TV: Animal Planet’s ‘Hillbilly Handfishin’,’ muckin’ around in matters of class

Hank Stuever
TV critic August 5, 2011

Partisan culture clashes are so commonplace now that you have to wonder if historians won’t regard the early 21st century as the Cold Civil War, in which a slight remark or sly observation triggered furious standoffs. This includes the occasional use of words such as “redneck,” “hillbilly” and “trailer trash” — terms of derision that are repurposed with pride as marketing tools.

Certainly the reality television of our era will partially convey the divide that separates the Nancy North (or cuckoo coasts) from the Dirty South, documenting all the tiny class cues that crackle between. We are obsessed with city vs. country and red vs. blue. That notion forms a curious, subtle undertone in Animal Planet’s charmingly hokey “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” which premieres Sunday night.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

On this show, the city folk — in this episode they hail from Chicago, Boston and somewhere in California; in a later episode, it’s Fairfax — travel to a mostly rural part of southwestern Oklahoma to dabble in a pastime known as “noodlin’.”

Noodlin’ is the fishing sport of wading neck-deep into muddy sienna waters of a creek (crick, if you please) or lake and poking your feet and arms into the holes where catfish dwell. Once the fish gets his mouth around your extremity, you yank him up to the surface, string his gills and see how big he (or she) is. That could be anywhere from a few pounds to more than 100 pounds.

Our squeamish urban naifs are guided in this pursuit by one Skipper Bivins, a friendly, middle-aged alpha-billy who has found entrepreneurial reward with noodlin’ expeditions for tourists. Skipper is regarded as a champion noodler, assisted by his friend, Trent Jackson.

Clad only in their Wranglers and athletic socks, Skipper and Jackson venture fearlessly through the brush and into the water, with no fishing equipment, using only the instincts taught to them by their daddies and grandpas — and, as Skipper briefly mentions, the bare-handed techniques used by Indians who had the first go at hardscrabble life in pre-statehood Oklahoma.

Aside from having what must be the least-manscaped chest and back on television, Skipper could not be more cable-ready. He’s a born storyteller with folksy expressions sweeter than tea. “Let ’er rip, tater-chip,” is one. (Also, while tiptoeing through the muck of his favorite crick: “I smell beaver.”)

Skipper’s customers include a pair of cops from Chicago and a pair of overtanned women from Boston — a personal trainer and a bartender. “Is Oklahoma on the ocean?” one of them wonders aloud as they’re packing their bags for the trip.

This is the recurring idea of “Hillbilly Handfishin’ ”: People from cities sure don’t know much about anything useful. In the reverse (if, say, the show followed Skipper and Jackson to Manhattan to negotiate the subsidiary rights of their TV show over lunch with network executives at the Four Seasons), this sort of cheap-shot cultural crossover would seem offensive and mean. But of course, red-state humor about urban effetes is always allowable; in fact, it is viewed as a social corrective to some imagined blue-state tyranny.

After a few days with Skipper, these fish-out-of-water tourists talk vaguely about having learned something of real value about themselves and their ability to face the unknown. Noodlin’, it seems, is as spiritually elevating as walking across hot coals.

And before you send on that e-mail or submit that hot comment about what an East Coast snoot I am, let me tell you this: Skipper and Jackson live just miles from where my father was born and raised and where that side of my family still lives. I, too, have walked around in red Oklahoma waters and fretted about cottonmouth snakes. In Skipper’s manly, country lilt, I can clearly hear the Okie accent of my past, but I’m too afraid to go to Ancestry.com and see if we are indeed kin. He seems awfully familiar.

As far as the show goes, like many a potential hit, “Hillbilly Handfishin’ ” first aired as a special, last year; now, as a series, it can be mildly entertaining, but it’s hard to imagine anyone watching more than an episode or two.

Unless, of course, they are drawn by something else. Skipper’s noodlin’ techniques seem strangely intimate, even sexual. A catfish hole is discovered in about four feet of water, and one of the Boston babes is summoned forth to stick her hand in the hole. The water’s murkiness obscures all, but what we see is shirtless Skipper pressed close behind her — close enough that their faces touch — and now Jackson gets in there and does something to her (to the fish?) from the front. “What are you feeling?” Skipper asks softly.

“I’ve got my finger inside of something,” she pants.

I dare you to change the channel. It’s just so naughty.

Hillbilly Handfishin’

(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.
on Animal Planet.

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