Thursday, November 23, 2017
TV and Media

'Bulloch Family Ranch' opens its Florida home to reality TV

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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 calves graze lazily in the distance and a pale horse looks out from a newly built stall. To get on the grounds, 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 coaches running backs for the Lake Gibson High School football team and works as a farrier, helping care for horses' hooves. She runs a rental business providing ponies and inflatable bounce houses to parties.

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.

In 16 years they have housed 23 teens alongside their biological children, Brodie and Amanda, creating a sprawling extended family cutting across race and class 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.

So, inevitably, reality TV cameras came calling. Bulloch Family Ranch, the show centered on their lives and filmed here last year, debuts July 17. It's helping to launch a rebranding of the cable platform once known as GMC, the Gospel Music Channel, with the new name UP, the network for "uplifting entertainment."

"With us, it's the three F's: faith, family and friends," said Rusty, 51, a gregarious and 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; the kid sometimes struggles 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're 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. Small wonder a producer decided to make a reality TV show of their lives. Once they get going — Julie's openhearted earnestness balanced by Rusty's macho-with-a-heart-of-gold routine — you need only to aim a camera at them and turn it on.

After a few hours, 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 exploitative fare such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo or Big Brother seems to be the gold standard?

No hair-pulling drama

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 an unrelated project. After some time spent soaking up the Bulloch family atmosphere, Wisniewski shot footage showing the beehive of activity surrounding their lives, certain they could anchor an unscripted series.

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 with stalls for 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, 19, is shown meeting with the school's principal, who tells Davin he has attended 11 schools in three years and it could take two more years to graduate high school.

It's not the hair-pulling drama of a show like Dance Moms or Mafia Wives; frankly, for fans of such series, the Bullochs' family-friendly stories might even seem a bit boring. 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," she said.

But no other scene compared with the emotion unleashed when daughter Amanda lost her baby 16 weeks into a pregnancy during their production. (She and her 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 huge support system, and we wanted to show it. If I can help one other person, then it didn't happen in vain."

A functional family

Now that the show is nearly on air, the Bulloch family has to prepare for another transition: how to handle the world's reaction.

Comparisons of their lives 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 — can bother Julie. She notes that the family in that movie was wealthy and didn't have to take care of a farm, while the Bullochs use chores to build character for their kids.

Also, the family seems concerned such comparisons appear as if they are taking credit for their kids' success while insulting their parents, which the Bullochs take pains to avoid.

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 camp after serving jail time.

As part of the promotional push, the family is scheduled this week to visit NBC's Today show and Fox & 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 their unique family dynamics.

"One of the sound guys working on the show told us, 'Your life is going to change, but you don't have to,' " Rusty said. "I mean, I scrape poop out of horse feet every day; I'm not about to get a big head."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521. Follow @Deggans on Twitter.

   
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