Death for a reality star, but reality TV goes on

AP News
Posted: Apr 04, 2013 9:57 AM
Death for a reality star, but reality TV goes on

NEW YORK (AP) — For a fleeting moment, Shain Gandee was part of the 1 percent.

Not the economic 1 percent, of course. Not when a fundraiser was announced to help cover his funeral costs.

No, Gandee gained entry into another kind of 1 percent, the 1 percent who can claim to be famous. To be recognized, however marginally, as a media celebrity, never mind why. To be saluted for posing as some version of oneself, however distorted that version may be.

Thanks to his brief run on the MTV reality show "Buckwild" (whose first season began in January and concluded a month later), Gandee was lifted from obscurity in small-town West Virginia for a dozen episodes of prominence before his death earlier this week.

Gandee became a star doted on by the 99 percent. Or enough of that public to please MTV (which was soon back filming "Buckwild" for a second season), and surely enough to have thrilled Gandee.

"Buckwild" trades on the devil-may-care antics of a group of 20-something guys and gals with more time on their hands than good sense. The bed of a dump truck becomes their swimming hole. A backhoe propels them across broad swaths of plastic like a giant Slip 'N Slide, for a sport they call "redneck water skiing." And "muddin' it" finds them barreling off-road, helter-skelter, in any vehicle at hand.

But there was more to 21-year-old Gandee's act than reckless high jinks. With the cheek of arrested adolescence, he portrayed himself on "Buckwild" as a ladies' man, as the "Gandee candy" who can satisfy any girl's sweet tooth.

Was this who he really was, or was he playing a role? Did he realize that viewers — some of them, at least — were sneering at him and his friends as cartoonish stereotypes? ("Buckwild" has been called "The 'Jersey Shore' of Appalachia.") Did he ever suspect that MTV might be exploiting him?

Was there a grander strategy for Gandee being on the show than having fun for all the world to see? Was Gandee, who (in his words) "tossed garbage" as a sanitation worker, bucking for a Pauly D-style payday as a reality star? Was "Buckwild" meant to be his ticket out, or up?

Maybe he would be pleased to know that the First Law of Celebrity applies to him now: His fame is even greater in death than it was in life. A large measure of the 99 percent — much larger than the average 3 million viewers who watched "Buckwild" — discovered him this week, learned that his body and two others were discovered Monday in a mud pit near his Sissonville home, with Gandee at the wheel of his family's Ford Bronco.

As with most deaths, there is a temptation to draw some larger truth in Gandee's untimely demise.

There is the temptation to find a link between this preventable accident — wee-hours "muddin' it" after leaving a bar — and the show that glorified that part of Gandee to the watching world. And there's a temptation to point fingers at MTV (though the network says it wasn't filming Gandee the night of his death).

Of course, MTV isn't alone in its lucrative policy of spotlighting people for their bad or ill-advised behavior. Examples, however varied in extremity, abound. Consider Bravo's "Real Housewives" franchise, TLC's "Jon & Kate Plus 8" and current hit "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," and MTV's "Buckwild" predecessor, "Jersey Shore."

But for the moment all eyes are on "Buckwild" and its network. What will MTV do now?

"Our main concern is for the Gandee family and their friends," said the network in a predictable statement. But monetary concerns will soon take precedent again.

Can "Buckwild" be salvaged for another season? Can it even be stoked by exploiting Gandee's death before resuming its fun-and-games?

MTV says production has been suspended, and no decision on the show's future will be made for at least a couple of weeks. But in any case, this brand of programming will persist on MTV. Why not? There will always be people eager to step in front of the camera with dreams of deliverance, however delusional, to the realm of the 1 percent. People ready and willing to serve as the freaks in the network's latest freak show.

And all the better when they're putting themselves in harm's way. After all, their recklessness is no skin off the nose of the viewer watching them — nor should it be, as MTV dutifully reminds us in its "Buckwild" disclaimer, which cautions against "wild and crazy behavior that could result in serious personal injury or property damage."

No kidding! "MTV and the producers insist that no one attempt to recreate or re-enact any activity performed on this show," says the disclaimer.

Note that word: "insist." MTV is looking out for us viewers insistently. It is we who MTV is worried about.

Meanwhile, the world's Shain Gandees are expendable heroes. There's always more where they came from, people looking to be famous. And MTV (like a bunch of other networks) is happy to cash in as their enabler.

MTV knows we from the 99 percent will be watching. Enough of us, anyway, to close the deal.




EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at) and at