Sex, self-empowerment and barrel racing fuel the drama on Rodeo Girls, an A&E reality series that its makers hope will transcend the pettiness and combative tone viewers have come to expect from female-fronted reality series.
Produced by The Weinstein Company and Left/Right, the show debuts on the U.S. cable network tonight (December 11) at 11 p.m. EST, with the second episode airing in the show’s regular time slot on Thursday at 10 p.m.
The six-episode series stars Darcy LaPier (pictured above), a wealthy ‘glamazon’ from the West Coast who promptly creates tension in the opening moments of episode one by turning up in a chauffeured limousine with a US$200,000 champion horse in tow.
LaPier, who is also an executive producer, is the ex-wife to Hawaiian Tropics founder Ron Rice, actor Jean Claude Van Damme and Mark Hughes, an American businessman who died of respiratory failure a decade ago. After his death, she found salvation on the barrel racing circuit. Her Rodeo Girls nemesis is Barb West, a former champion making her comeback bid after retiring to spend time with her husband.
In the rodeo world, barrel racing is primarily an event for women. In order to win, riders and their horses must race in a clover-leaf pattern around a set of barrels in the quickest time. The women train their horses, manage their own equipment and live a nomadic existence, traveling from city to city with trailers in tow.
Life on the road does not preclude dating and LaPier quickly finds her age and past marriages are not considered a plus among potential cowboy suitors. Meanwhile, rookie racer Megan Etchberry is grappling with the death of her father and a bad break-up, and receives some tough-love advice from West.
Aside from the good-looking cast’s sex appeal, the show’s themes of class tension and female empowerment won over execs at A&E, who greenlit Rodeo Girls directly to series.
“The women in the rodeo circuit are very much like cowboys,” explains Lily Neumeyer, an exec producer on the show and VP of nonfiction and alternative programming for A&E. “They are stoic. They are very rugged and they are not so generous with their feelings at the beginning.”
Rodeo Girls is aimed at both women and men in the 25-54 and 18-49 demos, but is expected to attract more women. It is the first in a handful of recent A&E docusoap commissions aimed at wrangling both sexes into ‘co-viewing’ (the others are Country Hearts: Nashville and a project from Ryan Seacrest Productions) – a strategy Neumeyer hopes will differentiate A&E from cable networks targeted squarely at women.
“It’s contrary to what we did with Duck Dynasty,” she explains, referring to the network’s smash hit comedic reality series. “When Duck Dynasty was pitched to me it was a very male show and we had to work at making it appeal to women. This is exactly the opposite and the producers caught it immediately.”
To lure male viewers, Neumeyer’s production team bolstered the male supporting roles and sought to capture the barrel racing action, which was not always easy in the face of rodeo officials suspicious of reality television crews.
“We had the problem with one rodeo allowing us to shoot there,” explains Meryl Poster, the president of television for The Weinstein Company and an EP on Rodeo Girls. “When you say ‘reality’ they don’t know how it’s going to be portrayed and they don’t want to ruin their brand. But, ultimately, I think it will pan out well for them.”
The idea for Rodeo Girls arose during a meeting between LaPier and Weinstein CEO David Glasser. She had pitched an idea for an ensemble docusoap but Glasser was more interested in her involvement in barrel racing.
The company assembled the cast, shot a reel and flew the five principle talents to New York for pitch meetings with A&E, VH1 and another network Poster declines to name.
That the cowgirls would be participating in the pitch initially made A&E’s execs uneasy.
“We want to talk freely with the producers and sometimes when the talent is there it’s hard to do that,” says Neumeyer. “The Weinsteins are very good at training their talent so it went really well.”
Poster acknowledges bringing talent to pitch meetings is not a common industry practice, but the company can afford the plane tickets and the tactic worked at VH1 with Mob Wives – another Weinstein-produced docusoap starring a female cast.
There is plenty of trash talk on Rodeo Girls, but Poster insists the show rises above the petty fighting typically associated with female-centric reality shows. Both Poster and Neumeyer reference Ridley Scott’s 1991 female liberation-themed road trip movie Thelma & Louise as an influence.
“Men have hobbies and go off on golf trips and have their interests, women can too,” says Poster. “It just doesn’t have to be about make-up and clothes.”
Can viewers expect cat fighting between the barrel races?
“I try to avoid it,” explains Poster. “On my show Mob Wives there’s definite fighting but it’s not cat fighting. It’s very, very, very real. That’s the make-up of who these people are so it’s not exactly the same thing.”
Instead, she sees the drama – and the inevitable fights – stemming from the characters, and the conditions and adversity they face competing in a world traditionally considered to be a domain for men.
“I don’t like how women are portrayed on some TV shows, but on my shows the women are very empowered,” she adds. “That’s the thing I like about this show and that’s what I like about being a working woman today: you can be completely feminine and show off your curves, but that doesn’t mean you’re any weaker than the guy riding the bull next to you.”