What are the stories we tell about ourselves and our city?
If you're one of the folks worried that the recent episodes of Salvage City didn't show St. Louis in the best possible light, console yourself with the fact that at least Moonshiners isn't set here. That other Discovery Channel show depicts Virginia and North Carolina rural folk engaged in the distillation of 'shine in the deep woods. (Or, depending on whom you ask, pretending to make moonshine.) Without too much Appalachia bashing, let's just say we'd all take Sam Coffey and Chris Trotter as spokesmen for St. Louis over bootlegger Lance any day. Lovers of our fair city: Relax.
Despite the Discovery Channel's disclaimer that "Any person caught moonshining can be sentenced to prison," the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control notes, "The show is a dramatization, and no illegal liquor is actually being produced." Maybe this should be obvious, but "reality television" isn't ever, um, real. Its all a semi-scripted dramatization of things that maybe-would-have-sort-of happened anyway, distilled and edited into something that's occasionally entertaining. That's probably why we don't call reality television "documentary" or "reporting." Coffey and Trotters' primary sin as reality stars isn't inauthenticity, it's that they aren't eccentric enough to bite the heads off of live snakes like The Legend of Shelby the Swamp Man protagonist Shelby Stanga.
On the other hand, it's fair to call reality television "storytelling." Clearly some folks haven't liked the story.
I hear the moans that Salvage City wasn't real enough and that it wasn't a pretty enough postcard of St. Louis. The Riverfront Times led the charge with articles titled Sam Coffey Gets a TV Show, But is it Good for St. Louis? and Salvage City: St. Louis Deserves Better. Perhaps the mistake was thinking the show would be an infomercial aimed at families deciding whether to vacation in St. Louis or Disneyland. What's real about the show is that Sam Coffey (whom I've known for a few years) is a hustler. Not a steal-your-credit-card-number hustler. But a creative, self-employed custom carpenter using a lot of reclaimed wood, working out of one van or another. He's grown a messy, unplumbed workshop into an attractive tavern (the Fortune Teller Bar) and made three hours of cable television.
Worrying that a reality show isn't kind enough to its host city isn't a St. Louis exclusive. Our hand-wringing pales when compared to the uproar caused by the meteoric rise of Jersey Shore in 2009. A bevy of New Jersey Italian American organizations lobbied MTV to cancel the show and pressured advertisers to drop their sponsorships. New Jersey state senator Joseph Vitale even went so far as to suggest the show might constitute a hate crime against Italian Americans under New Jersey law. "These acts are contrary to the spirit of New Jersey law and jeopardize the active and open pursuit of freedom and opportunity," he wrote.
Continue reading to see why St. Louis just needs to take a chill pill when it comes to Salvage City.
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