"Things are different now." - Erica, Red Dawn
I won't pretend America has undergone anything as disastrously transformative as a Commie invasion recently, but there have definitely been upheavals of a sort on the reality TV landscape. For most of its history, the genre has been a repository for pseudo-documentaries (COPS, America's Most Wanted), contrived interpersonal conflicts (The Real World, Big Brother), or extreme game shows (Survivor, The Amazing Race). And while plenty of these programs featured characters you actively rooted against (Puck from TRW, Chima from BB), rarely was the overall purpose to engender hatred of the entire enterprise.
This has become more the case in the last decade. While shows about "the common clay" (Deadliest Catch) or those with a more humorous bent (Dirty Jobs) still get a pass, a growing number of them appear to have been created solely to cause violently negative reaction. Most of the time, the sentiment is justifiable (Jersey Shore, Keeping Up with the Kardashians), while sometimes it backfires (as mentioned on this very blog, Duck Dynasty is better than it has any right to be).
I thought we'd reached the apex of this phenomenon with Toddlers & Tiaras, TLC's look at children's beauty pageants that was deposited in our televisions like a flaming bag of electronic poo for five seasons(!). But the channel's programming department must have dislocated their shoulders reaching for a pen to greenlight a new show based on featured T&T-ers June Shannon and her six-year old daughter, Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson. The result, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, isn't the final herald of the Apocalypse, as some have claimed, but just another cynical and ultimately depressing car wreck littering our TV schedule.
First off, I think a network name change is in order. "The Learning Channel" just doesn't seem to apply anymore, so I propose "TAMFFBLC," which stands for "The Ain't Much Fer Fancy Book Learnin' Channel." It mostly keeps the original designation, with necessary modifications that reflect the channel's recent demographic shifts.
The opening scenes of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo are how I imagine the eventual remake of Two Thousand Maniacs! will look. The 32-year old June reigns over her household, including 40-year old husband Mike "Sugar Bear" Thompson, and the other three daughters, who have somehow earned the nicknames "Chickadee," "Chubbs," and "Pumpkin." Their daily life appears to consist of cutting coupons, going to food auctions (I'd never heard of these before), four-wheeling, and farting. In the second episode, they get a pig. And any sympathy I'd previously held for most of the family evaporated when neither "Mama" nor any of the daughters were able to correctly put together a goddamn Pack 'N Play. Lady, you have four kids, did they all sleep in a box?
Now, some media types appear to believe subjecting your family to public scorn is actually a bold statement of self-empowerment. This person, for example. Evidently we should congratulate these people for being comfortable enough to weigh themselves on national TV (sister Jessica -- sorry, "Chubbs" -- is 15 and weights 175 lbs, June clocks in at an even 309). Maybe we can all share their comfort when six-year old Alana, or Honey Boo Boo -- who drinks McDonald's iced coffee and eats cheese puffs for breakfast -- is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in third grade and June gets a foot amputated before her 40th birthday
None other than that champion of the common man, The Guardian, came out to defend the Thompsons for "keeping it real." Specks, planks, etc.. Perhaps TLC can produce some shows about Britain's rich chav subculture, or how the good residents of Wales "keep it real" by binge drinking, smoking and gorging themselves into early graves.
[Soon-to-be-grandmother June had her first child ("Chickadee") at 15, and that same child is about to have a kid herself (at 17, for those bad at math). No father was present in the two episodes I forced myself to sit through, but I understand keeping it real is always an adequate substitute for a stable family life.]
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Don't be fooled; TLC knows exactly what they're doing. Every scene is tweaked for maximum hilarity (during the debut episode's "Redneck Games," they managed to track down the one black guy in town with enough self-loathing to wear a Confederate flag), as every nose pick and gas pass (according to June, farting 12-15 times a day helps you lose weight) is lovingly chronicled. It's a 21st-century geek show, only instead of having to visit that creepy traveling carnival, we get it safely delivered into our homes.
Look, I'm not inhuman. Sitting through both debut episodes of HCHBB, fogged by alcohol though I was, brought about a profound sense of sadness. Much like the time I watched Toddlers & Tiaras, whatever vituperation I wanted to heap upon these parents was countered by the inescapable realization that these kids -- and Alana in particular -- are never going anywhere. I have no idea how much mileage TLC can wring out of Honey Boo Boo, but I suspect the show's limited appeal will decline as the viewing public's focus swings to the next freak show, and whatever meager pageant success she's enjoyed to this point dries up like so much Georgia mud.
And what then? As an allegedly frugal family (when they're not sinking most of their disposable income into Alana's pageant needs, that is), can the Thompsons be realistically expected to bank whatever money they're receiving for exposing their (literal) underbellies to the rest of the world? Maybe they can finally stop buying soon-to-expire bags of Chips Ahoy at food auctions, but with a baby on the way, you'll forgive my pessimism.
Or maybe June can build a career out of food/genital comparisons.