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Planet Green tries to broaden its reach with 'The Fabulous Beekman Boys'

A former drag queen and a onetime Martha Stewart executive take on a 60-acre New York farm in the new series on the upstart cable channel.

June 15, 2010|By Matea Gold, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — —

It's a reality show that sounds tailor-made for a buzzy cable network like Bravo: A hip gay couple from Manhattan tries to make a go at organic farming in upstate New York.

But "The Fabulous Beekman Boys" is premiering Wednesday on Planet Green, a young eco-channel seeking to rev up its reputation with a prime-time schedule built more around high-drama characters than how-to environmentalism.

With a new slate that includes programs about chefs, a fashion designer and a boutique owner, the channel's theme of sustainability is being stretched to include not only global warming and recycling, but also selling vintage clothes.

It's a shift for Planet Green, which launched in June 2008 with "very DIY, tip-driven" programming, noted Laura Michalchyshyn, the network's president and general manager.

But that approach didn't click with viewers. "The channel was not resonating to the level that any of us wanted," said Michalchyshyn, who came aboard from the Sundance Channel in early 2009.

She broadened the network's focus, hoping to gain a following before Planet Green is publicly rated by Nielsen for the first time later this year. "We've really been working to evolve the channel to be about this conscious-living television, but with great characters, great storytelling, great narrative and great art," she added. "Because without those things, it is not entertainment."

So "Beekman Boys" is centered less on their organic farming techniques and more on the drama that ensues when a former drag queen and a onetime Martha Stewart executive take on a 60-acre farm.

In the premiere episode, Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his partner, Brent Ridge, frantically chase a newly purchased baby pig that wriggles free before it can be locked in its pen.

At another point, Ridge — a Type A physician who once worked for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as a healthy living expert — rouses Kilmer-Purcell before breakfast to park the tractors in a neat line.

"I don't want the barnyard to look like a barnyard," he complains.

The two men stumbled on the Beekman estate several years ago during one of their annual apple-picking trips to upstate New York. They bought it as a weekend escape, having no intentions of turning it into a working farm.

But then they took on a tenant farmer and his herd of goats. That winter, eager to come up with a creative holiday gift for Stewart, Ridge made her handmade goats-milk soap with the help of a local soap-maker. Stewart loved it so much that she plugged it on her show, and suddenly the couple found themselves in the soap-making business.

That evolved into Beekman 1802, a Stewartesque lifestyle brand that Ridge runs out of the farm, where he's now living full time, while Kilmer-Purcell — a onetime drag queen and bestselling memoirist — holds down an advertising job in Manhattan.

The frictions that arise between the two men as Ridge seeks to expand the business are at the heart of the series. "I don't want to be Martha Stewart, Brent," Kilmer-Purcell says in the premiere. "I don't. I just want to have a good time."

Michalchyshyn, who heard about the farm from a friend, said she knew it had the makings of a show after meeting the couple and hearing about the rigors of their bifurcated living arrangement. During birthing season earlier this spring, Kilmer-Purcell was racing between Beekman and the city to help as dozens of baby goats were born.

"We like to say, the simple life isn't so easy after all," she said.

The couple brought a very intentional focus to the production, saying they're seeking to merge the insights of a Discovery program with the drama of "The Real Housewives" franchise.

"We're big reality TV fans to begin with, and knowing Laura's history in the industry, it all added up to a real quality product," said Kilmer-Purcell, who has also written a book about their experiences titled "The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir."

"If ever there was an artisanal TV show, this is it," Ridge added. "It's just beautiful to look at."

"Beekman" also stars Farmer John, the tenant farmer who weeps with love as he talks about his goats; a diva llama named Polka Spot; and the colorful residents of the small town of Sharon Springs.

Fenton Bailey, one of the executive producers from World of Wonder ("Tori & Dean"), which is producing the program, said "Beekman Boys" succeeds as a green-themed show because it's not preachy or didactic.

"It doesn't feel like you have to wear a sack or give up a bath," he said. "It feels aspirational. I think the problem with on-the-nose ecology programming is that it can feel like homework or it can feel like scolding."

Still, Michalchyshyn stressed that the network is not turning away from eco-mindedness with its new focus.

"We're broadening the programming filter, but we still have sustainability in our DNA," she said. "It all has this filter of, 'How is it making the world a slightly better place?' "

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