LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Pity the producers of new reality television shows. With audiences growing ever more jaded by the formula of pairing eccentric characters with exotic locations, the feat of repackaging the real world as a compelling, naturalistic series gets tougher every day.
Take the subgenre of the American workplace, for instance, in which we’ve already tagged along with some of television’s most colorful personalities as they raise the lids on abandoned storage lockers, cling for dear life to crabbing vessels heaving on the Bering Sea, endure the kitchen rants of prima donna chefs and hop elevators down into the depths of nation’s coal mines. In other words, any new show about a job and the people who work it had better come loaded with an impressive mix of charisma, conflict and setting.
With their new Discovery Channel offering “Swamp Brothers,” premiering Friday, executive producers Andreas Gutzeit (Body of Evidence) and Shura Davison (High Society, Parking Wars) are betting that two brothers who become partners at “the largest venomous snake farm in the world” will deliver that elusive hook.
Robbie Keszey, proprietor of Glades Herp Farm, is a tattoo-covered former assistant to the ’90s hair band Poison (see: “Rock of Love”) who ditched the Sunset Strip to try his hand at running an exotic animal sanctuary in the swampy environs near Orlando.
His brother, Stephen Keszey, has reluctantly given up a life as a bartender on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to help Robbie run the reptile business, squirm at the sight of its myriad creatures and deliver the show’s laugh lines.
“We’re brothers, but we are polar opposites,” Stephen says. “Robbie is as happy as a clam wrestling gators. My happy place is on the Upper West Side of Manhattan drinking a boilermaker.”
Robbie has little patience for his younger brother’s city ways but cuts him in on the action out of family loyalty. “I have to transform Stephen from a wussy city boy to a professional reptile wrangler,” Robbie says, “and quick.”
With the introductions out of the way, the cameras follow the brothers about their day in the swamp. In the first vignette, Robbie interrupts Stephen as he’s sending a text message to inform him that he needs his help in distracting a mother alligator so that he can steal the valuable eggs in her nest for resale purposes.
“My legs are shaking,” Stephen cries as the angry mama gator approaches with her jaw agape. “I’m shaking!”
As though we’ve suddenly been transported to the jungles of Africa, a soundtrack of tribal drums ratchets up the tension, and Stephen’s hysterics almost feel genuine. But before long, as with all of the bits on Swamp Brothers, the boys triumph in stealing the eggs, and nobody gets hurt.
In fact, despite his protestations, Stephen turns out to be a rather quick study, conquering a professed fear of snakes during an encounter with a reticulated python, helping subdue a rouge alligator and snaring a wild boar without a whole lot of difficulty. Perhaps he should have watched a few episodes of Wild Boys or Jackass for tips on how to cultivate and sustain a convincing impression of fear for all things slithery and fanged. Moreover, as you watch Stephen sweat, you ask yourself, if he really hates the job so much, why doesn’t he just quit and go back swilling whiskey in New York?
Sure, Robbie’s love of nature is apparent, but he’s no Steve Irwin. Glades is a commercial enterprise, after all, and anything you learn about the animals it sells comes as something of an aside. We don’t really learn that much about the swamp fauna, nor do we get that close to the brothers, and that’s a shame. Robbie and Stephen are both personable enough, but Swamp Brothers keeps the too busy bouncing from one over-inflated animal encounter to the next to develop much more than a few easy punch lines.
In a way, you yearn to see Robbie return to the glam-rock excesses of L.A. and for Stephen to step back behind the bar in New York, settings that might just have produced a more natural reality show or two. Here in the swamps of Florida, their lives feel a tad forced.
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