LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Reality TV used to be so simple: Drop some people into unfamiliar territory, pump up the drama and hope viewers can't look away.
"Wrestling With Death" isn't like that.
"You've never seen wrestling juxtaposed with the mortuary story," said Tom Huffman, the senior vice president of unscripted programming for WGN America.
The 12-episode show, which debuts on WGN America at 10 p.m. Tuesday, focuses on the family of LaFonce Latham, who runs the Wilson Funeral Home in Osceola, Ark., by day and wrestles under the name "Big Daddy" each Friday night. Grieving townspeople fill out the cast, and the bagged bodies in the embalming room are the morbid props.
"It's not exploiting the dead," Huffman said. "It's a lot like paper obituaries. They want to have their loved ones' lives' celebrated."
The macabre mixed up with the mayhem are not for the squeamish. Morticians massage body parts to help the spread of tinted embalming fluid - the reality part of a reality show.
"We would do nothing to make the funeral business look belittled," Latham said in an interview last week.
For past 22 years, Latham and his family had been embalming and wrestling in relative obscurity until a television producer came to the Mississippi River town of 8,000 for a funeral.
The backstory isn't complicated: Latham had watched wrestling as a youngster and, as an adult, bought tickets for neighborhood kids when shows came to town.
"I started out just to be a sponsor of it, and the next thing I knew, I was up there in the ring," Latham said.
He has since built his own 300-seat arena for the Mid-Southern Championship Wrestling League and keeps people coming back with various story lines that end with cliff-hangers involving good and evil.
"One of the most boring matches you'll ever watch is two good guys going after one another," Latham said. "To be a good hee,l he has to be able to make the crowd not like him. You have to be ornery. A bad guy is someone who looks at a woman holding a baby and remarks at how ugly the baby is."
A dozen years ago, Arkansas hosted TV crews filming "The Simple Life," a fish-out-of-water story that had Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie milking cows and pumping gas. Reality television has boomed since then, bringing viewers dubious classics like "Sex Sent Me to the ER" and "Duck Dynasty" and giving rise to a new class of celebrities who are famous only for being famous.
Somewhere, there had to be wrestling morticians. That they were in a rural Arkansas town was just a coincidence, Huffman said.
"We never tried to exploit their culture or do anything to be insensitive to it," Huffman said. "This show could have been in Manhattan."
Osceola Mayor Dickie Kennemore relayed word through his secretary last week that he didn't want to comment about the show.
If Latham has learned a lesson, it's that bad guys on the wrestling circuit are bad for business. His new son-in-law now works at the funeral home and changed his stage persona after some in town threatened to cancel their burial insurance.
"It was hard to have me working in the funeral home and then be a bad guy on the show," said Derrick Taylor, also known as Derrick King, a veteran wrestler from other circuits. "People feel attached (to you), saying 'I can't believe you turned your back on them.' "
And even though it's billed as a reality show, there little room for debate on whether wrestling is real.
"Is it real? It's entertainment," LaFonce said.