We saw something on television this weekend that would likely have made George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson, up there in Gonzo Heaven, choke on their respective drinks.
Charlie LeDuff, a New York Times reporter with more celebrity cache than most good, grey Timesmen, has been given a new TV show on the Discovery Times Channel. The program’s called “Only in America,” and the idea is that the charismatic LeDuff, often as not bedecked in one of those strange ruffled white puffy pirate shirts, will infiltrate some of the more bizarre subcultures in America. We’re talking gay rodeo riders in Oklahoma City, minor league football players in Amarillo, Texas, and Civil War battle re-enactors in the South. In other words, people with lives stranger than yours.
LeDuff has lofty ambitions for the show. “We’re going across America at a time when many in this country are grappling with who we are as a people,” LeDuff is quoted in the press release announcing the show. “There are questions about race, immigration, sexuality, image, beauty. I hope by the end of this series we can answer a few of those questions.”
Really? Or is that just protective cover for one more sensationalist, no-holds-barred reality show spectacle - in this case, one masquerading as immersion journalism, a la Plimpton or Thompson?
Take this weekend’s episode, in which LeDuff joins a group of bikers called the East Bay Rats in Oakland, California. The Rats have an intense fight club culture and LeDuff (165 pounds) decides to put himself in the ring with one of them, Big Mike (310 pounds). The promise of seeing LeDuff pummeled and bloodied acts as a cheap gimmick throughout the show - and, sure enough, Big Mike clobbers him. (What might have been a new twist on this old chestnut would be watching LeDuff pummel some hapless 85-lb foe … but we digress.)
Apparently LeDuff imagines that putting himself in these situations provides a kind of service for those of us safely insulated at home, staring slack-jawed at the TV monitor as we sprawl on the sofa, chasing our Fritos with periodic slurps of Mountain Dew. Instead, “Only in America” becomes all about LeDuff. It’s impossible not to be overwhelmed by the overweening ego infusing every minute. “I don’t want to fight,” LeDuff rasps, looking into the camera, his facial hair perfectly grizzled, wearing a wife-beater, pumping the air with his fists. “I fight so they can know what the hell is going on in this country…”
In short, LeDuff, who’s always been something of a hotdog, ends up turning in a perfect parody of same.
Even the Times review - penned by an outsider — concurs: “Mr. LeDuff too often gets between us and the people he wants to introduce to us. He has a sense of humor, and one can appreciate the gameness of a reporter who will dress up in drag to fall off a steer, but there’s just too much of him, and he can’t seem to get over himself. His overstyled voiceovers do little to frame the action in an explanatory bigger picture, and he takes up too much screen time. He talks too much, and too often he’s talking about himself. ‘These guys respect me, like, I’m a gamer,’ he says of the East Bay Rats. Even if true, the line makes you wince.”