In the past decade, reality TV shows set in Maine have introduced the rest of the country to game wardens chasing poachers and marauding bears, eel fishermen trying to cash in on their high-priced prey, people who dicker over discarded treasures and a family logging business.

Maine-set shows currently on TV include “Maine Cabin Masters” and “Tirdy Works.” The former is about a construction crew that renovates cozy cabins in scenic spots, and the latter is about a Somerville woman who sells clocks, art and jewelry adorned with dried moose droppings.  Is this the way Maine TV should be?

Chase Morrill in a scene from the current TV show “Maine Cabin Masters,” seen on the DIY Network. Photo by Jack Parker/DIY Network

Producers say yes, because the key elements of these shows – natural beauty, wilderness and small-town characters – are what Maine is known for. For a TV production company hoping to attract an audience, the Maine brand is a big incentive.

“There are people all over the country who have pleasant memories of spending time in Maine, or really want to spend time on a cabin on a lake in Maine,” said Matt Assmus, executive producer of “Maine Cabin Masters,” currently in its fourth season on the DIY Network. “Staying on a cabin on a lake in Maine is really the quintessential lake vacation. And that’s a big reason people like the show.”

“Tirdy Works” began its first 10-week season on TruTV in May, and is a realty sitcom focused on Mary Winchenbach, a straight-talking Rockland native living in tiny Somerville, who launched a business making stuff out of moose poop. The show includes her wife, Deb Nicholls, their three children and a cast of small-town neighbors. There are a lot of jokes about poop and turds, as one might expect, plus a story common in Maine – somebody trying to make a living off the land in creative ways. New episodes air 10 p.m. Tuesdays on TruTV.

The show’s producers were inspired by a viral video of Winchenbach they saw online in the fall of 2018, in which she was selling her moose-turd art and jewelry at the Common Ground Fair. They were attracted first by the fact that Winchenbach had a salty sense of humor, a great Maine accent and seemed like a genuine character. They also really liked the idea of setting the show in Maine.

Mary Winchenbach, left, telling townsfolk in Somerville about her moose turd business in a scene from the TV show “Tirdy Works.” Photo by Michael David Wilson/TruTV

“Audiences are fascinated by the unknown, and for many Americans, daily life in small-town Maine is an unknown,” said Chad Greulach, executive producer of “Tirdy Works.” “Plus, it’s hard to find a backdrop as picturesque as in Maine.”

Winchenbach, 59, says she didn’t give a lot of thought to how Maine has been portrayed on TV or in movies over the years, before getting her own show. She said she’s gotten a lot of feedback from people who want to visit Maine, after seeing “Tirdy Works,” and she thinks it’s because the show depicts small-town Maine life as funny, heart-warming and real.

“We’ve got woods, and moose and the beautiful landscape. We hear from people all the time who want to come here,” said Winchenbach. “We’re just having fun and people seem to like it.”

Small-town life and colorful characters are definitely a big part of the appeal for fans of Maine reality shows.  Stephanie Dangora lives just south of Boston in Weymouth, Massachusetts, and watches “Tirdy Works” partly because one day she’d really love to live in a town like Somerville. She also “adores” Winchenbach and how she’s pursuing her passion while trying to help bring jobs to town with her company.

“That’s what I’m looking for in my life, to live some place where the pace is slower and you have that community of people around you, like Mary does,” said Dangora, 34.

Jeanie Kirkpatrick likes watching the small-town happenings on “Tirdy Works” too, but for a different reason. She lives in Keystone, South Dakota, with a population of less than 400, so she appreciates seeing other people in small towns and how they live. She was also a fan of the Maine-set reality show “Down East Dickering” a few years back, focused on people traversing small towns across Maine to buy, sell or swap old junk, hoping it might turn out to be treasure.

“It’s nice to see other small towns on TV,” said Kirkpatrick, 51. “Plus, I’ve never been to Maine and I’d love to go.”

TV critic Andy Dehnart also cited “Tirdy Works'” small-town charm on his website, realityblurred.com. He wrote that the show had the “lovable small town oddballs” of the Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek” and showed “lovable oddballs working together” like the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” In an email to the Press Herald, he wrote that “Tirdy Works” was “absurdly charming and funny, thanks to its star’s wit and warm relationships with her wife, family, and neighbors.”

“Besides showcasing the beauty of Maine in the fall, I also love how the show dips me into life in a small town, with people who work together and care for each other,” Dehnart wrote.

POP CULTURE APPEAL

Besides “Tirdy Works” and “Maine Cabin Masters,” other Maine-set reality shows from the last decade include: “American Loggers” about the Pelletier family’s Millinocket-based logging business, on Discovery from 2009 to 2011; “North Woods Law,” about the Maine Warden Service, on Animal Planet from 2012 to 2016; “Cold River Cash, about Maine’s lucrative elver fishery, on Animal Planet in 2014; and “Down East Dickering”, about Mainers scouring the state for things to buy and resell, on History in 2014 and 2015. That show focused on people’s use of Maine’s bargain-hunting bible, “Uncle Henry’s Weekly Swap or Sell It Guide.”

“American Loggers,” which focused on the Pelletier family’s logging business in northern Maine, aired on Discovery from 2009 to 2011. Photo by David McLain/Discovery

Maine’s mark on popular culture predates the reality TV boom that started two decades ago, and even TV itself. At one point, in 1930, three of the top national radio shows had strong Maine ties, including one hosted by singer Rudy Vallee, who grew up in Westbrook, and the Maine-set series “Seth Parker” and “Uncle Abe and Dave,” according to Michael J. Socolow, an associate professor of journalism and communication at the University of Maine. “Seth Parker,” about a homespun family in the Down East town of Jonesport, had a national audience of some 10 million listeners at its peak. Vallee’s version of “The Maine Stein Song” was sung from coast to coast.

In the 1980s, one of the most popular shows on network TV was set in a very fictional Maine coastal town called Cabot Cove: “Murder, She Wrote.” The show, starring Angela Lansbury as a writer who comes across a murder per week in her small town, ran from 1984 to 1996 on CBS and averaged more than 30 million viewers in its heyday.

And, of course, there are the writings of Maine native Stephen King, which have been the basis for more than 44 films and some 35 TV projects, many of which are dark and spooky, playing on the view of Maine as a place of isolation and long, dark winters, said Socolow, who will become director of the university’s McGillicuddy Humanities Center in July.

So when TV producers look at the possibility of doing a show in Maine – as opposed to other states – they know they’re getting a Maine “brand” that is many-layered and packs an emotional punch, said Devon Platte, who was executive producer of “North Woods Law” when it filmed in Maine. Besides its visual appeal and natural beauty, Maine seems “exotic” to people in much of the country, and for some, its small towns and colorful characters, remind people of a simpler time.

Platte said the only other states he could think of that have a similar cache, that lend their own unique character and clout to shows filmed there, are Alaska, Texas and maybe Louisiana.

Maine eel fishermen were the focus of a 2014 Animal Planet TV show called “Cold River Cash.” Photo courtesy of Animal Planet

“The people making these decisions (on TV shows) live in Los Angeles and New York, and to them Maine is exotic, it’s a whole lifestyle they’re not hearing about,” said Platte, who is based in Portland but works on shows around the world. “And to most of the viewing public Maine is exotic too. ”

MAINE IN THE NAME

The producers of “Maine Cabin Masters” had set out to do a show about a crew of builders that renovates cabins and cottages, but looked at other states besides Maine, Assmus said. The network wanted to do something similar to its popular show “Building Alaska.” When the producers found Augusta native Chase Morrill and his company, they decided to make the show in Maine. The crew includes Morrill’s sister, Ashley, and her husband, and there’s a chemistry and sense of humor that comes across in whatever they are building or tearing down.

But even once they set the show in Maine, there was some talk about calling it “Wicked Cabins.” But network officials wanted to make it plain that the show was about and in Maine, said Assmus.

When the show debuted in early 2017, the focus was on remote Maine cabins in the woods, Assmus said. But producers soon found out that the more popular episodes were ones on lakes in more accessible parts of the state, the kinds of places millions of Americans had visited on vacation or at summer camp in their youth. By doing more shows on family vacation cottages producers could show Morrill and his crew having fun in the lake, and show comfortable places most Americans could imagine themselves relaxing in, Assmus said.

Ashley Morrill and Chase Morrill, brother and sister, in an episode of the current TV show “Maine Cabin Masters.” Photo by Jack Parker/DIY Network

Morrill, 42, thinks part of the “Maine Cabin Masters” appeal is nostalgia, real and imagined. New episodes air 9 p.m. Mondays on DIY Network.

“A lot of people remember coming to camp in Maine or it’s on their bucket list to come to Maine,” said Morrill. “I think to a lot of people Maine seems like a place that has a ’50s or ’60s appeal.”

“Tirdy Works” is a bit of an outlier among Maine reality shows because producers didn’t come up with an idea first, then pick Maine. The idea – Winchenbach and her moose poop business – were already in Maine. But that doesn’t mean Maine isn’t a big part of the show, and wasn’t a big selling point to the production company.

The show’s first half-hour episode in May started by introducing Maine as the 23rd state and then letting viewers get to know Somerville, a town of about 550 people, 15 miles east of Augusta with only a few paved roads. Though the focus is on Winchenbach, her unusual business and all her poop jokes, there is also a lot of time spent getting to know other characters in the small town, including the fire chief and Winchenbach’s friend, Tammi, who speaks even more bluntly than Winchenbach.

As a TV professional, Greulach says he and his crew have loved filming in Maine. Getting permission to film at a community supper, for instance, was easy and casual. In other parts of the country it might have been tougher, and people might have been less willing to have themselves filmed, said Greulach.

Other than trying to sell her wares through a video online, Winchebach did not seek out a television show. The producers found her and made her an offer. So far, in the show’s first season, she’s happy with the reaction the show has gotten. The producers have not said yet if there will be a second season.

Winchenbach, who talks in interviews with the same bluntness and humor as on the show, feels confident the show is portraying the real Maine. At least the corner of it populated by her friends, family and neighbors.

“This is something that started as a hobby, and basically grew into a business because I had (moose droppings) all over the house,” said Winchenbach. “It’s a TV show, but they don’t choreograph it, they let us go. This is who we are, sadly.”

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