The reality television landscape is littered with shows about the one percent—manufactured and occasionally genuine drama featuring rich people and their very specific, not-at-all realistic, rich people problems. There’s entertainment to be derived from these programs, if only because they adhere to reality TV’s overall mission, which is to show the viewer a slice of life that is likely unlike their own. By this point, though, the public tires of the rich-people rodeo that is current reality television: Keeping Up With the Kardashians is coming to a close, the Real Housewives franchise is limping along, and other outliers like all of Bravo’s second-tier offerings lack the excitement and the verve that the genre once held for me. Why would I care about what a rich housewife in Beverly Hills is doing, when I have the option to peek into a life that is wholly removed from anything I could even dream of?
Pig Royalty, airing on Discovery+, is three perfect hours of reality television, an escape that thrust me into the high-stakes drama of the world of competitive pig showing in Helotes, Texas, a suburb of San Antonio. At the heart of this series, which is too short for my liking, is a rivalry between two dynasties of the show-pig world: the Baleros and the Rihns. Jodi Rihn, matriarch of the Rihn family pig-showing enterprise, has an incredible French manicure and the privilege of introducing the audience to the world of pig showing, where pre-teens in jeans and dress shirts guide their little pigs around a pen with what appears to be a riding crop, swatting gently at their haunches. “The smell of pig shit is one of a kind,” she says in dramatic voiceover during the show’s pilot. “I don’t care how many times you wash it, the smell doesn’t go away. But it smells like money to us.”
What follows after this declaration is trumped-up, glittering, reality TV drama, set in the cutthroat world of competitive pig showing—a world that is completely foreign to me, but is always treated with respect by the creators of this series. It would be easy to lean into the impulse to gawk at these two families, but the creators resist that trope by focusing on the sheer ridiculousness of this feud, and also, the families involved. Arguably, the stars should be the little piggies, all of whom are standouts in their breed, clean and pink and well-shaped, to my amateur eye. But the pigs are an afterthought, the mere vehicle for the years-long drama that has been brewing between the two families in question, the Rihns and the Baleros.
Where the Rihn family is humble, down to earth, and less inclined towards glitz, the Baleros are (obviously) their opposite. Michelle Balero, the head of the Balero family show pig clan, is precisely the kind of small-town bully cut from the same cloth as Abby Lee Miller of Dance Moms fame—a towering figure with an affinity for leopard print who is mean in a way that is a little bit sad. Her three daughters, McKenzie, McKayla, and McCall, are responsible for carrying on the Balero family’s legacy as winners, not just for the local renown that comes from winning, but for the money. Winning the top prize at a stock show means scholarships and prize money, which is helpful for things like paying for college. The Balero sisters are technically the Kardashians of the show pig world in that they are sisters, wear a lot of makeup, and are at the center of unsavory rumors, including the one about McKenzie sleeping with a judge.
The Rihns, the self-described Walgreens to the Balero sisters’ Sephora, are not without their own characters. The Rihn girls, Kammi and Keylie, are tertiary characters to Kannen, the youngest child who takes pig showing the hardest. Kannen is a sensitive young man for whom losing is unacceptable; over the course of the four episodes that have aired to date, I’ve seen Kannen cry in both happiness and in frustration at losing. Because this show is so beautifully produced, Kannen’s Balero counterpart is cousin Nugget, a 12-year-old boy who seems spiritualy middle-aged, with the weary air of an insurance salesman and father of three who just wants to be left alone. Where Kannen excels at handling his pigs, Nugget seems to be simply going through the motions, swatting at his charge while his cousins yell at him to do better. I feel for Nugget and for Kannen both, and hope they find happiness.
What’s refreshing about Pig Royalty is that it neatly shatters elitist preconceptions about what happens in the stockyards and the farms that pepper the rest of this country. Small town pettiness is the same as it ever was, across the board: it doesn’t matter if the “sport” in question is peewee soccer, competitive dance, or showing pigs at a stockshow—there are always going to be stage parents and interpersonal politics that make for excellent, low-stakes drama. Though everything I know about competitive show pigs I learned in the four hours I spent watching Pig Royalty, I can’t say that I can tell what makes a good pig driver or a good pig. Some explanation about the mechanics of driving a pig, which appears to be just swatting the animal about the face with a little whip, would’ve been helpful, but that’s what Google is for. Reality shows don’t need to be educational, but they must be entertaining. Happily, Pig Royalty is a little bit of both.
Though I wouldn’t go so far as to call the drama Shakespearean, it is wonderful in that it feels both low and high-stakes. Winning a show pig competition doesn’t mean just winning a belt buckle, but it also means winning an awful lot of money. McKenzie, the middle Balero daughter, is the real breakthrough star of the family, touted as the best at showing pigs, though I still cannot figure out what being “the best” at this sport entails. In a storyline that I first wrote off as hyperbole, McKayla is forced to defend herself against the whispered accusations that she slept with a judge in order to curry favor; later on, while watching the judge in the DIY pig show run by Michelle Balero in an attempt to skirt local covid protocols award the Balero dynasty’s competitors, I changed my mind. Never did I think that I would care so much about ethics in the competitive show pig world, but that’s the beauty of good reality TV.
Thankfully, Pig Royalty is sensitive and even kind to its subjects, treating their sport as a matter of fact rather than something to gawp at. Early quarantine’s runaway hit, Tiger King, did the same thing, by letting the real-life personalities that populated that world simply be themselves, understanding innately that the drama will come naturally because it is inherent in these individuals. A family of competitive pig showers in a suburb of San Antonio that is charismatic enough to make it on a cable television show is certainly rife with drama. There’s no need for embellishment because the proof is already in the pudding.