published Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Kennedy: “Hillbilly HandFishin’’’ and other TV delicacies

Perhaps you saw the report last week that said watching "SpongeBob SquarePants" leads to learning difficulties in some 4-year-olds.

Dang. And I thought it led to the Ivy League.

How times have changed. We baby boomers grew up on high-quality educational programming like "Sesame Street," "Masterpiece Theatre," "GE College Bowl" and Gumby and Pokey.

Thankfully, we're not much of a cartoon-watching family. Aside from an occasional peek at "Caillou" on PBS, my 4-year-old son is ambivalent about cartoons. He and his 9-year-old brother are, however, addicted to cable-TV shows about people with odd jobs.

If this sounds like a narrow genre to you, then you haven't been paying attention. Please consider this column your complementary program guide to nonfiction television.

At the Kennedy house, we watch shows about Cajuns capturing alligators, pawn-shop operators serving as loan officers of last resort, exterminators chasing squirrels, and people catching freshwater fish with their hands.

For the most part, these shows -- and others like them -- offer mindless entertainment; but they also spark important family-room discussions about timely topics such as whether a large-mouth bass can actually swallow your fist.

So fire up your DVR, and let's see what's on TV.

  • "Hillbilly Handfishin' '' (Animal Planet). This show features two fishermen in Oklahoma who hire themselves out as guides to people who want to learn to catch 50-pound catfish with their bare hands.

Together, the guides and customers wade neck-deep into rivers and ponds and blindly stick their feet and hands into mud holes. Then they try to grab a fish by the mouth. The fun is watching the city folks panic when the fish chomp down. (What do they expect? If you're a fish, this is a home invasion.)

Part of my personal amusement about "Hillbilly Handfishin' '' is the fact that neither of my sons has any idea what a hillbilly is. My older son calls the show "Hilly Billy Handfishin','' convinced it's about some dude named Billy, and my younger son calls it "Itty Bitty Handfishin'."

  • "Swamp People" (History). For 30 days every year, some swamp dwellers in Louisiana try to catch their quota of alligators. This involves Cajuns trolling around in motorboats and shooting alligators between the eyes with a rifle. If this sounds too gruesome for you, just wait for "Alligator Handfishin'."

I asked my older son, a big fan of the show, how much the hunters earn for each alligator carcass.

"About $170 for an average one, unless it has a leg gnawed off or something," he reported.

At least he's paying attention.

  • "Billy the Exterminator" (A&E). How to describe Billy? He's a wormy little guy who wears spiked leather gloves and dives behind couches to capture baby squirrels. I think that under the sunglasses and rat-tail goatee, Billy is actually Ty Pennington of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

My question is what the heck is this guy doing on A&E? I thought A&E was home to biographies and documentaries. This is what "Dog the Bounty Hunter" has wrought.

  • "Pawn Stars" (History). The program notes on History's popular show about pawn-store operators point out that "pawning was the leading form of consumer credit in the United States until the 1950s."

The show follows three generations of pawn professionals at the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop near Las Vegas. The result is a sort of lowbrow version of "Antiques Roadshow."

My older son's favorite episode involves a dimwitted clerk named Chumlee who was admonished to track down Bob Dylan -- who is playing at nearby Caesars Palace -- to get his autograph on an album to raise its value for the shop.

"He found Bob Dylan and told him to sign it," my son explained. "But he told him to sign it, 'To Chumlee, Bob Dylan.' Who would want to buy an album signed to Chumlee?"

Who would want to watch any of these odd-job shows? But yet we do. From Gumby to Chumlee, television always knows how to reach right into our homes and grab us.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is the editor of the Times Free Press opinion pages and writes the Sunday “Life Stories” column. He also writes a Saturday automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for Best Community Lifestyles four times during his tenure. Before Chattanooga’s newspapers ...

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