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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

“Heartland Docs, DVM”, “Wrestlers” and reality TV

I’ve tried for a long time to fall in love with prestige TV. I’ve sat down to watch “Breaking Bad” and worked through “The Queen’s Gambit.” Even so, the two shows that I’ve been most obsessed with recently, “Heartland Docs, DVM” on National Geographic and “Wrestlers” on Netflix, are far from the writerly HBO dramedies that have captured critics’ minds for the last ten years. Yet, both shows bring a sensitivity and finesse to the reality genre that is as remarkable as any piece of Emmy bait. 

The two shows have little in common, at least on the surface. “Wrestlers,” directed by Greg Whiteley, follows a ragtag local wrestling promotion, Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), as they struggle to turn a profit one summer. If they succeed, their new owner and sports radio personality Matt Jones, will continue to support them. If they fail, this group of beefy misfits will be left unemployed. “Heartland Docs, DVM” has no such narrative throughline, as it follows rural Nebraska veterinarians Drs. Erin and Ben Schraeder as they treat cats, dogs, horses, cows and goats alike in a husband-and-wife veterinary practice.

Despite their differences, both shows have managed to grab the attention of my family and I in an overpopulated media landscape. In fact, “Heartland Docs, DVM” is one of the only shows my father, my mother and I can all agree on, as we sit down in front of the TV to see how this weeks’ batch of critters fares. Part of the success of both shows comes down to their casts. The colorful cast of characters in “Wrestlers” is not ready for prime time, and is all the better for it; as we learn each one’s foibles through their words and matches. Even those who don’t get as much screen time, such as the gentle giant Ca$h Flo or the endlessly committed-to-the-bit Mr. Pectacular, stand out as screen presences in their own right. Likewise, the Drs. Schraeder are just unpolished enough to be interesting, occasionally flubbing a line or delivering an overly earnest voiceover in a way that reminds you that these are real people.

The secret to both shows is, perhaps, in their editing. While most reality TV rushes from beat to beat, desperate to keep the audience from reaching for their phones, both “Wrestlers” and “Heartland Docs, DVM” never rush by an interesting person or story and always linger on context. For example, just when OVW owner Matt Jones seems his skeeviest, the show immediately cuts to a confessional where he describes how he grew up without a father and always felt the need to protect his mother via his own success. The same is true of the series’s protagonist, the electric young heel Hollyhood Haley J. After four hour-long episodes depicting her as an arrogant burnout, if a charming one, they give her the space to tell her own story, using long close-ups that let us see her processing the events of her traumatic childhood in real time. The confessionals of pet owners in “Heartland Docs, DVM” serve a similar purpose: giving what we are about to see stakes, often using cellphone video of the animals interacting with their owners at home. The producers coax backstory out of owners at a trying time for them in a way that never seems exploitive. I dare you not to cry when, in “The Feline Is Mutual” (yes, all of the episode titles are terrible animal puns, just as one would hope), an 86-year-old farmer brings in his 20-year-old cat after a life-threatening seizure, saying, “He’s my buddy. I hope he lives another 20 years.”

These backstories may seem sappy, but they give the bloodshed that is to come real meaning and stakes. What many reality shows miss is that the visual spectacle of violence means nothing if there’s no story behind it. If you don’t know why they’re fighting, a wrestling match means nothing, regardless of how physically impressive it is. In “Heartland Docs, DVM,” the stakes of every surgery are explained not only through our glimpses of what these animals mean to their owners, but Erin and Ben Schraeder’s gift for distilling complex medical issues into soundbites. As they perform surgeries or administer treatments, the Drs. Schraeder explained the medical problem and risks at hand in language simple enough to be understood while half-watching a TV show — which must be incredibly difficult to do while, say, cutting a tumor out of a dog. 

In “Wrestlers,” the stories are crystal-clear for all, wrestling fan or not, thanks to the producers’ editing and OVW head Al Snow’s impressive gift for telling compelling stories through promos and matches orchestrated by him through a headset offstage. Although it only comes in episode 5, with still two episodes before the end of the series, the deathmatch between Hollyhood Haley J and The Amazing Maria in “Mother” is, for me, the climax of the series. The OVW promoters, inspired by a one-off incident where The Amazing Maria had to create conflict in one of Haley J’s matches to buy broadcast time, create an arc inspired by the pair’s real life strained mother-daughter relationship. Haley J plays the role of a petulant teenager, acting out to gain attention from her parents and the world, and The Amazing Maria finally challenges her to a deathmatch to get her back in line in a tough love ploy. In real life, The Amazing Maria was hardly pushed into the deathmatch, instead wanting to relive her days as a young extreme wrestler alongside her daughter, while Haley J is terrified of it — understandably, as deathmatches are truly “anything goes,” incorporating objects like thumbtacks, panes of glass, steel chairs and two-by-fours. The dichotomy — and the similarities — between Haley J and Maria’s real-life situation and their on-the-mat behavior creates a thrilling metafictional tension throughout the match. At first, The Amazing Maria simply surrenders to her daughter’s attacks, saying “I don’t want to hurt you.” But inevitably, she is forced to reciprocate, clotheslining her daughter into a pile of thumbtacks. At the end of the match, both women, now bleeding profusely, collapse from sheer exhaustion on top of a folding table, Haley winning because she happens to fall on top. But the real victory comes a few minutes later when the women embrace each other in a moment of catharsis simultaneously real and artificial.

It’s no surprise that reality TV has focused on the spectacular — either the incredibly beautiful or the unbelievably tragic. It is television, after all, where every emotion has to be played to the back row of distracted and harried viewers. But in that attempt, reality TV has lost whatever semblance of reality it ever had. These shows try to widen the lens just a little bit, allowing us to take in the people’s mistakes and triumphs, the past that formed them and the future they desire.

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  • J

    JaneFeb 24, 2024 at 5:30 am

    Love Heartland Docs, my son was part of OVW years ago . I haven’t seen the program but will watch it now. The back story of professional wrestling tells a deeper story of the industry.

  • B

    Ben SchroederFeb 23, 2024 at 7:45 pm

    Thanks for sharing this with everyone. We appreciate your feedback and support! Ben and Erin @docsbenanderin