Monday, June 8, 2009

Summer TV Grazing...Let's Start with Reality Shows!

I have an ambivalent relationship with reality television. Occasionally it's magnificent, sometimes it's a train wreck and (all too often), it is one of the seven signs of the coming apocalypse. No other network on TV is able to capture all of these cultural red flags better than TLC, once known as The Learning Channel. If you like your education to be more big top circus tent than university classroom, this network is for you. Most recently, TLC has gotten a big infusion of publicity over the off-line escapades of Jon and Kate Plus 8. Once a cute show about an enormous family of twins, sextuplets and their attractive parents, J&K+8 has taken a dark turn recently due to possible parental infidelities. The tabloids are in heaven and the ratings have reached for the sky. Apparently, a new episode has featured the grounded and wonderful celebrity chef, Emeril. I'm hoping he cooked them something tasty with a lot of fat grams. There's nothing like Cajun comfort food to make everyone settle down.

American Chopper is another regular TLC series that happens to be a personal favorite. Not because it's about motorcycles...not because the imposing but unusually cuddly Teutul family snipes at each other I'm fascinated because it mostly takes place in a little rural upstate town in Orange County NY about 20 minutes away from where I grew up. I love seeing the background foliage of my humble rural beginnings, when they zoom by on their $100,000 bikes.

TLC specials are among the most terrifying and mesmerizing you will ever witness. Watch at your peril, I'm not kidding. This is where modern day carnival sideshows still have a place in American society. Step right up ladies and gents....two headed babies, mystery diseases, and all forms of medical maladies are in great abundance. Recently, I got pulled into a special called, "The Half Ton Teen". I wanted...I really truly wanted to turn away. Alas I could not. It turned out to be an amazing Pas De Deux between a teenager and his enabling mother, and the redemptive power of stomach staple surgery. I was quite moved, and not a little bit haunted by their story. It's a cautionary tale too, which might help those who are struggling to shed a few (hundred) pounds.

Miami Ink (tattoo people), Little People, Big World (dwarf family) and the absolutely delicious Cake Boss (don't watch this one after "Half Ton Teen, or you will be terribly conflicted) are some other series worth visiting on TLC. It's not for everybody. But if you like the roar of the grease paint and the smell of the crowd; grab some popcorn and cotton candy...summer viewing is here.


Lisa said...

I'm also hooked on many of these shows -- I seem to run into "Jon and Kate" all the time on the TV at the gym, and I must say it reconfirms my idea that motherhood is overrated! Of course I love every story of ultra-tall children (which was on this weekend), the progeria kids -- I've watched and re-watched those specials -- and every other fascinating variation of human condition. You are so correct when you deem this the modern sideshow -- I only hope, like a good sideshow, that the people profiled are making some money off this. They are being treated with dignity, of course, but they should also get some cash out of this to help with their medical expenses. Nothing, but nothing, has changed with humanity's desire to view exceptional members of the species, whether exceptionally beautiful or saddled with something that puts them well outside the norm.
I hope it's teaching the audience empathy and a "there but for the grace of whomever go I" philosophy, for no one asks to be created so differently.

Jane said...

For one of the most unusual, and absolutely tragic examples of this form of programming, look for "The Chinese Elephant Man" on Nat Geo this week. It is utterly heartbreaking. Why on earth is this disease so impossible to cure? I once saw someone with Neurofibromatosis at a little carnival in Torrance. He had a giant arm. Just when you think modern medicine can cure everything but apparently can't.

Lisa said...

I missed that on Sunday but spent a lot of time on Nat Geo's website for the show. I will catch up with it. It's so unfortunate in these situations where the lack of medical care in villages condems these folks to live hidden away.

There is just no cure for that condition -- everything keeps growing. Quite baffling, and of course the original Elephant Man didn't even really have neurofibromatosis, but I believe Proteus Syndrome. It's hard to believe that well over a hundred years later there is still nothing close to a cure for either malady. Have you seen the special about the woman in England with one huge leg? She is a marvelous gal with a lovely attitude and spunk, really liked her a lot. You know that this subject has been one of my hobbies for a long time -- I have many, many, many books on the subject -- and the current crop of TV is amazing to me. I know WHY they're doing it, but it's still incredible that so many of these shows are being made.

Jane said...

Honestly, I am so fascinated by this topic it's a wonder I didn't become a geneticist instead of going into television. I used to be transfixed by one of my Dad's college textbooks which included tons of pictures on genetic anomalies. I was particularly intruiged by Acromegaly and Piebald syndromes. Actually, media is such a crappy place to work these days...I wish to God I HAD gone into the sciences.