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'Edge of America,' 'Diggers': Finding 'real America' in TV land

In our digital cul-de-sac world, 'Edge of America,' 'Diggers' and 'Duck Dynasty' are among a growing trend in shows that highlight down-home stories — and viewers are tuning in.

December 23, 2012|By T.L. Stanley
  • Geoff Edgers will host "Edge of America" on the Travel Channel.
Geoff Edgers will host "Edge of America" on the Travel Channel. (Travel Channel )

Geoff Edgers, host of the upcoming cable show "Edge of America," has been drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of unique local traditions all over the country, the more outrageous the better.

What he didn't bargain for is how bad they sometimes taste.

In the first few episodes, Edgers will eat fried calf testicles during an Oklahoma cattle festival and suck in some Oregon sawdust while carving trees with a chain saw. He'll even swallow the still-beating heart of a freshly skewered rattlesnake.

Ah, the flavor of real America.

Edgers, a Boston-based journalist, plays the fish out of water who plops himself into the middle of small-town activities, contests and celebrations that have been happening, in some cases, for decades. He participates, sometimes poorly, often comically, while sharing details of the event's cultural significance.

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"It's history, entertainment and action," Edgers said recently as he prepped for an episode in Texas. "To me, this is the greatest kind of Americana, where people take a necessity — like castrating cows and killing rattlesnakes — and make a big party out of it."

"Edge of America," which launches Jan. 22 on the Travel Channel, is part of a growing trend in television shows, mostly on cable, that highlight died-in-the-wool American stories starring unvarnished regular Joes. There's not a stylist or ostensibly a script doctor in sight as roving series seek out Grandma's favorite recipes, buried military artifacts, backwoods hobbies and obscure down-home customs.

Although politicos bandied about the terms "real America" and "real Americans" often during the recent presidential campaign without ever defining them, TV seems to be, in its own way, trying to do just that. A few new entries such as National Geographic's "Diggers" and Discovery Channel's "Ghost Town Gold" join a raft of true-blue series that aim to uncover bits of forgotten Americana and along the way, romanticize our national roots.

It's little surprise that more shows are crowding into this reality subgenre, since audiences are already responding to rootsy programming such as the Discovery Channel's "Moonshiners" and A&E's "Duck Dynasty," which recently snagged 6.5-million viewers for its second-season finale. The show, about a Louisiana family business that manufactures duck calls, beat all its cable and network competition, scoring the highest ratings ever for the network.

The Food Network and its sibling Cooking Channel weren't specifically looking to capture the "real America," said Bob Tuschman, senior vice president and general manager, but have found a strong following for nostalgia-tinged shows such as "Home Made in America," "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" and "Trisha's Southern Kitchen."

"Pioneer Woman," with city-girl-turned-ranch-wife Ree Drummond, has a slavishly loyal fan base, partly because "there's a human yearning to get back to elemental pleasures," Tuschman said. "For those of us who live in high rises and spend our time in front of screens, it's a fantasy life of open country and fresh air and hard work and hearty food."

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Drummond, who has become a bestselling author and award-winning blogger, home-schools her four children, extensively photographs the family basset hounds and cooks with vats of butter. She also calls her husband the Marlboro Man while chronicling her everyday ranching life online and on TV.

Few things may seem more "real American," though Tuschman shies away from putting a black-and-white definition on the term except to say that his networks' viewers crave the warm, no-frills, friendly approach of hosts such as Drummond, Mo Rocca ("My Grandmother's Ravioli"), Trisha Yearwood ("Trisha's Southern Kitchen") and, of course, Paula Deen.

In the new National Geographic series "Diggers," a couple of amateur historians go in search, literally, of pieces of America that are buried beneath the ground all over the country. With metal detectors in hand, Tim "Ringy" Saylor and KG "King George" Wyant will uncover Civil War relics, antique coins and ammunitions and vintage jewelry.

But it's not "the soft, rosy glow of nostalgia" that sold the show to NatGeo, where it debuts Jan. 1, said David Lyle, chief executive of National Geographic Channels. It was the everyman quality of its stars and their dedication to hunting for "juice pockets," their term for a concentration of cool old artifacts.

Brit Eaton, one star of the Discovery Channel's just-launched series "Ghost Town Gold," said the "real America" he's trying to unearth is often found in abandoned mines, boom-and-bust towns and abandoned settlements of the Old West. And what could be more American than pre-20th century tools, firearms and work clothes?

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