Truckers operate outside all sorts of boundaries. They know the whole country better than most of us know our own towns. They pick up hitchhikers. They speak in code. And a good part of America is enthralled. Kids in sedans throw desperate air-horn gestures out backseat windows in search of one reciprocating honk. We eat at truck stops and diners because if truckers eat there, the food must be good. (Never mind that at an actual truck stop, romanticism gives way to hamloaf, coin-op showers, and condom vending machines.)
TV's Nashville Network, the country music channel, is banking on that fascination with the freedom of the open road, not to mention its gleaming machinery. TNN's first dramatic series, 18 Wheels of Justice, features a metallic blue seven-and-a-half-ton Kenworth T2000 truck, bubbly as a Camry, driven, intriguingly, by a man in hiding. Chance Bowman (Lucky Vanous), an agent for the U.S. Department of Justice, saw Mob boss Jacob Calder (G. Gordon Liddy) commit a murder, so Chance is on the run--"his address: a million miles of highway"--with the help of his new big rig, his Justice Department boss and mentor Burton Hardesty (Billy Dee Williams), and a federal witness protection program run by Cie Baxter (Lisa Thornhill). Chance's wife and daughter were killed by Calder in a fire, so vengeance complicates his perpetual relocation.
It's all way over the top. You've never seen a bigger, prettier 18-wheeler--armed to the rims with Internet, phone, fax, and video conferencing equipment; DVD and CD players; temperature-adjustable cup holders; and even some bells and whistles relevant to driving, such as infrared night vision and automatic transmission. Chance, too, is cartoonishly larger than life. Though he's supposed to keep moving, to elude Calder, he can't suppress the urge to stop and help others. All tan and teeth, he looks like a soap star, but he can race cars, fistfight, and shoot big guns with accuracy, and he displays impeccable ethics.
In short, 18 Wheels delivers the kick-ass action it promises, and if it stopped there, it'd be great fun. But the show struggles not just to delight, but to instruct. And what's surprising is that its heavy-handed morality lessons haven't lost it the "young male audience" the show's producers say they're targeting, an audience that's supposed to be getting off, after all, on the vicarious, don't-hem-me-in thrill of it. Who would have expected these viewers to sit patiently through a weekly spoon-feeding of what are usually called "middle-American values," as black and white as a 1940s cowboy movie? Or, for that matter, through the show's equally campy dose of Christianity? (In one episode, after getting hijacked in the desert, a heat-weary Chance communicates with his dead wife and has flashbacks to his idyllic marriage with her. Wife the Vision, in a white flowing dress, tells him, "The desert is a place of visions, purifications, trials... . Where did Jesus go when he wanted to commune?" When Chance prays, a satanic Calder--complete with black turtleneck--tries to tempt him to anger by taking smug credit for the death of Chance's wife and daughter. Our hero doesn't wrestle long with the dark side, though. He finds courage in his angelic wife's assessment of his life as "not meaningless" and her prediction that the truck will take him to an understanding of what he's on this earth to accomplish.)
The beautiful bad-girl villains who pop up now and then may more than incidentally serve as fantasy material for a good bit of the show's core audience. The convenient absence of Chance's wife and daughter may be just as appealing. But the overt lessons about the sanctity of marriage and the glory of the traditional family are insistently otherwise. Evil is a woman with a slew of husbands, each ignorant of the others; single motherhood is a prostitute who would endanger her young daughter rather than accept a paltry divorce settlement from her real estate crook husband. The show constantly reminds its viewers--by Chance's pained expression and verbal dodging when folks try to pry into his personal history--of his monogamous devotion. When a nice, wholesome, romantically interested girl happens along (usually one per episode), Chance remains steadfast to the memory of his wife.
He also makes it a priority to enable others to enjoy the bliss of correctly constituted families. He makes sure the prostitute's daughter, for instance, ends up with one of his own upright friends, a retired cop, and arranges for the mother to move in with them as a sort of secondary parent. It wouldn't do to deprive the girl of a mother figure, even a flawed one--as long as someone pure (not just law abiding, but law enforcing) sticks around to keep the sinning in check.
ike the deus ex machina of Greek drama, Chance rolls in from nowhere, sets things straight, and then moves on. Of course, the ancient Greeks were more attuned to Fate than Chance, but this is America, land of second chances, and chancing it, and chance events, like an 18-wheeler arriving just in time. We don't even have to ask for assistance. Chance simply shows up. Plus, he has Justice on his side (the department as well as the abstraction).
So, as much as it's about freedom, the fantasy is also about safety. And most unexpectedly--especially if you've believed the stereotypes about the country music audience that supports the NRA and adores Ronald Reagan--it's the federal government that provides it. Chance, Burton, and Cie show us we can depend on the government for protection and guidance, even in our private lives--a sea change from popular programs that portray federal officials as at best error-prone (The West Wing) and more likely (The X-Files) corrupt and conspiring. But how are we to feel about the fact that Chance and the Department of Justice not only uphold the law but act as the final arbiters of our personal behavior? Relieved, apparently. The prostitute mother doesn't seem in the least upset that her child now legally belongs to a man she's just met. She's perfectly willing to go along with Chance's arrangement. Now that she's been delivered from her overwhelming parental responsibility--thanks to Chance's insight into the limits of her character--her daughter's welfare is suddenly important to her.
If all this righteous nannying seems out of place amid the guns and babes (the shorts are really short), it's even weirder given the show's marketing purposes. Critics have derided what The Wall Street Journal called "18 wheels of product placement." But in fact, the Nashville Network is utterly forthright about using its programming to promote country music acts. Each episode has a "featured song," with the featured musician making an appearance, either performing or in a cameo role, and at the end of the hour, we get a plug for his or her music. The T2000 also gets plenty of exposure, with each episode now airing three times a week due to an influx of ad support, plus special events, like Lisa Thornhill signing autographs at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, Kentucky.
This shouldn't shock anyone. Like the country music, Kenworth's product isn't unrelated to the show's charm. What's striking isn't the selling that's going on but the message that the sellers assume is a marketing plus. "If it were just a bang-up, trucks-crashing kind of show, we wouldn't be doing it," says Jeff Parietti, Kenworth's public relations manager. The company aims to "promote a positive image of the [trucking] industry... . [18 Wheels] is a positive show, with a positive lead character." Of course, Chance isn't merely positive; he's downright perfect. And what's perfect for this audience is apparently somewhat different from what you might have thought. ¤