It’s the best trick a documentarian can pull off when she takes something obscure — something usually available only to the initiated — and makes it accessible. Better still when she makes it entertaining. Recent documentaries have found critical and commercial success in this vein; “King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” made competitive, retro video-gaming a harrowing human drama; “Spellbound” did the same with youth spelling bees.
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Television, especially in the form of reality television, has aimed in the same direction with mixed results. For every “Pawn Stars” success story, there’s three or four iterations of “Fat Camp” trailing behind, making us dumber one hour at a time. History’s new show “Madhouse” aspires to something transcending fluff, something like a meaningful exploration of a particular American subculture. In the end, it falls short.
“Madhouse” is focused on the 16-week stock car racing season at Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem N.C., a legendary race track that was one of the first NASCAR certified venues. The action is centered on the personalities and clashes of four racing teams, and it shows their collisions both on and off the race track. Two of the teams, the Millers and the Myers, have been nicknamed the “Hatfield’s and McCoy’s of stock car racing” as a result of their bitter and mutual dislike that finds its roots in generations long passed.
This personal, emotional investment gives “Madhouse” its initial appeal. The racers at these events lack big name sponsorship and professional pit crews, and there’s little to no chance of any of the teams making any money over the course of the season. What’s left is the drive to win — and a mean, sunburned itch to beat the other guy. It’s hard not to be taken with the drivers’ willingness to sacrifice money and family, blood and bone for a half year’s worth of bragging rights.
Unfortunately, when all is said and done, there’s only so much you can do with a show about racing. How long can you watch proudly self-proclaimed rednecks assemble and then disassemble their stock cars? Even the bitter rivalry between the Myer and Miller families began to ring false about halfway through, giving the distinct sense that perhaps the vitriol had more to do with upping attendance at the races and putting on a show for History than any actual animosity.
And of course, there’s not much in the way of actual racing. Like so many racing fans, “Madhouse” is more interested in the crashes than in the race (which takes up less than five minutes in the hour-long program), whether those crashes are parking lot fistfights or t-boned stock cars. Ultimately, it’s never quite clear whether History wants us to observe and laugh at these passionate amateurs or pop open a cold one, yell at the TV and cheer them on. The safe route is to do neither, to give “Madhouse” a wide berth so it can pass you by while you try not to choke on the fumes.