More than 12 years have passed since the debut of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares in the UK, and while that show and its bastardized Fox version are no longer on the air, the makeover subgenre of reality television persists.
The latest entry is Discovery’s Homestead Rescue (Fridays at 10), on which Marty Raney helps people who’ve decided to live off the grid but are struggling with their infrastructure.
Raney, who was a cast member on all three seasons of National Geographic Channel’s Ultimate Survival Alaska, works with two of his children, Misty Raney and Matt Raney, on projects to help homesteaders improve their lives.
When I interviewed him recently, Raney told me he wasn’t familiar with other series on which an expert helps people in crisis (“no sir, ironically I’m not a TV watcher. I’ve heard of Gordon Ramsay”) but he had been pitching other TV series.
He shot a sizzle reel “for a show that [National Geographic International] had designed for me, some kind of survival show,” and “I pitched some shows to Discovery and to History and NatGeo, that I wrote, treatments that I put together. So certain people were aware of me and what I was trying to do.”
The idea for Homestead Rescue came from Discovery, which “reached out to Raw Productions in London,” Marty said.
He was compelled by the network’s argument that “we’re trying to do something new; we’re trying to take Discovery back to how it started. As those discussions progressed, I was like, man, this is too good to be true: I get to build, I get to help people, real people, with real needs.”
He also works with two of his children—something the network proposed a few days into discussions. Marty said “I approached all four kids, and that took about a month before Misty and Matt realized that they probably could do, and yes they wanted to do it.”
Keeping Homestead Rescue real
When Marty, Misty, and Matt drive up to a location, it’s the first time they’ve seen it.
“Obviously the production people have been out there trying to procure the permits for building … or whatever is needed legally,” Marty told me. But “I’ve never met those homesteaders in my life until the day I drive into the property. … We meet them just as the viewer does, organically and authentically.”
I asked if that was important to him, doing the series “organically and authentically.” He said yes.
“It’s the only way I would do the show. I would not sign any contracts. There was length, poignant, frank, assertive discussions with Discovery and Raw Productions. The more I demanded authenticity and less scripting, the more Discovery and Raw got excited,” he said.
When I asked him to compare the experience to the National Geographic Show he’s known best for, Marty said, “Your question is ponderous. I liken those two shows in your question—they’re both extremely difficult to make. Both tried to keep it as authentic as they could. That’s difficult to do. But I will tell you this, Homestead Rescue is light years more authentic than Ultimate Survival Alaska, which prided itself on being authentic.”
He elaborated: “Ultimate Survival Alaska was 35 episodes, which really means 35 different locations in Alaska, and they were thousands of miles apart from each other. So the transportation, the logistics—here’s a little fact nobody knows: we were sequestered for 90 days straight. No conjugal visits, no contact with humans, never slept under a roof, which means we slept on the ground for 90 days. If production took a three-day break, flew out to LA or wherever they went, Anckorage, we stayed out in the middle of nowhere. Campfire, they brought food.”
Homestead Rescue was an even longer, more challenging shoot.
How Homestead Rescue did its work
Homestead Rescue filmed for “100 days straight,” Marty told me, and started in February. “The first day of filming it snowed 36 inches on the east coast in that 100-year storm that they had this year. Day one of filming! That was a baptism of snow. We were cold or wind-beaten or totally exposed to the elements for the whole shoot.”
“It was very taxing on every level, mainly the fact that the show is real. We’re out there from daylight to dark building,” he said.
The show was also a challenge for post-production: the show filmed through May, and was on the air mid-June, “an unheard-of schedule,” he said.
After surveying the property and talking to the homesteaders, Marty said they decide what to focus on, though “so much of it is obvious. If you’re there to assist them to live off-grid or be a succesful homesteader, you see areas immediately that we can address. If someone’s living in a shoddy building, we don’t have the time, in 10 days, to build them a new house. So we tackle projects that will actually help them the rest of their lives.”
“That’s why the show is arduous on the cast, my daughter and myself specifically,” he said. “It’s daunting to accomplish the things we want.” The production immediately realized that a 7- or 10-day shoot at each location would present challenges. “There’s not enough time to do these things,” Marty said. “That concern was this cloud that followed this entire production shoot.”
Marty and Misty’s projects repurpose as much material as possible, in part to save money. “The first thing Discovery wants us to do is to scour the proprety and to use everything that’s not nailed down, if we can, in the betterment of the homestead,” he said. “There are some very ingenious things that happened” as a result.
But if there are larger needs, they are covered. “As far as budgetary things, obviously this is a Discovery Channel show,” he said, “If I convinced them that this homestead needed x projects completed,” then budget was made available for “significant improvements to a homestead.”
Teaching people, not yelling at them
As with restaurant makeover shows, which often help owners who had no restaurant experience before buying a restaurant, some of the people featured so far this season have attempted to live off-grid despite lacking the experience required to do that.
But Marty does not and will not judge them for that.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” he said, “but I applaud them. If anyone watches this show, you will never see me be hard on them personally. You will never see me condescend; you will never see me yell at them; you will never see me raise my voice. Why would I? I applaud these people. They took a risk to change their life.”
“What they may not have foreseen is to live a simpler life is you’re going to live a harder life.”
Marty did acknowledge that he can be a tough teacher. During one episode, he helped a homesteader learn how to cut down trees, and he said, “my methods of teaching, when it came to Josh and his chainsaw, they were assertive.” Marty said he took Josh out during breaks to “do some chainsaw 101,” and once, “he almost killed himself—could have gotten hurt really bad—on one of those little teaching sessions.”
But Marty said he will “not berate them, not ever to exacerbate a shortcoming. I’m not wired that way.”
Unhappy homesteaders who may sue the network
Viewers, of course, take care of that. “I would expect, as anyone would, for the haters to come out of the woodwork.”
One couple that was featured, Kim and Josh, have been harassed by some viewers on social media. Kim recently wrote, “I regret ever being on this show.” She also said “We are in talks with attorneys now.”
Why would they talk to attorneys? In a different comment, she explained,
“We were cast under a total different premise. We were contacted a year ago to be in a show about successful homesteads. They said they wanted to add drama and we were ok with it but we didn’t think they would take it that far. The pigs were brought over from our real farm. We had one name pig that had one batch of stillborn piglets. That’s it. They made it look insane. Those dead chickens weren’t ours. We had never seen them before in our lives. We have lawyers involved now. We are mortified that Discovery Channel would do this to us.”
Kim is complimentary of Marty in a video response she posted, and shows off work he did—a bathtub carved from a tree—that didn’t make the episode. In the video, she suggests that the editing ignored the successful parts of their farm, Revolutionary Roots Farm, including a thriving store, and created problems where there weren’t any.
I asked Marty about her specific complaints, and he said, “I am aware that Kim has been active on social media, but I’ve never read it,” adding, “I learned early on that that this kind of media issues are destructive. I am aware of it, sir, that she’s unhappy.”
Marty said that “my feelings and experience with her was amazing. What’s really ironic, if she’s disgruntled, the network has informed me that she hasn’t said anything bad about me, so that makes me feel good. So I couldn’t bring myself to say something derogatory about her or Josh.”
Watch Kim’s video on Facebook (the audio and image are out of sync).
Working with family, helping people
Marty added, “Whether I’m naive or ignorant, I maintain that every minute for 100 days straight, every day, every week, every month that rolled by, and all the locations that I went to, I firmly believed that I was helping people.”
Homestead Rescue, he said, is “real people with real problems working together.”
Of course, that means working with members of his family, and Marty is clearly thrilled to work with them. “I pale to insignficiance next to my wife and kids,” he said.
When he talked to me about his family, Marty went on for several minutes listing their accomplishments and talking about their successes. (“I kind of rambled on that question, which I can easily do when I’m doting on the children,” he said.)
“The best part about this show is everybody’s real,” Marty told me. “People are going to have to look pretty hard to find a more natural, normal, non-dramatic family from Alaska. There have been many people who are faking it as real Alaskans. We go to work hard every day. We’re not sitting around with some romantic TV lifestyle where nobody works and it’s all fun and games.”