Where I often wandered lonely, And the future tried to cast;
Many are our visions bright, Which the future ne’er fulfills;
But how sunny were my daydreams On those West Virginia hills!”
— “West Virginia Hills,” the state song of West Virginia
One way in, one way out.
You don’t know your way around
Then stay the fuck out!”
— Shain Gandee
If you missed the privilege to watch MTV’s “Jersey Shore meets Honey Boo Boo” creation Buckwild, let me save you the click. Of course when I, in the pits of human empathy, believed a show on MTV might usefully teach us something about humanity or even our own culture, I was foolish. Of course we’ve come to expect the barrel-scrubbing, mouth-breathing, pocket-lining producers of reality TV shows to offer no more to our shining, Nielsen-rated eyes than fake drama posing as real drama posing as fake drama. Of course I was not shocked to find drunk twentysomethings inventing narratives to fulfill their dreams of fame followed by a mugshot that goes viral followed by absolute obscurity and shouting at people in bars. “Do you know who the fuck I am? I WAS PUCK, DAMMIT!” Of course I watched a show full of people doing barely interesting things and enjoyed any veneer of authenticity, ingenuity, or talent as a starving man enjoys an ice cream sundae: refreshed, alive, and deathly nauseous.
That lump of sugary, enlightening honesty within the bowels of Buckwild is a trash-collector named Shain Gandee. Shain gets along with Tyler (a self-dubbed pretty boy), Joey (“they call me Justin Beaver; I don’t know about the Justin, but you know I know about the Beaver”), Anna (the only female with a personality), Cara (Anna’s fish-out-of-water friend), and a few others we’ll call “the rest.” The show follows them in Sissonville, WV through various haphazard adventures, be it getting evicted, making a swimming pool out of a borrowed dump truck, or blowing out the engine of 20-year-old mid-size pickup by mud-skipping at top speeds (who knew).
So the show fulfills the expectations of anyone who’s heard of it. These kids are very loud, very plasticine, and somewhat hillbilly. Indeed, Buckwild’s setting lacks any real importance outside of the show’s first few minutes. Other than the green hills of Wolfpen and the immense amount of mud, this could easily be any show following any group of drunken, whorish twentysomethings.
Shain, however, is pure country. It’s an individual like him that is extremely hard to fake. He’s a trash collector and obviously loves it, as long as it provides him with gas for his ATV. When the girls throw a “rager” (seven people sipping warm beer out of Solo cups), Shain arrives with a bag of raw deer meat as if this were typical party fare. He lives within literal shouting distance with his entire family scattered across the “holler,” a valley with titular acoustics. Our first introduction to Shain is him stuffed in a tire as it barrels down a hill and crashes him into asphalt.
I know a Shain. I know a few Shain’s. I’ve lived for the past decade of my life in and around Central Pennsylvania. While I’ve never fully resided in the very rural areas, it’s hard to escape the culture of it even in the suburbs of Harrisburg (H-burg is probably the only city I know of with a higher murder rate than Philly or Compton where a deer strapped to the hood of a sedan is not an uncommon occurrence). One of my college roommates built his own distillery out of buckets and copper wire. I watched a friend of mine debate with his father the size of a buck they shot while he smoked weed with said father. I’ve taken a John Deere Gator mudding in the parking lot of an antique auto show. I’ve eaten venison meatloaf, venison steaks, creamy venison casserole, and venison sausage gravy (one of the reasons I was shocked to see lifetime New Yorker Jimmy Fallon shirk at eating Shain’s deer meat as if he were on Fear Factor). The Shain Gandee’s of the world do exist in my daily life, and it’s one of several reasons I don’t enjoy him being treated as a freak show. In the first two episodes of Buckwild, we see the other characters (and yes, I do mean “characters”) have sex in each other’s beds, get in drunken fist fights with otherwise calm neighbors, go topless simply because there’s a camera in the room, and otherwise show no remorse for the people they willingly call friends. Meanwhile, Shain loves his mother, picks some flowers for a pretty girl, works his ass off in exchange for the aforementioned dump truck/swimming pool, and has a gentlemen’s agreement to secede Cara (an aspiring model who dresses and acts like she’s the villain in a 1998 version of Mean Girls) to the douchebaggery of Tyler. And yet he is the spectacle we’re supposed to be guffawing.
Judging by his albeit few public appearances (his trip to Late Night was his first time in NYC and his first trip on a plane), Shain seems destined to be the Snooki of Buckwild: a mascot that draws clear the show’s gimmick. But whereas Snooki occupied the Train Wreck shelf in Jersey Shore’s cabinet, Shain seems to be the only individual that will turn out just fine when the cameras leave. He has a job, his own house, and most importantly, self-respect. The only other job we hear about is Joey’s work at a spark plug factory, and yet he presumably resides with his parents. The rest go to college at West Virginia University (which is admittedly nothing to shrug off) but have no visible jobs. In fact, aside from the brief segment with Mrs. Gandee, the parents of these overgrown children resemble the adults on Charlie Brown cartoons: unseen and non-present.
West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin decried Buckwild as a “travesty,” saying “this show plays to ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.” And he’s right. But Shain is a real West Virginian because he lives in West Virginia. The rust-belt image Manchin would prefer also exists, yes, but it is also a stereotype. Shain Gandee is the most seemingly normal person on the show and yet, with his Boomhauer-esque dialect and penchant of “redneck-Macgyvering,” is cast in stone as a stereotype. But he’s not. A stereotype is a crude depiction of a group of people; Shain is actually a person, which is more than I can say for the rest.