[4 March 2013]
For generations, the resilient Cajun people have made their living in the harsh terrain of the Atchafalaya Swamp. The History Channel’s reality show, Swamp People, depicts this 300-year-old lifestyle, especially the dangerous business of alligator hunting that lies at its center. For one month out of every year, the state of Louisiana opens alligator season, calling on its industrious citizens to regulate the growing alligator population that threatens the people of the bayou. With a pre-set quota for alligator hides, each hunter takes on a certain number of tags at the beginning of the season and then sets out on the quest to “tag out” before the 30 days are up. Although this perilous occupation can be highly lucrative, failing to bring in enough gators can be devastating, both to one’s finances and to one’s reputation.
While the practice of alligator hunting does go back many generations, Swamp People tells very little about Cajun history, reflecting The History Channel’s growing tendency to produce programming that could hardly be classified as historical. Even more disappointing, however, is the fact that this reality show only deals with one limited aspect of its main appeal: the very rich Cajun culture, characterized not only by alligator hunting, but also by an emphasis on family, tradition, work ethic, and community. These qualities are only represented tangentially, usually in the various hunters’ comments on the importance of passing on knowledge about surviving in the swamp from generation to generation. While the season three DVD box set does provide extra footage in the form of a handful of vignettes about other aspects of life on the bayou and some such side stories are sprinkled throughout season three, the focus on the admittedly riveting practice of alligator hunting prevents the viewer from getting anything more than a glimpse into Cajun traditions.
This emphasis on the hunt also results in a largely repetitive series. At the first viewing, one can’t help but be fascinated by the treacherous practice and the people who engage in it, and adrenaline runs high even for the viewer when hunters inevitably face dangerously close calls with the powerful jaws of these swamp monsters. But very soon the routine becomes familiar, and every hunt seems more or less like the last. The format of the show exacerbates this repetitiveness, flashing shots from the episode’s most exciting moments in the first few minutes, presenting the same background information every episode, and using the same phrases over and over. For example, the narrator (Pat Duke) transitions between the different teams hunting on the large marsh in his faked Cajun accent with “Meanwhile, such and such many miles away…” probably four or five times in each of the season’s 22 episodes.
But the excellent cinematography and editing of Swamp People, while to some extent repetitive as well, do a lot to counteract this monotony. The slow-motion kill shots demonstrate the intensity of the work at hand and heighten the drama, and the impressive multitude of camera angles provides enough variation to create visual interest. Clearly the filming process for this show must be strenuous, but although it results in an especially well-made production, it also reveals the fakery of “reality” programming. With each episode depicting just one day’s hunt, there is no way the many different shots and angles could be achieved without extensive stock footage and pre-filming.
But the real redemption of the show lies in the endearing and admirable “swamp people” themselves. Unlike some reality shows that highlight a certain regional culture in an arguably exploitative and mocking way, Swamp People puts Cajuns in a positive light, showing them to be hard-working, family-oriented, and, most of all, happy. Every one of the alligator hunters appears supremely grateful for the opportunity to follow the Cajun way of life, despite its many dangers. Proud of their heritage, these humble people are honored to follow the traditions of their ancestors and continue passing them on down through the generations. As one of the hunters said, explaining his joy at completing the year’s alligator season successfully, “It’s all part of the American way. Being free, you know? Make money how you want. Pick and choose your destiny, baby. I got mine.”
So while Swamp People: Season 3 is not a box set most will feel the need to own, unless they really want to watch 968 minutes of basically the same thing over and over, the people featured in this show are very much worthy of the attention. The biggest plus of the box set is the extra footage depicting other aspects of the lives of these “swamp people”, offering a better look at the Cajun lifestyle. So, while alligator hunting is most certainly a thrill to watch, it loses its excitement through repetition, and Swamp People would do well to invest more time in the personal stories of the noble people it depicts, both to break up the monotony of the hunt, and also to greater interest and inspire its viewers.