Tourism officials are always looking for promotional hooks, and using connections to popular TV shows has long been a common way to market a destination. In the ’80s, television programs like “Miami Vice” and “Magnum P.I.” boosted tourism in South Florida and Hawaii, while “The Love Boat” was a boon for the cruise industry. More recently a well-known PR firm is pushing Connecticut’s “Mad Men” connection and the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau is promoting “Breaking Bad” tours, despite the fact that the show’s protagonists cook meth for a living. The MTV show “Jersey Shore” boosted tourism there but officials in the Garden State were reluctant to formally promote the show given its bawdy content.
Earlier this year, MTV replaced “Jersey Shore” with a new reality show called “Buckwild” that depicts the lifestyles of hard-partying country kids from West Virginia who spend their days and nights boozing, hooking up, brawling and going “mudding” in trucks and ATV’s. Even before the show aired, politicians like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin were calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that it played on the public’s “ugly, inaccurate stereotypes about the people of West Virginia.”
Calls to take the show off the air have intensified in recent weeks after one cast member, Salma Amin, was arrested on heroin possession charges and another, Michael Buford, was charged with DUI. And then last week, the breakaway star of the show, Shain Gandee, was found dead in a sport utility vehicle along with his uncle and a friend after they were last seen leaving a bar at 3 a.m. According to the AP, autopsies indicated that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning, possibly caused by their truck’s tailpipe being blocked with mud.I’m not proud to admit that I watched “Buckwild” a few times and was mildly intrigued, not so much with the clearly contrived story lines or staged antics but with the rural subculture depicted and the middle of nowhere appeal of Sissonville, West Virginia, where much of the show is shot. I live in a nice suburb of Chicago, where people ride their bikes to Whole Foods and an Arts Cinema that shows depressing foreign films, so I was curious to visit a place where everyone has peculiar accents and seems to spend their time mudding or hunting in the woods.
I was driving through West Virginia last Saturday, the day before Gandee’s funeral, but my wife, who has previously indulged me, albeit grudgingly, on lengthy detours for Amish donuts, nude beaches in Greece, and a tour of Justin Bieber’s haunts, among many other things, wasn’t stoked about spending a Saturday afternoon in Sissonville.
“Is it on the way?” she asked suspiciously.
“Sort of,” I claimed, despite the fact that Sissonville is on the way to nowhere.
The town is actually only about 15 miles north of Charleston, the state capital, but unlike other larger cities, Charleston doesn’t sprawl very far, so the place feels more like a quiet, country town than a suburb. It’s a humble little place with a mix of churches, businesses, modest new homes, decrepit old ones and trailers lining Sissonville Drive, the town’s main drag. We popped into a restaurant called Topspot Country Cooking and our waitress handed us menus that boasted that their food was “good enough for President George W. Bush to eat twice.”
“President Bush ate here twice?” I asked, looking around the dated little place, which was both relatively busy and silent at the same time.
“I’m not really sure about that,” said our waitress, who said her name was Stachia. “We have a catering company too and I think he ate some food from there.”
“What about other famous people?” I asked. “Do the kids from ‘Buckwild’ eat here?”
“Oh they do,” she said. “Shain was a friend of mine, and so are Joey and Ashley, the other two kids from the show who are from Sissonville.”
I ordered a meatloaf sandwich and a slice of peanut butter pie, which were both outstanding, and Stachia pointed out the window at a passing pickup truck.
“There goes Tyler,” she said. “He’s on the show too.”
She said she liked the show but admitted that some of the crew’s antics seemed a bit staged. I asked her about Shain and she said he was a sweetheart.
“Most of the people who have come through here because they’ve seen the show ask about Shain,” she said. “We had one guy who drove here all the way from Tennessee because he wanted to go mudding with Shain. He wasn’t here that weekend but if he was, I’m sure he would’ve gone with him.”
Stachia said that her brother used to date one of the female cast members and mentioned that Ashley, one of the cast members, moved to North Carolina because some people in town harassed her after the show came out. I asked her if the cast members’ heads had swelled after their newfound fame and she said she didn’t think any of them had changed for the worse.
“Of course they’re going to change a little bit,” she said. “I mean come on, people from little old Sissonville don’t usually get to be on TV.”
But an older couple sitting next to us wasn’t as keen on the show and the infamy it has brought the town.
“I watched an episode and a half but couldn’t stand to keep going with it,” said the man, who sat on the same side of the booth as his wife. “I don’t think the kids around here act that bad in real life.”
We drove down the street towards Shain’s home, referred to as the Wolf Pen holler on the show because it’s on Wolfpen Drive, and passed Larry’s Bar, the tavern where he and his cohorts were drinking on the night they died. It’s a nondescript building with tiny little windows – a great little hideout. There was a banner with the Miller Lite logo posted outside the building, which read, “We Will Miss You – Dave, Shain and Robert.”
I drove up Wolf Pen Drive, thinking I might talk to a few of Shain’s neighbors, but I soon thought better of it. They were still grieving and it felt wrong to swing through town with a notebook and a slew of questions. But visiting his neighborhood was an eye opener. Shain’s street is lined with ramshackle dwellings, some of which seemed ready to collapse, along with a host of trailers, and some tidy, modest homes.
I know that MTV and the cast members of this show have been lambasted for supposedly giving West Virginia a bad name but after seeing the Wolf Pen, I felt like I couldn’t blame Shain and the other kids from Sissonville for doing whatever it takes to make a living. Press reports indicate that they were set to make $4,000 per episode for the show’s second season, which is now in doubt as network executives decide if the show will go on without Shain. That is awfully good money in a place like Sissonville.
The show is undoubtedly a kind of cultural pollution. One does feel a bit dumber after watching it. People tune in to laugh at the country kids from West Virginia but after seeing Sissonville in person, I can’t help but conclude that the local kids who made it onto the show are smarter than they might appear.
[Photo credits: Dave Seminara, MTV]