Every Christmas break I tell myself I’m going read about 40 books and not once turn on the television. Of course, that never happens. Invariably, I find myself watching consecutive marathons of reality TV shows. Nothing short of moving back to school can rip this seasonal monkey off my back. While my most recent episode of falling off the no-TV wagon didn’t break tradition, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself more satisfied than usual. My drug of choice was the Discovery Channel show Moonshiners, which chronicles the adventures and aspirations of Virginia moonshiners and the lawman who’s out to get them.
Now, on the surface Moonshiners isn’t too different from the many documentary style shows focusing on a little-known industry, but it also incorporates elements from the police-show breed of reality TV. On the industry side, Moonshiners follows Tim Smith, a rural Virginian brought up in the moonshining tradition (and volunteer firefighter!), his perpetually inebriated sidekick, Tickle, and his teenage son, J.T. The other part of the show focuses on the still-stopping efforts of Virginia Alcohol Board of Control Agent Jesse Tate. Watching Tate, I suspected he saw himself as starring in his own version of Dog the Bounty Hunter or Steven Segal: Lawman, issuing such ominous observations as, “[Moonshiners] got to get lucky every time. I only have to get lucky once.” In reality, though, he bumbled his way across southern Virginia—more like Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane than Dog Chapman.
Moonshiners is an enjoyable time-sink on its own, but it really appealed my libertarian sensibilities. Obviously, backwoods black marketeers and oafish cops are irresistible archetypes to libertarians, but the show presents a more intricate view of the many and varied ways which that tyranny of tyrannies, the Virginia ABC, employs to harass and oppress honest folk. Tim’s dream is to abandon the moonshiner’s clandestine life and legally sell his family’s moonshine on the open market. He’s got the know how and the drive, but the bureaucracy stands in his way. He has to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars to begin the process, then purchase unnecessary but very expensive equipment, and then navigate the labyrinth of local, state, and federal regulations. During one episode Tim visits one of the few legal moonshine distilleries in Virginia. He hopes to get some good advice from the proprietor (once a moonshiner and bootlegger himself) on going legal. Instead of clarifying his problem, Tim’s experience at the distillery bewilders him. He’s shown machine after machine (all of course state mandated) covered in gauges and strange dials. Tim visibly blanches when the distiller shows him the current collection of federal regulations for distilleries—an encyclopedic tome which looks more appropriate for Guantanamo Bay than a bookshelf.
There are few things that get my blood up more than alcohol regulations—one of those is the sad story of Popcorn Sutton, which is also faithfully detailed in Moonshiners. Popcorn Sutton was one of the most famous moonshiners of Appalachia. He’d been moonshining all his life in the mountains of North Carolina. Over the course of his life, he released an autobiography and several documentaries detailed him and his “likker.” Along the way, he managed to string up a number of misdemeanors and felonies stemming from his production of that good ol’ mountain dew. In 2009, at the age of 62, he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. Old and sick, Popcorn killed himself rather than die in prison. Popcorn was the victim of an older drug war, and it was very heartening to see a popular cable television show share his tragedy with millions of viewers.
Moonshiners presents moonshiners as American underdogs, just simple men trying to make a living, doing what they love. Highlighting both the stymieing effects of regulation and the personal tragedies of misguided government policy, the series presents libertarian interests without being heavy-handed or preachy. Even better, it’s enjoyable television. The next time I’m on break, I just might have to find a jug of white lightning myself and settle down to one more six hour Moonshiners marathon.