Here’s the problem with reality TV shows: They’re about real people. Real, flawed, fragile people. Now the hit of the History Channel, Swamp People, has suffered a dose of reality. Trapper Joe LaFont was arrested on domestic violence charges.
Apparently Joe got into a scrap with his girlfriend. Details are sketchy beyond that, save that Joe was held on a $50 bond. In Florida, domestic violence sets you back about as bad as a night on the town, it seems.
How this affects his relationship with his co-star, Trigger Tommy, is yet to be seen. I couldn’t hazard a guess because, even after catching all 3 seasons of Swamp People, Tommy and Joe’s bond remains an enigma. Is Tommy his step-son, or natural son? Is he the offspring of this current girlfriend, the victim, or another woman?
That boils down why these shows can break down.
As an avid viewer of the show and a student of south Louisiana culture, little of this story of violence surprises me.
This much I do know: Trapper Joe was a time bomb, and even a flood of heavy-handed History Channel editing couldn’t hide that fact.
You don’t have to look too long at his strained smile and brooding eyes to guess the details of the case: He got drunk, got into an argument, socked his girlfriend in the chest and casually tried to burn her with his cigarette.
Just about every scene between Joe and Tommy seemed about to explode. Of all the crews, they were the most contentious, overworked and unloved. The first time we see them, Tommy is hungover, Joe is trying not to bitch him out on camera and everything is about to collapse. The moment I saw them, I knew them as the reflection of a half-dozen families I knew from the rural South.
I’m painting with a broad brush, but characters like Trapper Joe aren’t uncommon. They’re the luckless drudges – the guys who put up with long hours, low pay, tough breaks and relentless abuse from their families. They grind their jaws and clock their overtime, only to have little to show for it. In Swamp People, Trapper Joe and Tommy are the opposite of Troy, a pater familias with a massive brood that sings, laughs, eats, works and – above all – embraces each other.
Trapper Joe is the sad, mean side of the swamp culture – the hang-dog, doomed dude that will one day bite back. It seems like that day came, as pitiful and ugly as you’d expect.