We have long heard that the South will rise again, but who thought that return would be led by a 7-year-old girl and a band of brothers with ZZ Top beards and a fondness for frog hunting?
Yet here we are amid an explosion of reality shows about the South, more specifically the rural South, where TV producers seek out characters with thick accents and thin educations -- rednecks, in other words.
Since the debut of History's Swamp People two years ago, the roster of redneck reality shows has grown to nearly two dozen, headed by the ratings hits Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. And more are here, like MTV's recently launched Buckwild.
The shows offer a variety of protagonists -- hog farmers, moonshiners, accidental millionaires -- but what happens in them is pretty much the same: The characters take part in a backwoods activity, preferably involving mud; do something low-class, like let the dog lick the frosting on a wedding cake; use as much bad grammar as possible; and fight with each other. Setting something on fire -- ideally themselves -- is a bonus.
Reality TV always has pursued its own latest trend, with knockoffs of the most recent hit an absolute certainty. The Real Housewives of Orange County has spawned a franchise that now includes New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Miami and Beverly Hills, as well as several off-brand copies. The megahit Pawn Stars revitalized the what's-stuff-worth genre.
But no topic in reality-documentary land has ever turned out as many shows as the redneck boom, which has spawned series on A&E, Animal Planet, CMT, Discovery, History, National Geographic and TLC.
It got its start, coincidentally, as part of the dangerous-jobs-series boom begun by Discovery's Deadliest Catch. History launched Swamp People, which focuses on Louisiana's annual 30-day alligator-hunting season. The characters' thick accents and backwoods ways caught hold. The trend accelerated last year with the success of A&E's Duck Dynasty, and this summer's TLC smash Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is keeping the engine stoked.
But why do viewers find rednecks so appealing? The answer is multifaceted.
Demographic appeal plays a major role, says Richard Goedkoop, a retired professor of communications at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
For one, it reaches the young male audience that is difficult to target with content that is not sports, Goedkoop said. "Second, it reaches a somewhat older male audience that wants to relate to a more basic element in their past: the frontiersman, the hunter, the gatherer. Third, it reaches part of a more general audience that is looking for diversion that takes them out of their mundane suburban or urban lives and probably makes them feel superior to those being portrayed."
And that last element is particularly important, says Bob Batchelor, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at Kent State University in Ohio and an expert on popular culture.
"The fascination with celebrities and high-class lifestyles still exists ... but reality-TV show creators have found that audiences also respond to the grotesque, whether it is someone bombing and then getting berated on American Idol or getting dirty in a Southern swamp," Batchelor said. "The fascination with rural Southern culture is based on the rest of the nation's misunderstanding of the region and its basic prejudice against the South in general. The rest of the country does not feel that making fun of the South is off-limits. As a matter of fact, Southerners are a group that it is still permissible to mock."
Others, though, don't see the pandering to stereotype as necessarily harmful.
Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York, believes that criticizing a TV genre for stereotyping a subculture "underrates humans' intelligence."
"People can tell the difference between a TV show and real life."
Some even see an aspirational aspect to shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. That series, which drew more than 2.5 million viewers an episode to its first season this summer, stars 7-year-old Alana Thompson and her family, which includes Sugar Bear, Pumpkin, Chubbs and Chickadee. The series plays like a sitcom, and the characters' main role seems to be to make as many off-the-wall comments as possible.
Carla Pero, a longtime Orange County resident now living in Missouri, became a fan of Honey Boo Boo when the title character was a regular on Toddlers & Tiaras, the comic relief among "all the other perfect little kids." Pero started following the Thompson clan on Facebook, where she learned they were helping out poor families in their hometown.
"None of us are perfect, and this family is far from it, but I prefer to look at what is inside a person, and learn from them, and strive to be like them," Pero said. "I feel the show has gained popularity because of what the family stands for: all other poor families out there who hope to one day get ahead in life.... It helps us want to be better people."