Imagine a new mockumentary in the tradition of Waiting for Guffman, a behind-the-scenes peek at a CBS affiliate in the 159th-largest media market in the country. The station’s studio is located inside a shopping mall in Odessa, right next to a tablet display of the Ten Commandments. The anchorman, Jay Hendricks, likes to stroll through said mall and wink at his adoring fans. The co-anchor, Tatum Hubbard, is a former beauty queen. (Her Miss Texas platform was about the importance of “mentoring.”) And the eager young reporters—when they’re not assigned to cover such events as Christian Youth Night at the rodeo—work on month-long series about, say, whether dance classes are a viable weight-loss option.
Sounds like a hoot, right? Except Making News: Texas Style is not fiction, and it’s certainly no joke. Instead, this new documentary series—the latest in a long and laudable line of Texas reality programs (see “We Interrupt This Rerun”)—is a witty, insightful, and even touching look at a television station that’s probably not much bigger than your average high school AV club. The show, which premiered on TV Guide Network last month and continues its thirteen-episode arc into September, may take some effort to find (TV Guide Network reaches approximately 80 million households nationwide, but not all major cable providers carry it in every market). The effort is worth it. For one thing, Making News serves up a distinct regional snapshot without ever losing sight of its larger mission, which is to show us the nuts and bolts of how TV news gets produced. Even more gratifying, it never mocks these easily mockable anchors and reporters, instead revealing them to be hardworking, ambitious, and good-humored. You’re all too happy to spend an hour in their company.
The brainchild of New York—based executive producer Nick Davis, Making News wasn’t actually conceived as a Texas project. Davis auditioned four stations—the others were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Erie, Pennsylvania; and Lawrence, Kansas—spending a few days filming at each location last summer. He says he settled on Midland-Odessa’s CBS 7 partly because it offered him a classic underdog “narrative”: The station was trailing its rival, KWES, in the ratings and trying to woo Hendricks, who at the time had been an anchor with KWES for thirteen years, to jump ship. And, indeed, it’s this universal story line that makes the show so watchable. Making News picks up right where The Mary Tyler Moore Show and WKRP in Cincinnati left off, and it could be taking place pretty much anywhere. It deftly introduces us to its main players and reveals the conflicts each of them will struggle with over the course of the season: Reporter Melissa Correa is anxious about her weight; the previous anchor, 62-year-old Bill Warren, is humiliated by his demotion after Hendricks comes aboard; and news director Jose Gaona is determined, at all costs, to make his station number one. (The cameras began following the CBS 7 gang in January and continued filming until mid-May.)
But if it’s the familiarity that hooks us, it’s the specificity that keeps us paying attention; I can’t think of another recent show that portrays its small-town setting with such generous affection and attention to detail. The cameras quietly observe the expanses of highway and the dumpy strip malls that line the streets, refusing to artfully gussy up the images (in the manner of NBC’s Friday Night Lights). Instead, the show simply lets Midland-Odessa speak for itself. What emerges is a bona fide rogues’ gallery, a place whose many oddball juxtapositions come together to form a one-of-a-kind whole. The terrific second episode, for instance, follows both sports director Jeff Stewart as he competes in an exhibition basketball game against a group of Hooters waitresses and reporter Kara Lee as she heads off to the tiny town of Goldsmith for a story about a kidnapper. Lee, especially, travels from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again as she stumbles upon a creepy house guarded by barking dogs, meets a self-described “rough old boy” with a hankering for outlaw justice, and finally, gets into an argument with perhaps the world’s most embittered tow truck company owner. All of this makes for frequently hilarious viewing. But it also blows to smithereens every last stereotype of small-minded, small-town Texas. The people and places we encounter in Making News are simply much too vivid and idiosyncratic to be contained by mere stereotype.
Maybe it took the fresh perspective of an outsider to do Midland-Odessa such sly justice. Much more likely, Davis was just smart enough to realize that right now there are probably few better places in America than Texas for reality programming. Ours is a diverse, unruly, ever-expanding state—in other words, the perfect match for the diverse, unruly, ever-expanding genre of reality TV. Making News, particularly, seems to grasp the tensions that make Texas so entertaining these days: the way, for instance, eager young comers like Lee coexist alongside good ol’ boy types like Hendricks, or the way, on the nightly news broadcast, that grisly double homicides are often followed directly by high school football highlights. It’s too soon to say if it will reach the considerable heights of, say, Cheaters, the Dallas-based, wickedly anarchic program that publicly humiliates adulterers, or A&E’s gripping Dallas SWAT, which reveals that the frontier spirit is still very much alive. But for now, Making News is a welcome reminder that, in Texas, the truth will always be stranger (and infinitely more satisfying) than fiction.
We Interrupt This Rerun: Catch up on the real Texas this summer.
Any crash course on our state’s reality TV programming should begin with Cheaters: Sure, it’s tawdry and obnoxious, but where else can you witness screaming matches and hair-pulling catfights set against the backdrop of the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex? The show is syndicated nationally, but there are also seven volumes of uncensored highlights available on DVD. Dallas SWAT, a COPS-style look at the lives of members of the Dallas Police Department’s SWAT team, airs regularly on A&E on Thursdays, in rotation with Detroit SWAT and Kansas City SWAT; here’s hoping a DVD package of the excellent first season is issued soon. More-high-minded types might want to take a look at PBS’s 2006 Texas Ranch House, which forces a group of modern adventurers to pretend they’re living in 1867. The intriguing (if not quite tawdry enough) eight-episode series is available on DVD. Oh, and if you missed the first few episodes of Making News: Texas Style, worry not: TV Guide Network is planning marathons of the show that will run throughout the summer. (The first is set to air on July 2.)