I've been writing about television in one form or another since gas cost 93 cents a gallon and The Cosby Show was America's No. 1 hit. I have watched otherwise sane looking women attempt to beat each other to bloody pulps on national TV while a studio audience roared encouragement. I've looked on in horror while a bunch of smarmy, unlikable trash-talkers from New Jersey turned into international superstars. I've even seen pawnshops, smelly storage units and houses bulging with rotting garbage become the settings for successful cable series.
But now I can die a contented man, for I honestly can say that I've seen everything.
Welcome to the wet, wacky, inexplicable world of Hillbilly Handfishin', premiering at 10 p.m. Sunday on Animal Planet, a channel that used to know better. There is not one iota of subterfuge in this title: In the murky waters of Oklahoma, self-proclaimed hillbillies Skipper Bivins and Trent Jackson guide tour groups of wide-eyed, thrill-seeking (or just plain crazy) big-city folk through the challenge of plunging headfirst below the surface and catching giant catfish using only their mitts. I suppose the show could have been called Hillbilly Hand-and-Footfishin', since apparently one often feels the location of the fish with their feet before making the dive to snatch it. Eeewww.
Did Jethro Bodine know about this? If he did, I'm certain we'd have heard about it on an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies decades ago. The practice sounds so absurd that you tend to think it was manufactured just for television, but apparently catching fish by hand is a skill that has been practiced for generations in the handful of states where it's legal. (Not including Michigan, thank goodness, where we are civilized enough to employ a rod and reel.)
It's called "noodling," and you'd think somebody would have to be off their noodle to do it. But Sunday's opening episode suggests people seek out Bivins to get closer to nature, challenge themselves or just to attempt something light-years beyond their comfort zones. "It's a skill that's transferable to life," Bivins, who noodled his first fish at the age of 4, told the Huffington Post. "People are scared at first, but people like scary things. That's why they see scary movies. But once you get that adrenaline going, it can change your life."
The catfish can run as big as 70 pounds or more, and Bivins says the majority of first-time noodlers toss their catch back after the exhilaration of grabbing it. One might think this concept could get boring week after week, but I believe not: The participants — both human and animal — will change, as will the visitors' reasons for taking the challenge. Plus, there's something about the look of genuine fear in a person's eyes that can be irresistible to viewers. Remember Fear Factor? My guess is Hillbilly Handfishin' has the potential to become the equivalent of a catfish train wreck: You know what it's going to look like, and you know it'll be messy, but you just can't stop yourself from watching.
Tat's All, Folks
Knowing a juicy marketing angle when they have one, TLC has spent weeks pounding on-air promos for the return last Thursday of its reality-trash series LA Ink and its controversial tattooed lady, Kat Von D. Every commercial has celebrated the long-distance romance and budding engagement of the Katwoman and the infamous Jesse James, who remains a pop culture pariah (and surefire audience magnet) for dumping America's Sweetheart, actress Sandra Bullock, in favor of Von D.
Every so often, however, reality TV meets ... well, reality. On the Tuesday before LA Ink's return, the distance apparently proved too much for the couple and Von D announced via Twitter that she and James had split. That put TLC in the unenviable position of airing a show involving a love affair that everyone in America who cares knows has ended. Awk-ward! But it's too late to make significant editing changes, and thus far TLC has made no move to suggest it isn't going to run all the new LA Ink episodes in their entirety.
A publicity stunt? Possibly, but it appears emotions were running high for Von D last week immediately after the breakup. On Wednesday she stormed out of the studios of the Los Angeles morning show Good Day LA before even making an appearance on the set, as the show's three co-hosts were airing clips from the new season and chirping about her separation from James as the prelude to her interview. That afternoon she engaged in a Twitter Kat fight with Good Day host Jillian Barberie over which party was more disrespectful to the other. Ah, love. No matter how cuddly-cozy she may look with James in tomorrow's 10 p.m. installment, remember, there's no crying over spilled ink.
It's a Hit, Man
They had me at "fahggedaboudit:" American Movie Classics is smack in the middle of its first "Mob Week" marathon, hosted by that noted crimebuster, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Tonight's 8 p.m. feature is an all-time favorite, the Kevin Costner-Robert De Niro treatment of The Untouchables with an unforgettable performance by Sean Connery ("They send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue! That's the Chicago way!"). It's followed at 10:45 p.m. by Carlito's Way, with Scarface at 8 Thursday, Donnie Brasco at 8 Friday, Goodfellas at 8 Saturday and Pulp Fiction at 7 Sunday.
Interspersed with the films are short-form documentary segments describing the history and impact of the mob, along with Giuliani's personal reflections on the movies and his relationships with real-life mobsters. While serving as DA for the Southern District of New York, Rudy indicted 11 organized crime figures, including the heads of the notorious "Five Families."