justice system determines they should go.
(Digression! Of course, ABP getting canceled is not in my best professional interest. Someone actually pays me to watch it and write about it. Real money, too! Stuff I can use to buy food that my children will refuse to eat.)
Suspension of disbelief allows us to immerse ourselves into dramatic works. I have intelligent friends who love pro wrestling. It’s perfectly acceptable to watch and enjoy the Browns as they’re depicted onscreen for an hour a week. Maybe you think Bear is a riot. Maybe you really want the boys to settle down with some nice bush girls. Maybe you’re really happy Ami finally got her home with an ocean view. More power to you. Just stay off the Internet.
I can’t ignore the implausibility. I can’t invest in the Browns, because I’m not biting on anything they’re casting onscreen. And everything I’ve read about their lives offscreen just makes me pity those viewers who’ve swallowed hook, line and sinker. The Browns will barter them for more dental work.
Next week, check out my treatise on the unequivocal authenticity of MTV’s Pimp My Ride.