Television’s Men of Substance, Not Decoration

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(Courtesy of The New York Times)

Billy Bretherton of “The Exterminator,” with friend.

PITY the pretty boys. They have the rugged handsomeness of Kirk Douglas or the scruffy good looks of Jake Gyllenhaal, and as they were growing up, girls pined for them, and high school drama coaches favored them with choice roles. Now, in Hollywood, they have landed series: a role as a CW heartthrob or a slick 1960s advertising executive or a crime fighter with a soft side and an obligatory personality quirk.

Yes, the pretty boys have everything going for them. And yet, as hard as they’ve worked and as generous as the gene pool has been to them, they are not the most magnetic guys on television. That honor goes to some scruffy dudes who favor distressed clothes and tattoos and who aren’t even professional actors.

They’re on the reality side of the television spectrum. The Gnarly Five, I call them: men who have carved out character niches that are every bit as distinctive as anything “Mad Men” or “Blue Bloods” might concoct, just by doing what they do, which is kill insects or refurbish old vending machines or calm down ornery cats. And, sorry, pretty boys, but let me be frank: Sometimes you bore me, whereas they rarely do.

Let’s start with the No. 1 Gnarly, for my money the most interesting guy on television today: Billy Bretherton. He’s the central figure on “Billy the Exterminator,” a critter-catching series now in its fourth season on A&E. When it first hit the air, the show was called simply “The Exterminators,” but it soon became obvious that when you have a guy with this much gritty charisma in your shop, you ought to flaunt it.

Mr. Bretherton, whose wardrobe leans toward black, accented with black, black and black, is the frontman for a family-owned pest-control business called Vexcon in Louisiana, a state rich in animals that you don’t want living in your eaves or basement. Demands for his services, though, have apparently spread: this season he has been going on the road, to deal with bees in Florida, geese in North Carolina, javelinas in Arizona.

So animal-haunted folks all over the country have been getting to experience Mr. Bretherton’s winning, somewhat incongruous blend: goth look, genial personality, vast knowledge of and respect for wildlife. That’s a combination that all five of the Gnarlies have in one way or another. Their looks are distinctive and suggest stereotypes that 50 years ago were what the makers of films and TV employed to represent the kind of fellow you didn’t want your daughter dating. But they’re smart and cordial and really seem to enjoy what they do.

Another stripe of male reality-show star dumbs down as he tries to sell you on the entertainment value of catching catfish barehanded or hunting gators in the swamp, but these types have nothing to offer once you absorb 10 minutes’ worth of their gimmick. The Gnarly Five, though, always teach you something by the end of an episode.

Ton Jones brandishing his finds on "Auction Hunters."

An added benefit in Mr. Bretherton’s case is that he’s darned funny. (“Grossest TV Trailer Ever?” labeled the promo for his new season, in which Mr. Bretherton allows a bug to — well, you kinda have to see it for yourself.) The show’s camera operators and editors help the humor along considerably. One recent episode, “Furry Infestation,” found Mr. Bretherton in Chicago chasing squirrels around someone’s home, a montage of tripped-over furniture and bitten arms any TV comic would envy.

“We did more damage than the squirrels did,” Mr. Bretherton says after the catch has been made, surveying a room that looks as if it’s been flipped by burglars. “It was just anarchy.”

Anarchy is what you might be expecting the first time you see Jackson Galaxy, another of the Gnarly Five: he looks like the kind of guy who would roar into town on a souped-up motorcycle and wreak some serious havoc. But he’s actually in the havoc-reduction business. On “My Cat From Hell,” which had its premiere in May on Animal Planet and is now booked for a second season next year, Mr. Galaxy counsels owners of misbehaving cats on how to get their pets to stop biting them, ripping their furniture and fighting with their other animals.

Mr. Galaxy — shaved head, arms full of tattoos — seems physically at odds with his gentle voice and gentle approach to animals. The guy has flair: he carries his cat-wrangling supplies in a guitar case. But though he may be dealing with humans who have been terrorized and even bloodied by their out-of-control pets, he’s a model of consistency. The cats, not the people, are his No. 1 priority. He’ll have humans change their habits, rearrange their furniture and more to try to address a cat’s issues. Mr. Pussycat, as it were.

Rick Dale of "American Restoration.

“How do I feel about declawing?” he says in a video posted on his blog in response to a fan’s letter about that practice, which has long been controversial in the cat-owning world. “I think it’s inhumane, I think it’s barbaric, I think it’s unnecessary. It doesn’t have to happen, ever, never. Doesn’t have to happen. Is that clear?” You’re not likely to argue with a guy who looks like this, gentle voice or not.

Jackson Galaxy with Matt Corrigan, Amanda Johns and their cats.

Mr. Galaxy’s extensive tattoos are rivaled among the Gnarly Five only by Ami James, who came to television prominence in 2005 with “Miami Ink,” a TLC show about his tattoo parlor, which ran for four seasons. This summer he returned to TLC with “NY Ink,” filmed at a new shop on Wooster Street in SoHo.

Mr. James is buff and brash, and the made-for-the-camera hissy fits in his shop sometimes border on idiotic, but over the years his tamer side has emerged. Despite the dense tattoos on himself and his staff, he isn’t a guy who will ink up any piece of flesh put in front of him. Back when he was unknown and hungry, he told me in a recent chat, he might have done tattoos with racist or other ugly themes to make some money, but not anymore. As for all those parents trying to score hipness points, they needn’t bother bringing their under-age children to Wooster Street. He won’t ink a child even with parental consent — too much permanence at too young an age.

Jackson Galaxy with Matt Corrigan, Amanda Johns and their cats.

“If I have to be smarter than his parents for him, I’ll do that,” he said.

It’s an intriguing combination: a conservative approach to an art still very much associated with the wild side.

“There’s only one thing you know will still be important to you in 10 years,” he said, reflecting on the kinds of things shortsighted people have tattooed on themselves, “and that’s the names of your kids. Not even the name of your spouse, necessarily.”

What lasts and what doesn’t is also the concern of another Gnarly guy: Rick Dale of “American Restoration,” a show on History. Mr. Dale and his staff are experts at restoring stuff, but they don’t look like museum curators. Mr. Dale calls to mind Bruce Springsteen and apparently has a whole closetful of shirts whose sleeves have been ripped off at the shoulder. But the man knows his antiques and Americana.

His appeal, though, isn’t just from his knowledge; it’s from his genuine enthusiasm about the array of items people bring to him from their attics, barns and basements. Whether the piece is a 1940s street-corner mailbox or a 1947 tricycle or a 1953 Sea Skate (an amusement park ride), Mr. Dale seems excited by its history and by the challenge of restoring it.

“Even though this is a Harley,” he says in an episode involving a motorbike from a period when that brand was a scrawny European shadow of its later self, “it only weighs about 112 pounds because of the small engine, which basically classifies this thing as a moped — a pretty awesome moped, though.” By the time he’s done with it, it’s both awesome and valuable.

Just as enthusiastic but a few pounds heavier is Ton Jones, one half of the entertaining two-man team on “Auction Hunters” on Spike. With his business partner, Allen Haff, Mr. Jones bids on abandoned storage units in hopes that the unseen contents inside will turn out to be valuable. And yes, that first name (short for Clinton) is pronounced like “2,000 pounds.” Mr. Jones’s biography on the show’s Web site says he weighs 300. (It does not, however, mention the art on his bald head.)

The pair, who complement each other perfectly, aren’t shy about making reference to Mr. Jones’s beefiness. “You’re like a ballerina in a storage unit,” Mr. Haff tells him in a recent episode as Mr. Jones tiptoes through some junk. But Mr. Jones isn’t just the straight man in this act; he can dish it out too. In that same episode Mr. Haff is excited by some Michael Jackson vinyl that turns up in one unit, because Jackson albums were selling for big money after the singer’s death.

“When Tickle Me Elmo came out, it was going for almost five grand on the Internet,” Mr. Jones buzzkills. “Now you can buy them for, like, two bucks.”

Mr. Haff wants to keep the record anyway. “You can moonwalk it to the truck,” Mr. Jones deadpans.

It would be fun to gather these five guys and have them stomp into, say, a Chuck E. Cheese’s with their best scowls on and watch the frightened young mothers flee with their kids. But it would be more fun to have a beer with them. Because while actors might play someone interesting on TV, they often aren’t that interesting in real life. These fellows look as if they at least come close to being the reality-show ideal of what you see is what you get.



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