Those wild and crazy guys at Bischoff Hervey Entertainment debut a new television show called Outlaw Country tomorrow night on Chicago superstation WGN at 10 p.m. in all the time zones that count.
BHE TV’s last show was a bad joke called The Devils Ride. It was supposed to give Walter Mitty and his boy Buckwheat an insider’s view of a real, live, outlaw motorcycle club. That show failed embarrassingly on many levels except the one that counts. It made money for two seasons, many people got paid and its ratings were good enough to earn its producers a do over in the “outlaw genre.”
It is impossible to tell, based on the hodgepodge of outtakes and self important pronouncements that WGN distributed to would be reviewers, whether Outlaw Country will be interesting or not. My first impression was that it is not too bad if you get a little drunk first. It was not encouraging that about halfway through the mess of unconnected video clips Kurt Sutter, the man who blessed the world with a chick show called Sons of Anarchy, announced that Outlaw Country “truly is straight up documentary.” You know, like Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame or Michael Apted’s Up Series or Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo.
Sutter’s appearance suggests two things. First Sutter probably couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the “C” and the “A.” And, less obviously, Outlaw Country and WGN are chasing an audience that went adrift when Sutter’s old show went off the air. I watched the Outlaw Country promos with the most devoted Sons of Anarchy fan I know. She said, “I don’t want to watch this, There’s no sex. There’s no Charlie Hunnam.” It seems that if Outlaw Country wants to succeed Sons it has already failed. Then she said, “Who gives a damn about Podunk, Missouri.”
And I said, “Well maybe I do. We got any more margaritas?”
There is a long back story to Outlaw Country. The show’s principal antagonists are two sets of brothers – the Monks versus the Cooks.
Steve Cook is an “outlaw motorcycle gang investigator in Independence, Missouri next door to the hamlet of Buckner where the show is set. Steve Cook’s principal claim to fame is his participation in a cynical and cruel racketeering prosecution of members of the Galloping Goose and El Forastero Motorcycle Clubs. The police added up all the drugs that were shared among club members on an average of five runs a year from January 1, 2002 through July 31, 2007 and decided that constituted a major drug distribution network. Steve Cook’s brother Lawrence “Mike” Cook, who is now Buckner’s police chief, also participated in that investigation which resulted in three federal cases called USA v. Angell et al, USA v. Eneff et al and USA v. Phillips et al. Most defendants were charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
The Monk brothers, John and Josh, rode with El Forastero and were among the investigation’s victims. Most of what happened next is still sealed but it is a matter of public record that Josh Monk was among 13 men and four women who became cooperating witnesses in the cases. It appears that Josh Monk testified “about his lengthy association with the outlaw motorcycle gangs, a prior drug conviction, and his knowledge of their drug distribution before, during, and after the charged time frame.”
There is no record that John Monk ever cooperated with prosecutors but some bikers in Kansas and Missouri have accused him of fraternization with the Cook brothers.
John Monk’s tattoo shop, Kingpin Tattooing in Independence, was raided by Swat and searched in July 2005 and the connection between that raid and the ensuing federal cases, if there was one, remains unclear. One source also alleges that the relationship between the Monks and the Cooks is more cordial than Outlaw Country makes it appear. For example, the source alleged, Steve Cook had a “99%er” tattoo put on in John Monk’s current tattoo shop, Revelation Tattoo, in Kansas City.
Producer Jason Hervey is oblique when he discusses how the Monk brothers and the Cook brothers came to collaborate on a reality series. “How did this come to be,” Hervey asked rhetorically. “I received a phone call from somebody we work with who said they had a mayor and a police chief they wanted us to meet in this small town in crisis in middle America – Buckner, Missouri. And, it sounded fascinating.”
Buckner Mayor Dan Hickson told the Kansas City Star a slightly different story. According to Hickson, “the show’s producers felt Buckner was the perfect setting for the show” and were “very impressed with the nice people.”
According to the mayor, everything about the show is very nice. “Jason Hervey, (technical advisor Charles) Chuckie Lynch and the entire production crew has been easy to work with and very accommodating. Jason Hervey is one of the most down to earth individuals I’ve ever met and I now consider him a friend.” Hickson also told the Star, “It’s our hope that the show will help to promote Buckner and bring people to our town. We are excited and hope that this brings a level of tourism to Buckner.”
Kurt Sutter’s explanation of how the show came to be might be the most cogent of them all: “People are fascinated by outlaws.”
Maybe Buckner will become an outlaw destination. Maybe clubs from all over the country will travel to Buckner and adventure tourists from all over the world will journey to Buckner to gawk at them.
Everyone who might get paid behind this project is eager to emphasize its “reality.” The Monk brothers are portrayed sympathetically and appear to be men many readers here might already know. They both argue that once they were outlaws but now they are reformed and their arguments are convincing. If they were both sentenced to, say, hypothetically, five years probation in 2009 it is unimaginable that they would allow themselves to be filmed breaking the law in 2014. The show portrays the brothers as victims of tragic childhoods and there is no reason to doubt that. Josh Monk and his wife were baptized in 2009 and he is now an assistant pastor at the Maywood Baptist Church. John Monk repeatedly protests his innocence and explains that he is only in the show to “let the truth be exposed” and to “show what cops do.”
“The reason we let TV cameras follow us around is because we ain’t doin’ nothin’,” John Monk says.
Steve Cook, who has to be telling the truth because he is, after all, a “validated expert” on outlaws, calls the Monks “prolific criminals.” Steve also has interesting opinions about his place in American History. “If you look back historically, this isn’t something new,” Steve says. “Frank and Jesse James, the Youngers…whether it’s robbing trains and stage coaches, busting into gun stores and slinging dope, this has always been outlaw country.” Mythic heroes like Steve cannot exist without mythic villains like the Monk brothers.
Series regular Edward “Fingers” Jauch, who also collaborates with Steve Cook at Cook’s Heartland Law Enforcement Training Institute in Lees Summit, Missouri, openly imagines himself to be Wild Bill Hickok.
Mike Cook is portrayed as a self-righteous bully. “I was put here to intimidate those who intimidate others,” he explains to the audience at home.
Glimpsed through a haze of tequila and weed Outlaw Country almost looks like something true. It isn’t just Sutter. Producer Hervey habitually refers to the project as a “documentary.” “We’re imbedded in small town America, literally in a war zone,” he claims.
Hervey says technical advisor Chuckie Lynch, who genuinely seems grateful to be a free man in Hollywood, “has lived the life none of us has lived.”
Quid Est Veritas
And Chuckie tells potential reviewers, “If you want to tell the story about what you call an outlaw, at least tell the truth about it.” There is some slight possibility that Chuckie has a financial stake in the show’s success.
Despite all this talk about truth many scenes seem to be obvious lies. The sounds of an apparently real fight in a bowling alley are enhanced. The words “Pow” and “Pop” don’t actually appear on the screen but they might as well. A raid on John Monk’s tattoo shop is obviously staged. The Cook brothers are bad actors. Series regular Jim “JD” Dillman, another Steve Cook crony, is already promoting himself as a “reality star.”
Chuckie Lynch’s comments about truth suggest Pontius Pilate’s famous riposte. “What is truth?” The postmodern opinion is that there is no objective truth. “Truth” is just somebody’s opinion. Maybe the Monks really are the James Gang. Maybe Fingers Jauch really is Wild Bill Hickok. Maybe Dillman really is a star. Maybe Buckner really is an exposed position in Afghanistan..
These philosophical quibbles only matter because the show is being sold as the literal truth, the truth as most people understand it, not the artistic truth as defined from inside WGN’s secret control room on the Moon. And the truth matters because the Department of Justice has been propagandizing about motorcycle clubs on reality television since at least 2005. All episodes of Inside Outlaw Bikers on NatGeo and all the episodes of Gangland about motorcycle outlaws, including the Galloping Goose episode featuring Steve Cook, were actively promoted by the ATF’s former Assistant Director for Public and Governmental Affairs, W. Larry Ford. Outtakes from Gangland have even been entered into evidence in at least two federal racketeering cases. And people prosecuted in those cases went to very real penitentiaries.
Maybe the point of Outlaw Country might have been better defined if WGN had made a whole episode available for preview. Maybe the full 60 minute version will turn out to be better than the show looks so far.