Lovely weather today. Did you get outdoors? Did you at least tune into the Outdoor Channel? What? You didn’t know that there is an Outdoor Channel? What kind of sissy are you? Do you not appreciate the thrill of the hunt? May I have a bite of your raw manchego?
Listen up, city slicker: The Outdoor Channel has been satisfying the indoor desires of outdoor enthusiasts since 1994. The target viewer is male, and he drinks domestic beer, and his most recent auto purchase was a four-door pickup truck. Angling tournaments, safari jaunts, a whole series dedicated to dogs jumping off of docks—the network has his every passion and whim covered. But a sampling of new and returning shows indicates that the Outdoor Channel, having long offered something for everyone with an honest interest in hunting and fishing, is now pursuing viewers with a passing fancy in anything folksy. Or so it seems from promos for Mudslingers, an investigation into the juncture of dirt, water, and either ATVs or chicks in bikinis.
The most sober of the lot is Gun Stories, more properly identified as MidwayUSA’s Gun Stories, as the Outdoor Channel is big on old-school possessive sponsorships. Hosted by the actor Joe Mantegna—presumably on account of the firearms expertise he’s developed over years of voicing Fat Tony—the series explores the history of a particular gun in each episode. The debut was an extended tribute to the Browning M1911, the longtime standard-issue sidearm of the U.S. military. It began with an expert paying tribute to the innocent days—the year of “19 and 62”—when you could send $15 to the NRA and have a lethal weapon sent to your college mailroom. Here came the historians in flannel and tweed and Ted Nugent in a cowboy hat. The treatment was impressive and exhaustive and left me impressively exhausted, but I perked up when a man from MidwayUSA interrupted to demonstrate “reloading tips and techniques.”
As evidenced by the threadbare quality of jokes on ESPN’s bass-fishing shows, it is not necessarily riveting to watch other people stand around waiting for an opportunity to kill things. The Outdoor Channel attempts to surmount this obstacle by showing us famous people waiting around. And, even better, showing us famous people doing the things that they are famous for and then abruptly cutting to the eighth day of a hunting trip. So it goes on the first installment of MacMillan River Adventures, which features the professional wrestler Shawn Michaels. The first half of the episode is devoted to highlight reels, tender WrestleMania memories, and Michael’s impending induction into the WWE Hall of Fame. Next thing you know he’s been in the Yukon for a week. He is on a moose hunt, but the meese have not been biting. Then there is a freeze frame and a long pause as the wrestler meditates on whether it is ethical to fire his weapon: “Is it a kill?” It is! Radiating satisfaction like a child and plugging a sponsor like a pro, Michaels bows before his prey: “I’m so happy to be able to pull out my Outdoor Edge SwingBlade.”
Reeltree’s NASCAR Outdoors, pitched not at the practiced hunter but at the stock-car-racing fanboy, operates along much the same lines. Premise: “The hunter-gatherer spirit is alive and well and has lured some of Nascar’s finest away from the roar of the track and into the solitude of the wild.” In the premiere, a driver named Martin Truex Jr. went bowhunting for elk in New Mexico. The narrator was apologetic about the tedium that followed, when no bull came close enough for Truex and his fabulously mustachioed guides to get a clean shot at: “But like in racing, you can count on plenty of drama to unfold between now and the final pursuit.” This led me to believe that a couple elk would come within range and then one, attempting to pass the other on the inside, would spin out. No such luck. Again, I would have appreciated it if they had filled the dead air with some material on the history of the crossbow or of Truex’s biography or a recipe for elk tartare. Still, Truex’s fans must have appreciated the face time, even if he was wearing a camouflage face-mask for part of it.
Craig Morgan All Access Outdoors solves the fundamental problem of the boringness of hunting shows by turning itself into a show about hanging out. The host, a country star, occasionally fires a gun, but mostly he fires off decent wisecracks. The episode I caught detailed the Grand Ole Opry Hunt, a tradition in which some of Nashville sit around smiling at the stories of Little Jimmy Dickens and chuckling at the jokes of Blake Shelton. “If hunting ever become a spectator sport, this is what it’ll be like,” Shelton says, while standing around waiting for his friends to kill things.
The most entertaining Outdoor Channel program I sampled on my binge was Benelli Presents Duck Commander, which pulls off the neat trick of inviting us to laugh with “rednecks”—their word—as opposed to at them. Homey and hokey and heartfelt and instructive, it is a reality series about the workings of a Monroe, La., duck-hunting enterprise representing your one-stop shop for game calls, gutwrenches, and spice rubs. It is run by people with nicknames like Boss Hogg and The Walrus. The handyman is named Jimmy Red, and he is assisted by a teeming brood. How many kids does Jimmy Red have? “It varies from five to 15.” In any case, he has more kids than teeth. Oh, and closed captioning for Duck Commander is provided by a Red Bull-esque beverage called Team Realtree Outdoor Energy, which, per its slogan, is “not for city boys.”