"Porter Ridge" (Discovery, Tuesdays); "Duck Dynasty" (A&E, Wednesdays). The hayseed, the Hee, the Haw, the Hooterville -- an old strain of homespun country comedy is alive and exceedingly well on reality television. The very popular "Duck Dynasty," whose fourth season began last week with 11.8 million viewers (making it, according to A&E, "the number one nonfiction series telecast in cable history"), concerns the Robertsons of West Monroe, La., who own and operate a multimillion-dollar duck-call business. The men wear headbands and big beards, marry young and have a lot of kids, but their kitchen counters are topped with marble, and everyone on screen is articulate and self-possessed. As in scripted sitcoms, they have married up; their wives are attractive and sensible. The jokes are old-fashioned ("Women!" basically -- but also "Men!" "Parents!" "Kids!" and "My brother!"), and the episodes all end in amity.
"Porter Ridge," which debuted last week and makes "Duck Dynasty" look like cinéma vérité, was born when one of its eventual stars, Jeff Watson, here called Jeff the Bear Man (because of his eight pet bears and not, as you might imagine, because he looks like one), emailed "Duck Dynasty" co-creator Scott Gurney to suggest there was something he needed to see, tucked away in the hills of central Indiana. (The location is kept fancifully vague: the nearest town is identified as "Nearest Town.") Who then is exploiting whom, well might you ask. The milieu is more down-market than that of "Duck Dynasty," the teeth more in need of fixing, the "acting" (the "realting," let's call it) more obvious; it often has the flavor of an amateur theatrical, with the emphasis on "amateur" -- a stiffness that makes the whole enterprise feel paradoxically more authentic. (And, perversely perhaps, is the thing I like best about it.) The main characters, including Bear Jeff, more-or-less lead Terry Porter, who runs an auto-parts junkyard, and their friends Dirty Andy and Elvis Larry, are again male, but here they are unrelated and mostly unattached, and get up to their hijinks unencumbered. (The lone female in the first episode, being young and attractive and a new employee of Porter's, felt like a ringer.) Doughy and shirtless, restless and talkative, Porter already looks like the bobble head doll that will surely be on sale after a season or two. (Terry to son: "If you never take chances you won't amount to a hill of beans." Son: "I don't want to amount to a hill of beans." Terry: "Exactly.") As on "Duck Dynasty," gentleness is the order of the day, even when the Porter Ridge gang confronts the rival Dog Killer Ridge boys in search of a transmission. After some dickering, they instead return home with a safe, which they dynamite open. "Joke's on them," says one of the Dog Killer Ridgers. "I had the combo to that safe the whole time." Also, it only held an old boombox. Later there will be toasted marshmallows.
"Please Like Me" (Pivot, Thursdays). Australian comic and game-show personality Josh Thomas' semi-autobiographical series has been imported by the new network Pivot -- television for millennials is what they aim to make, though do not let that scare you off, People Out of Your Twenties. (The network is locally available on DirectTV, Dish and AT&T, but not via cable, so for many that point will be moot; the first episode is, however, available to all online at www.pivot.tv.) The series has been compared to "Girls" -- indeed, it might easily have been be called "Boys" -- and certainly Thomas is young like Lena Dunham (she is a year older, in fact) and writing about mixed-up people more or less his contemporaries. (He is actually playing a younger version of himself -- it's a coming-out-of-age memory piece.) Both series owe something to the mumblecore tradition -- I suppose we can call it a tradition by now -- but this has its own whimsical-sad flavor. That Thomas, playing 21, looks old even for 26 is accounted for in the series' first line (“It’s Sunday, we’re in the first world, we just ordered a $19 sundae, but all I can think about is my rubbish face”), seconds before he is dumped by girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey), who points out that he is "probably gay." More than probably he is, and his stumbling into that fact is the main thrust, but not the only thread in this friends-and-family tale in which people of all ages find themselves learning the ropes. Weedy and nervous, lank of hair and body, Josh is sometimes obnoxious and other times sweet and has trouble feeling any pain but his own. (Josh the character is not Josh the author of that character, after all, as Thomas at 26 is not Thomas at 21.) His divorced parents may come off as silly at times (the way that older folks seem to equally silly younger ones), his father regretfully in a midlife crisis, his mother in the hospital after an overdose of over-the-counter painkillers and Baileys Irish Cream; but the something-more-than-excellent David Roberts and Debra Lawrance, who play them, also make them impossible not to respect. The pace is easygoing, the camerawork observant, the attitude bemused; as a whole, it is mostly lovely, a little wistful and doubtfully life-affirming. A second, longer season, with backing from Pivot, will be made.
"The '99ers" (ESPN, Tuesday). ESPN's consistently inspiring "Nine for IX" series (the IX is for Title IX) continues with a documentary from inside the U.S. women's soccer team and its drive to victory in the 1999 Women's World Cup. Quilted by director Erin Leyden from home video footage shot that summer by team co-captain Julie Foudy (latterly an ABC and ESPN reporter/analyst, and this film's producer and narrator), archival clips and a new interview with eight key players reunited on the Rose Bowl infield -- sitting in a circle on the grass -- it's a homely film, but a moving one. (I am still moving, in fact.) The Americans had won the first Women's World Cup in 1991 but returned from China to the cheers of only "three fans." It was different eight years later -- how different surprised everyone, on and off the field -- with a U.S.-hosted tournament and sold-out stadiums from New Jersey to California. It's a story of the way individual talents alchemically make a team -- the thing that makes great pop bands great -- and among other things, "The '99ers" is a video tour diary ("I took a ton of footage of us in the locker room," says Foudy, "and we are nuts"), a paean to good times, hugs, high-fives and the days of puffy shorts and "Livin' la Vida Loca." (There is also a contemporary scene in which "the old bags," none at all baggy, meet "young guns" Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Christie Rampone -- a member of the '99 team, but still playing at 38.) There are, to be sure, some Tense Moments of Sport, and bittersweet reflections -- shy-but-in-demand Mia Hamm recalls that the hardest part of her day was "after practice when you guys would get to get on that bus, and I couldn't get on 'cause I had to do those interviews" -- but the mood overall is sunny and giddy and bright, the game clips playing like a highlight reel of beautiful goals and stupendous saves (by goalkeeper Briana Scurry). Off the field there is singing and dancing and competitive urination (making sport, in two senses, out of a drug test); on the field, determination and artistry, and Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey after her winning kick in what is still the most watched soccer match in U.S. history. What remains is Foudy's question to her old teammates: "Were you pioneers or was ‘99 an anomaly -- because we so badly didn't want to be the only ones."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun