It’s challenging enough to manage an ensemble cast for an unscripted docusoap over the course of a season, let alone several. But when the cast member that the series is named after leaves the scene, that’s another level of concern.
In the case of Mama June: From Not to Hot, one of the top performing series on AMC Networks-owned WE tv over four seasons, it wasn’t a beef with the rest of the cast or a contract dispute that led to the unplanned departure of star and matriarch June Shannon from the program, but rather a frightening descent into substance abuse that led to a recalibration of the series in its fourth season and ultimately, a stint in rehab for Shannon and her boyfriend and fellow cast member, Geno Doak.
“The most important thing was telling an honest story and it was literally day by day,” says Adam Reed, CEO at the series’ prodco, ITV America-owned Thinkfactory Media. “If you have plans [for shooting], throw them out.”
In March of 2019, as the third season of Not to Hot began to roll out, Shannon and Doak were arrested outside an Alabama gas station for felony possession of a controlled substance and drug paraphernalia. With the bulk of the season already shot, edited and ready for roll-out, both the network and the prodco were in the peculiar position of having Shannon’s escalating legal troubles play out in the press — particularly outlets such as TMZ, which was the first to report on her arrest — while the series was airing already prepped episodes.
According to Reed and WE tv president and general manager Marc Juris, once it became apparent that substance abuse could be behind the increasingly “unusual behavior” on the part of Shannon, attempts were made to intervene early on, which came to no avail at that point. From there, a decision had to be made about moving ahead with another season, while continuing to push for help for Shannon and Doak.
“I can tell you that for us, we wanted to tell an honest story,” reiterates Reed. “Although this is Mama June and her family and it’s a more heightened and dramatic situation because it’s on TV, there are many families in America going through versions of this.
“It was a matter of sitting with the family and saying, ‘If you don’t feel comfortable continuing, we need to shut it down,’” he adds. “They wanted to go forward because they wanted to tell their story and show America what they were going through and how they were dealing with it.”
“It can happen to anybody, and it can happen quickly, and we really wanted to show that so that people could understand that they’re not alone when it happens and everyone is vulnerable,” says Juris. “From there we realized we really wanted to help even though it would be difficult and frustrating. There’s a lot of resistance and a lot of pushback.”
Some of that resistance and pushback was made public last year, but Reed says the network and the prodco opted to “let nature take its course” and not issue statements to feed into controversy. Instead, the focus, according to Reed and Juris, was on the family — Shannon’s daughters, Alana and Lauryn — and shaping the story as it emerged into the fourth season, reimagined as Mama June: Family Crisis. The decision was made to focus on the family and take a “hard stop”, in Reed’s words, when it came to shooting with June until she’d agree to get help.
“As a producer, it throws an incredible challenge in the mix when your show is called Mama June and you don’t have Mama June to shoot with,” says Reed. “For better or for worse, because she’s a public figure, there were so many press outlets like TMZ out there tracking her on a regular basis that we didn’t have to, and we were able to get the reaction of the family reacting to what was going on with her, even though we weren’t shooting with her.”
“June was a victim of circumstance, which can happen to anybody,” says Juris. “We’re not judge and jury. Helping someone in a moment of crisis isn’t a liability. We weren’t enabling anything because we weren’t paying her — we stopped everything [in terms of shooting with her]. So we knew we weren’t driving the story in any way or in any way enabling it. After a lot of discussion with a lot of other people, it was decided that because we could, we should [help].”
That help entailed bringing in psychiatrist and Marriage Boot Camp host Dr. Ish Major to frequently meet with the family, and Shannon and Doak. “He went above and beyond at every level,” says Reed. “There were countless hours off camera because he cared about the family.”
There were also multiple attempts at lining up in-patient rehab stints which eventually, as seen in the June 26 season finale, came to fruition. Both Shannon and Doak completed programs at a rehab center lined up by the production team, and according to Reed and Juris, remain clean and sober a few months later.
“It was really a matter of June and Geno hitting rock bottom and calling us to say they needed help,” says Reed. “We tried for months, we had rehab centers set up, they said they’d go, and didn’t go… We just had to back off, as hard as it was, and it took them coming out and saying they hit rock bottom and needed to go. And as soon as they said that, we mobilized within 48 hours and had them in the rehab center.”
According to the network, the finale pulled in a 1.6 rating in Nielsen’s Live+3, the series’ highest viewership since the season 1 finale among women 25-54 and total viewers in Nielsen Live+3 ratings. Season four also delivered the highest season average among women 25-54 and total viewers since the debut season.
As for what happens next, Reed says that “is really determined by the family.”
He adds: “If they want to continue to tell their story, so do we… The finale ratings were huge, but we’re going to approach this as we have approached every season with them. It’s family first. Everybody needs to be on the same page, including our network family, our production family and the real family. Once we’re all in lockstep, we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to continue to tell that story.
“I think June wants to tell the next chapter of her life,” he adds. “She has been to hell and back and I think everyone loves an underdog story so we’re hopeful that it will continue.”
Challenges of filming during a pandemic are one thing — some elements of the fourth season needed to be self-shot and if and when another season is greenlit it will also be impacted by COVID-19 and shooting protocols. But, as seen here, there are many other formidable challenges involved in capturing the twists and turns that can unfold over the course of shooting an unscripted series. Both Reed and Juris say they are cognizant of how to tell this “underdog story,” especially during a time when duty of care for those participating in unscripted programming is under the microscope.
“The moment it would feel like something was being pushed or forced, we’d have to shut it down,” says Reed about the past season. “That was the barometer. If it was honest and it could help other people, then it made sense to keep going. I’m so proud of this season, as we’ve had so many emails from people saying how it has helped what they are going through in their own lives.
Regarding the partnership with WE tv, Reed adds: “To their credit, there are a lot of other networks that, given these same circumstances, would have run and hid. WE tv did not waver once in supporting us and supporting the family, and continuing to tell that story. So having a network partner that believed in the honesty and truth as much as we did, as long as that was our North Star guiding us, we could get through it and make the right decisions together.”
WE tv’s Juris, for his part, rejects the notion that unscripted programming is merely “trainwreck TV,” the tag that has often been applied to it since its inception. He cites series such as The Real World and Queer Eye as evidence that unscripted programming can “change people’s point of view” on myriad topics and issues. But because the stories, and lives, documented are real, capturing the drama within can be a riskier endeavor.
“There’s always a risk with everything you do, especially when there’s no script,” he says. “Things can happen that are very unexpected. But we had been with this family for several years and we saw it happen and we really wanted to get them back on track, as you would with anybody, I’d think.”