Review: TLC’s ‘Dr. Pimple Popper’ Is Disgusting, Oddly Satisfying and Just Exploitative Enough
The internet has the ability to make anyone and anything famous, even if it’s just for a few seconds. It can introduce audiences to phenomena they’d previously only dreamed of. Of course, it can also just expose you to what is professionally known as ‘weird shit’. Then you’re forced to acknowledge that maybe this gross stuff interests you.
Dr. Sandra Lee is arguably the world’s most famous dermatologist. For over eight years, she’s been uploading videos of her work to YouTube, wherein she primarily posted skin extractions such as blackhead and cyst removals. Much to her surprise, these clips became must-watch material on YouTube and Instagram alike, and soon she adopted the delightfully crude moniker of ‘Dr. Pimple Popper’. With growing press attention and increasing channel subscriptions, it was only a matter of time before Dr. Lee took her expertise to television. Of course, it was TLC who did the honours.
The Learning Channel, home to educational series like 19 Kids and Counting, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Sex Sent Me to the ER, and I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, is the epitome of car crash concern troll television: It’s exploitation with the faintest sheen of personal improvement. There are shows that break stigmas and encourage empathy in their viewers, but the typical TLC experience is halfway between Depression-era circus act and Dr. Oz segment. So, what better platform for a concept whose entire appeal lies in indulging in the disgusting?
The strength of Dr. Lee’s YouTube and Instagram clips lies in her ability to balance respect with cheekiness: She keeps patients anonymous and talks to them kindly throughout often invasive procedures, but she can still take a joke enough to score a cyst removal to a Drake song. Each clip focuses on the procedure itself and seldom strays from the skin. You don’t see faces, you don’t see Dr. Lee mugging for the camera like the vultures from Botched, and there’s no sad backstory to these patients’ lives. That last part may seem unfair to some, but Dr. Lee was savvy enough to know that people watched her videos for the gross stuff, not the human-interest stories.
This is a format that simply can’t work on television. The formula must be expanded beyond the central hook of ‘Hey, let’s look at what’s inside this cyst’, if only to limit the amount of actual popping to three or four patients per episode. Inevitably, that means more time spent with the patients themselves, hearing the often-agonizing stories of how their conditions affect their lives. One woman has an ever-expanding growth on her shoulder that cannot help but invite worries of it being cancerous. Dr. Lee has great bedside manner, which has always been a strength of her videos, and that is amped up here to give her more airtime as a traditional true-life medical T.V. personality. In fairness, she’s a hell of a lot more charming and empathetic than the creeps on Botched or the snake-oil salesman helming Dr. Oz.
It’s kind of hard to review a show like this. What do you say about a series that’s all about removing lipoma and cysts and streams of blackheads. Nobody watches this show for the editing or the stories or because they’re considering a future career in dermatology: You tune into Dr. Pimple Popper because you want to see pimples get popped. Call it intrigue or voyeurism or good old-fashioned morbid curiosity; you watch this show because of the oddly satisfying twinge seeing a collection of dead skin cells burst out of a lump gives you. You’re probably the kind of person who also has a YouTube history full of earwax extractions and surgery videos. It’s okay, we’re not here to judge.
As someone who has always had bad skin, I get the appeal of this show on a deep level. I have had acne since my tweens, as well as psoriasis that, over the past couple of years, has started to spread quite rapidly across my face. My terrible skin is such a defining part of my life that my sister, in a sweet if misguided attempt to cheer me up as a teen, once said, ‘To be honest, I can’t imagine you without the spots.’ Every skin cream promises relief, as do countless T.V. ads for face wash that use pore-less models who wouldn’t know the meaning of the word ‘whitehead’. Yet throughout the pain and public embarrassment and questions over your personal hygiene (don’t do shit like that, please), it was tough to ignore how the simple act of popping that spot or extracting that burdensome blackhead could bring catharsis to your situation, if only for a little while.
That desire to sink into the sickness of our own bodies is probably the most human trait anyone could have. In a way, Dr. Pimple Popper is the ultimate form of competence porn: A medically trained expert who does the thing you’re always told not to do and does it well! However, this sensation is a hell of a lot easier to experience when you don’t have to think about the person who inhabits said body. You want to watch the big cyst on the person’s face be removed without having to think about how tough it must be for anyone to live with something like that every day. It’s probably for the best that the human element has been added back into these proceedings, but it also can’t help but make the series that much more exploitative in tone. At least the YouTube and Instagram videos had no qualms about why they existed. Now we all get to watch the pus flow and put a name and face to the boil.
Clearly, the audience for this show has stuck with it from YouTube to T.V. and Dr. Pimple Popper has been renewed for a second season. Neither will convert nonbelievers but Dr. Lee’s avid followers are getting exactly what they want.
Header Image Source: TLC
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