Swamp Pawn: TV Review

A surprisingly tender and entertaining respite in Bayou Pigeon, Louisiana  

CMT's new hybrid series -- a mash-up of series like "Swamp People" and pawn shows -- manages to find its own distinct, and very likable, voice.

You only need to add "Amish," "gold" or "housewives" to the title of CMT's new six-part docu-series Swamp Pawn to make it the ultimate mash-up of other successful reality franchises. Pawn shows, of which there seem to be an infinite number (both Pawn Stars and Hardcore Pawn have their own spinoffs) have become a mainstay of programming, but somehow Swamp Pawn unexpectedly finds its own distinctive niche among the throng.

There's nothing flashy or groundbreaking in how the show is filmed, but Swamp Pawn is successful for two reasons: one, it has collected an extremely affable group of folk in Bayou Pigeon, Louisiana, a boggy and close-knit community whose main trade revolves around fishing. Rick Phillips, charming owner of Phillips Swamp Seafood, is the main focus of the series, as it is his pawn shop that serves as center stage for a host of colorful local characters.

In the nuances of Southern culture, there is an important divide between being a redneck and just being country. The denizens of Bayou Pigeon who we meet are of the latter kind: hard workers with melodious drawls and a general good nature, even when alligators begin to threaten their business. The business of the bayou is seafood, and Phillips, who is someone you would easily want to be friends with, does most of his trade in it.

The first episode introduces us to a fishing couple, Clayton and Joney Daley, both of whom have an undeniable love for the hard work they do. The Daleys sell their haul to Phillips, who moves the stock, sometimes through the aid of former hellion Brian "Shorty" Gomez and his docile father Coy. Shorty and Coy seem to have materialized directly from a Mark Twain short story, or maybe even Dickens transposed. Early in the episode Shorty's truck breaks down, and he finagles a way to get Phillips to front him the cash for a new one. "I should have seen that coming," Philips says with a genuine smile as Shorty swears up and down he'll pay him back before he knows it.

Despite the pawn in the title, as of the first episode there wasn't much of it. Phillips negotiates a few deals here and there, like Shorty's new truck as well as for a loggerhead turtle shell, but he doesn't fleece anyone. He's fair and probably let's a few things slide. "You gotta keep the peace" he says with a shrug, after having  acquired the turtle shell for $175, after the initial offer of $150 and a sack of crawfish.

The second reason the series has promise, besides its great cast, is because it weaves in several narratives like a scripted show. A nemesis is introduced early in the premiere episode: an alligator nicknamed Slick, who discovered how to bite through expensive fish netting to chomp a few fish himself before the others escaped. The reduced haul for people like the Daleys as well as Phillips could put them all out of business, so they then turn to their famed alligator-hunting friend Clifford "Chachie Boy" Lagrange to hunt for Slick, for whom they all have both a healthy respect and hatred.

Suddenly, you realize you're caught up in the story -- will Chachie help them out? Can Slick be caught? Elsewhere, Shorty tells us he's looking to turn his life around and "go legit," and you wonder … will he? The fact that any docu-series with a name like Swamp Pawn can engender such tender and engaged feelings towards it and its cast of characters is certainly unexpected. But perhaps a paraphrase of something Coy says sums things up the best: "it'll sweet talk the pants right off ya." 

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