Catfish—fishes of the order Siluriformes—are, to speak generally, freshwater bottom feeders. Though native to all continents, they are crucial to the cultural identity of the Southern United States. Arguably, they are best prepared in a coating of cornmeal and cayenne and served with a compound butter. Noodling—also known as tickling, handfishing, catfisting, and dogging, all of which sound dirty—is the practice of catching them with your bare hands or, to be precise, y’all’s bare hands. I haven’t yet determined whether the term has any etymological connection to pasta (“I asked for these noodles al dente, you miserable cur!”) or to the meandering improvisational riffs sometimes performed by both jazz musicians (“Check out Slim’s noodling on this take!”) and television critics writing during the wasteland of August (“He was trying to noodle about a new Animal Planet reality show”).
Hillbilly Handfishin’ (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET) presents a scenario worthy of comparison with Green Acresand with tourist-board promotional videos, not to mention the roughing-it teamwork of The Amazing Race and the mud-splashing obstacle coursework of Wipeout. Here we head to Oklahoma, where there’s plenty of heart and plenty of hope. Two locals named Skipper and Trent lead city folk and solid suburbanites on fishing trips and, all in all, offer a redneck safari experience. There is very much wading, plashing, ploshing, and galumphing through water that, legend has it, owes its rich golden-brown color to the dust tracked in by the wagon trains and its sparkle to the tears of the American Indians.
On the first episode, three teams of two plunge into the muddy waters like weekend warriors dipping a toe into a nature documentary. These are Devyn and Tyler (a middle-aged brother-sister team from California), Tony and Dan (burly Chicago cops with pearly pussycat smiles), and Shelly and Staci (“The Boston Girls”). Shelly is a personal trainer and Staci tends bar. “I’m def’nitly a pahty guhl,” she says. I think they’re friends from karaoke, to which Staci wears zebra-print dresses. The gang goes groping in holes and hiding spots to yank out various species of cat. At times, to fight the glare, they decorate their faces with eye black, sometimes in war-paint patterns, sometimes not. (“No,” objects Staci, “I want it to look like a football playah.”)
The show’s low-key aura of danger owes to the fact that there could be copperheads down there or cottonmouths or who-knows-what-else. Someone, blindly reaching into the depths, might even puncture a hand on the dropped G of the series’ title. Also, some of the camera angles catch the group and the environs in a way that evokes strangers-on-holiday horror flicks. The mind flashes on tales of 400-, 500-, 600-pound catfish devouring dogs and men and personal watercraft. In a fanciful mood, you may even start fantasizing about the Chicago cops doing battle against a mutant-catfish evil genius who flaps at “Dueling Banjos” with his fins and plans to murder the group—but not before coating them in cornmeal and cayenne …
At its most interesting moments, Hillbilly Handfishin’ presents the possibility that noodling (as in, “The noodling trip forced Devyn to confront her fears”) has something to do with thinking. (Noodle as slang for head dates at least to Tristram Shandy: “What can have got into that precious noodle of thine?”) With droplets of water dribbling from the hairs on their broad backs, Skipper and Trent reveal successful noodling to be a matter of careful strategy involving practiced stealth and cold seduction. Also, as it happens, successfully leading noodling excursions is a matter of careful strategy. One of the good old boys explains why, on the first day of the trip, they concentrated their efforts on the Boston Girls: “We almost always try to get the girls in on the first fish.” This, according to legend, perks up the hunter-gatherer appetite of the males. Sure enough, Tony and Dan amiably express feelings of wounded machismo after they struggle to grabble up some cats, and Staci, in her improper Bostonian way, seizes an opportunity to combine flirting and taunting.
Like a wholesome mud-wrestling match recast as a self-actualization exercise, Hillbilly Handfishin’ is mild of manner, pleasant of nature, and gently amusing. The producers, resisting the many nihilistic opportunities that their fish-out-of-water setup offers them, giving bottom-feeding reality TV a new and better name, and theirs is a perfect show to have playing in the background while you fold laundry or grate lemon zest for your compound butter. By the way, you can save that stuff in the freezer and use it on bugs, meaning lobstahs, as in, “They have bugs that look like lobstahs down here!” as Staci swattingly shrieks.