Rock My RV Is the Best Reality Makeover Show Yet. Really.

Slate's Culture Blog
May 23 2013 3:02 PM

The Best Reality Makeover Show Yet. Really.

bret michaels rv
Bret Michaels in Rock My RV

Travel Channel

I feel bad for my FedEx guy. Several times a week, he climbs two flights of stairs to hand-deliver the latest emissions from the world of television. Yesterday, he brought a magnificent bounty: the season premiere of a Syfy series I’m fond of, an exciting addition to TNT’s roster of ampersanded investigators, and a new reality show featuring the Rock. Clearly, these particular DVDs were well worth the wear and tear on his calf muscles, but that isn’t always the case. Each week brings announcements of new reality series featuring some combination of superannuated stars, home makeovers, and family businesses, and those packages make me feel guilty about the fuel wasted to bring them to my home.

I admit it: I initially dismissed Rock My RV With Bret Michaels as yet another cookie-cutter example of reality dross. But since I spent my adolescence cooped up with my parents in an RV (or a “motor caravan,” as we call them in England), I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did, because the show, which premieres on the Travel Channel this Sunday, is the best reality makeover series I’ve ever seen. It’s a magnificent mashup of the best elements of a whole bunch of reality subgenres wrapped up in a rock-star package.

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The basic premise is a simple one: Rocker (and reality TV veteran) Bret Michaels, a longtime RV enthusiast—he graduated from family vacations to logging millions of miles on a tour bus—helps people realize their RV dreams. Michaels spends at least nine months of each year on the road, so he knows his leveling jacks from his slideouts. That firsthand knowledge is on display when it comes time to meet the clients, whether they’re families who want a vacation home on wheels or entrepreneurs who want a party bus that will turn heads and attract eyeballs to the company logo painted on the side. But Michaels doesn’t pretend to be the hands-on guy. Other than a bit of demolition—and who could resist that?—he leaves the work to the expert fabricators and craftsmen. He’s the guy who demands the impossible and decides which compromises he’s willing to accept.

Anyone who’s seen a makeover show on one of the home improvement channels will recognize the need for compromise. When the project involves real estate, those negotiations are usually driven by financial, legal, or aesthetic restrictions. On Rock My RV, those same constraints apply—along with a few extras. Candice Olson doesn’t have to worry about rust or how much weight a chassis can bear, and there’s very little hydraulics involved in designing a man cave.

In the middle section of the show, Michaels acts as the narrator, explaining the challenges the experts are facing and exclaiming over the cool paint job or the astonishing craftsmanship on display. And it really is impressive work; the limited space available in these vehicles ups the degree of difficulty considerably. But it’s at the show’s big finish that his day job really comes in handy: He pulls off the final reveal like the rock star he is, complete with dancers, rock music, and pyrotechnics.

The same factors that leave viewers oddly fascinated by the engineering feats of American Chopper, the artistry of Color Splash, or the ingenious architecture of Small Space, Big Style, are all present in Rock My RV. But those shows don’t have a host like Bret Michaels—a guy who can keep a straight face when he announces he’s going to “deliver a T-shirt cannon of biblical proportions” and who doesn’t hesitate to ask a nice couple if their kids were conceived in the RV they’re inspecting. He finds fun in the functional—and he might even make RVs cool again.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section.