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Can Someone Explain the Damaged Psychology Behind the Content and Success of the TLC Channel?

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 7, 2012 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | June 7, 2012 |

When early summer rolls around, in between Sundays — where most of the good television resides during the summer — you start to notice shows that have only existed on the periphery of your mind, shows that don’t really register as real, just figments of someone else’s warped imagination. Shows like “Toddlers and Tiaras,” a show in which some hick toddler from backwoods Georgia who drinks Mt. Dew and goes by the name Honey Boo Boo who is getting her own spin-off, as though to reward her parents for being awful.

TLC is also the home of “Kate Plus 8,” and “19 Kids and Counting,” two more shows that reward bad parents for being bad parents. I saw an interview the other day in which the Kate from “Kate Plus 8” was kvetching about the fact that her show is no longer on the air. She’s looking for a new show because, as she said, the kids really miss the cameras. Do they really? Or does Kate miss the money and attention?

There are also two shows that exploit little people, and another, “Strange Addiction,” that mines the freak mental illnesses of others: One guy is obsessed with pulling hair out of shower drains, one dude likes to eat glass, another lady bathes in bleach, and there are people who have eating fetishes: Rocks, toilet paper, cigarette ashes. One dude even likes to fuck his car. “My Crazy Obsession” is basically the same show, only the mental disorders are more amusing than harmful: A million dollar obsession with Cabbage Patch Dolls or an overweight adult who will only eat baby food while wearing a onesie in a adult high chair by a woman wearing high heels. It’s scintillating stuff, folks.

Then there’s “My Big American Gypsy Wedding,” which this very week will feature the marriage of first cousins because, as one bridesmaid noted, “‘Our family believes in incest.” Well, of course it does, otherwise why would TLC give them $50 and a standard release allowing the channel to document their their bad choices for the entertainment of others.

Jesus Christ, where are we? This stuff is worse than what was portended in Idiocracy. “Ow My Balls,” is like goddamn Shakespeare compared to the woman that eats the contents of ash trays. Indeed, there’s a misleading euphemistic quality to TLC’s tagline: “Family, Home, Style, and Cooking.” What they mean is: Dysfunctional families with too many members; Homes filled with drugs or two tons of trash; the style of a Gypsy who wears a Christmas tree top on her head and a fur coat to marry her cousin; and Cooking? Well, there’s Cake Boss and DC Cupcakes, which glorify calories, I guess.


I will never understand why is is that politicians will attack the rights of gays to marry, will decry fictional violence in film, and go apoplectic if someone shows a tit on television, but won’t say shit about the TLC Channel, which not only exploits those with mental disease, it celebrates dysfunction and rewards shitty parenting. Where’s Mike Huckabee on this?

Yet, I do know that reasonable people with reasonable levels of intelligence also watch TLC, although the reasons aren’t exactly clear. Morbid curiosity perhaps? Because we like to wallow in others’ despair? Or because we get a kick out of mocking freak-shows, fuck-ups, and the miserable? Having grown up in an environment not unlike that of a TLC program, I will never understand the appeal. Frankly, most of the people on these shows are suffering in a very permanent kind of way, and in most cases, they will pass that suffering down to the next generation. I think there’s some damaged psychology on all sides of the equation: The producers, the participants, and the viewers. I’m not suggesting that the channel be pulled or that people stop finding escape in others’ hardships, but I am troubled by it, except for the virgin show, because that’s just harmless weirdness.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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