Arts and Culture

The Coquihalla Gets Its Own Reality TV Show

Savouring 'Highway Thru Hell' and 'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!' too.

By Steve Burgess 14 Sep 2012 |

Steve Burgess writes about culture, including what's on the screen, for The Tyee every other weekend.

Discovery Channel's new series about the Coquihalla is called Highway Thru Hell. That's bound to be a tourist bonanza for Merritt. The show, produced by Vancouver-based Great Pacific Media, is certainly a smash for Discovery Canada -- the debut episode pulled in a reported 1.7 million viewers. And if there are any other beneficiaries of the show's success, they might include Canadian Tire. Highway Thru Hell ought to sell a lot of winter radials.

The series follows Jamie Davis Heavy Rescue, a towing company servicing the Coquihalla and the Fraser Canyon. It's the latest example of the current reality TV genre that includes Deadliest Catch and History Channel's Ice Pilots NWT -- men at work, dangerously. Ideally such shows come by their plot lines honestly, requiring less manipulated drama than shows about wealthy socialites or inspiring makeovers. There is almost always some element of manipulation in documentary TV -- events are compressed, timelines fudged. But based on its first two episodes there appears to be little need for trickery in Highway Thru Hell. Episode one concluded with the discovery of a fatality -- a trucker who jackknifed in a blizzard and then made the mistake of getting out of his cab to check the situation, only to be crushed when his truck was hit by another semi.

For B.C. residents the show opens a window on those too-familiar winter traffic reports: "Expect snow in the mountain passes..." Highway Thru Hell shows just what that means. With its high mountain vistas, lack of civilization, and the Shakespearean nomenclature of its exits, roads, and bridges, the Coquihalla can be a joy to drive in summer. But even in good weather the highway has a spooky, road-to-the-Overlook-Hotel feel. Although officially designated as #5 the Coquihalla has always been a de facto section of Highway #1, and it's remarkable that a stretch of Canada's main southern artery should feel so remote. Once the bad weather hits, the Coquihalla becomes a true Stephen King nightmare.

Shows like this usually rise and fall on their cast of characters, and Highway Thru Hell has dutifully gone about introducing the colourful and cranky set who drive the tow trucks (including crusty old Bruce who, with refreshing candour, tells the film crew he doesn't much like having cameras in his face when he's trying to work). We are to become emotionally invested in these people and thus more thoroughly engaged in their dangerous work. In this the show succeeds well enough. But there will be those who watch Highway Thru Hell as a depiction of something else -- the fragility of our national supply chain and the daily reality of our accustomed 10,000 Mile Diet. The fact that the long lines of trucks backed up behind jackknifed trailers and wrecked cabs are often headed straight for our city makes Highway Thru Hell a depiction of Vancouver reality that no Real Housewives could ever match.

'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!'

TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo! appears to be having a pop cultural moment. Spun off from the morbidly fascinating Toddlers & Tiaras, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo! focuses on just one Georgia family, the Thompsons, and in particular their feisty seven-year-old pageant contestant Alana (aka Honey Boo Boo). TLC has made a meal out of this sort of white-trash voyeurism and HCBB! looks poised to be its biggest hit yet. Last month an episode of HCBB! even managed to outdraw that other southern freak show, the Republican National Convention. Yet one wonders if the network or the producers actually understand the nature of their hit show's appeal.

There's no doubt that the Thompsons are something to see -- a sort of real-life Simpsons clan, or perhaps the Beverley Hillbillies before they loaded up the truck and moved to Beverley. In keeping with TLC's usual sideshow ethos the producers attempt to make the family look as appalling as possible. They've got a fair amount of material to work with. Still, the producers juice it up at every opportunity, even building the show's intro around a fart joke. But in between the snickers at a low-rent lifestyle that involves shopping trips to a dumpster and freight trains running through the backyard, viewers might just take note of what makes HCBB! watchable, at least for a while: it's the family. They're likable.

Just as Homer quickly took over from Bart as the central Simpson, June "Mama" Shannon is the key to HCBB! She's not married to Alana's daddy, "Sugar Bear" Thompson -- apparently she just doesn't trust the institution of marriage. Her four kids regularly urge her to take pity on poor, placid Sugar Bear and make him an honest man but she won't. 310 pounds with a mangled foot (forklift accident), unashamed flatulence, and a double chin that would shame a pelican, Mama is offered up to us as a grotesque. In fact, she frequently comes off as rather sensible. She's an interesting woman. As for the family they are loving, mutually supportive, and capable of having their own brand of fun. For instance: blindfolding one member of the family who then tries to identify the other family members based on their breath. Who needs Monopoly?

582px version of Scene from 'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!'
Mom and daughter bonding moment in 'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo!'

The one undeniably dysfunctional aspect of Thompson family life is their diet. HCBB! is a like a case study on the poverty/obesity connection. The crap they eat is horrifying (although the children are imbued with an admirable practicality. When Honey Boo Boo spills a big jar of cheese balls, Mama tells her to throw them out. "We're just throwing away money!" the little girl mutters.)

In one episode an etiquette teacher arrives to teach the youngest girls some manners, a transparent plot device that underlines the show's exploitative agenda. What they ought to do is bring in a nutritionist -- that might even be genuinely helpful.

My favourite HCBB! moment comes when the family, in a Simpsonesque move, gets Alana a pet pig. She promptly names it Glitzy and dresses it up with tiaras and skirts. As a male pig this makes Glitzy a cross-dresser, and Honey Boo Boo suggests the animal might be gay. "He's not gay," her sister Pumpkin says.

To which Honey Boo Boo replies: "You can't tell that pig what to do."

It's an empowering moment. Now if we could just get her to like spinach.  [Tyee]

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