On UP TV's 'Bulloch Family Ranch,' Lakeland clan finds small success in wholesome reality TV
To be honest, when I first met the Bullochs', I assumed they were going to get their clocks cleaned.
Not because they're bad people. In fact, the Lakeland family's blend of rural Florida eccentricity, inclusive spirit and strong, religious-based values is so attractive, its easy to see why the UP channel chose a series based on the Bullochs for their grand rebranding from the old name, GMC TV.
But the series which resulted, detailing the everyday life of a family which has taken in 30 foster kids over the past 16 years, was so lacking in meanness, fake drama and cynical snobbery, I assumed it would struggle for viewers.
Shows how much I know.
Last Wednesday's debut of Bulloch Family Ranch proved the highest-rated series debut in the channel's history. Of couse, in UP's case that till meant a relatively small number; an average 343,000 people watched the show's debut, or about 10 percent of the 3-million people who showed up for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo's "scratch and sniff" season debut the same night.
Still, in their honor, I decided to post the full feature story I wrote on the Bullochs which was published in the Tampa Bay Times July 14. The reaction to both this piece and their series shows some folks still value entertainment which doesn't pnder to the lowest denominator.
LAKELAND -- You might call it the Bulloch family effect.
It’s a feeling that starts when you enter their 15-acre ranch, as two cows and their two calfs graze lazily in the distance and a pale horse looks out from a newly-built stall. To get there, you’ll pass beneath a wooden arch topped with a cross and the words “Bulloch Family Ranch”; as much an unconscious statement of priorities as anything else.
The couple at the center of this rural paradise, Rusty and Julie Bulloch, are already well-known around here. He helps coach the Lake Gibson High School football team and works as a farrier, helping care for horses’ feet; she runs a rental business providing inflatable bounce houses and horses to parties and events.
But the family is better known for their habit of taking in kids who need a stable home and attentive adults to care for them.
Over 16 years they have housed about 30 teens with their two biological children, Brodie and Amanda; creating a sprawling extended family which cuts across racial lines in a rural community still too often segregated. Two of their charges have become professional football players – the New York Jets’ Bilal Powell and the Tampa Bay Storm’s Claude Davis -- crediting the Bullochs for helping center their lives in important ways.
So it was inevitable reality TV cameras would come calling. Last Wednesday, the show centered on their lives and filmed here last year, Bulloch Family Ranch, debuted, helping launch a rebranding of the cable platform once known as the Gospel Music Channel with a new name: Up: Uplifting Entertainment.
“With us, it’s the three F’s: faith, family and friends,” said Rusty, 51, a gregarious, direct man whose occasional tough talk and love of pranking friends can’t hide an expansive heart often worn on his sleeve. “But we don’t go out looking for kids. The kid that crosses our path – well, first, God put him there – but we have to see that they want to better their lives. We have to see that they want to make that change.”
Often, the Bullochs take in a kid because a parent has asked them to lend a hand; they sometimes struggle with drugs, gang membership or resisting street life. And life on a ranch with farm chores and schoolwork can be a shock for youths who may not have had an adult paying close attention to their lives for quite a while.
“Kids that have not had discipline at home, they can have a hard time with curfews and structure,” said Julie, 52, an energetic everymom with a habit of volunteering family members for projects without asking first. “(They say) ‘I’m 18, I don’t need to live by your rules.’ But first of all, this isn’t a free ride. And the whole idea is to get you ready for a productive life…It’s not that you’ve having to conform; you’re having to grow more mature.”
Rusty recalled one girl in their home who started crying when told she couldn’t join friends for an overnight trip to Orlando. “What I didn’t know, was she wasn’t crying because I said she couldn’t go,” he said. “She told Julie she was crying because she never had anybody care enough to tell her no.”
Spend five minutes with the family, and their talent for ribbing and repartee is obvious (during one visit, foster son Wilson Davis Clark takes a round of jokes for a pants pooping incident from many years ago.).
Small wonder a producer decided to make a reality TV show of their lives; once they get going –Julie’s open-hearted earnestness balanced by Rusty’s macho-with-a-heart-of-gold routine – you only need to aim a camera at them and turn it on.
Ten minutes in, you want to pull up a chair to bask in their down-to-earth charm. By the end of the day, you understand how kids on the edge could see this eccentric, loving group as an oasis, soaking up their easy affection.
The Bulloch family effect strikes again.
But can a clan centered on family values and religious faith succeed in an industry where exploitive fare such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Big Brother seems to be the gold standard?
Too Nice for Reality TV?
When the idea first surfaced to make a television show of their lives, no one was more skeptical than Julie Bulloch.
“When they said there would be a TV show, I asked, ‘On what?’” said Julie, a Lakeland native who started dating Rusty in high school. “But then we saw the clips that he put together. And we saw other people’s reactions”
“He” is Ian Wisniewski, introduced to the Bullochs by WTVT-Ch. 13 reporter Ken Suarez when the Canadian producer needed horses for a different project. After some time spent soaking up the Bulloch family atmosphere, Wisniewski filmed footage showing the beehive of activity surrounding their lives, certain they could anchor an unscripted series.
But Amanda Masek, Rusty and Julie’s 27-year-old daughter, wasn’t so sure. “I’ve always said I’m afraid we weren’t trashy enough,” said Amanda, laughing. “We don’t have people getting drunk, we don’t have scantily-clad women, we don’t show all the trash people want to watch. Not that there’s not drama; but it’s more like family drama.”
A look at the show’s first two episodes proves her point. In one, the family drafts 15 people to help build an addition to the family’s barn featuring stalls for the horses; in another, Rusty learns state officials have concluded he can’t house a player on the school’s football team and also coach its running backs.
Rusty eventually took a break from coaching so the student staying with him, Davin Truedell, could keep his dream of playing football alive. Davin, who seemed surprised to learn he had attended 11 different schools in three years, was told it could take him two more years to graduate high school.
It’s not the hair-pulling drama of a show like Dance Moms or Mafia Wives. And some scenes, including a moment when Rusty catches Davin cutting class while headed to a meeting about his coaching job, can feel faked even when they aren’t.
Producers did ask Rusty to wait before telling Julie about his coaching job, so they could position cameras to catch the scene. “He wasn’t really emotional until he had to speak about it,” said Julie, noting they both shed tears once he delivered the news. “He’s a man’s man. When his eyes tear up, Lord have mercy, I lost it, too.”
But nothing compared to the emotion unleashed when Amanda lost her baby 16 weeks into a pregnancy while cameras were filming this season (she and husband Steven Masek also have a 2-year-old daughter, Raylee Ann). Given a chance to opt out of the episodes, Amanda decided to let the crew keep filming.
“I could have held back…but what good does that do myself or anybody else?” she said, tears welling at the memory. “So many people go through things like this alone; I’m blessed to have my family and a hue support system and we wanted to show it. If I can help one other person, then it didn’t happen in vain.”
Keeping Fame in Perspective
Now that the show is on air, the Bulloch family has to prepare for another transition; how to handle the world’s reaction.
Comparisons to the film The Blind Side – which retold the true story of a wealthy, white Southern family taking in a neglected, poor black high school football player – bother Julie. It comes too close to insulting the kids’ parents, who are often trying hard to do right by their children, she said.
Challenges remain: Davin was eventually kicked off Lake Gibson’s football team and no longer lives with them. Rusty tears up on camera while remembering another youth from their home, now in a work program.
As part of the promotional push, the family visited NBC’s Today show and Fox and Friends, trying hard to convince America that an unscripted show centered on an unusually functional extended family can be entertaining.
Bracing for the reaction, the Bullochs remain determined to preserve the unique dynamics which make their family’s lives so special.
“One of the sounds guys working on the show told us, ‘Your life is going to change but you don’t have to,’” said Rusty. “I mean, I scrape poop out of horse feet every day; I’m not about to get a big head.”