I am a very intelligent person. I am currently seeking a degree from one of the top universities in the country. From a young age I was given the great fortune and the great tools to fully engage with a life of the mind. I go to the theater and museums and I hardly ever go to any movie that’s under five hours long and doesn’t feature at least seven orphans, much less one made in my native language. Why is it, then, that the centerpiece of my cultural intake – the thing I look forward to more than anything in the week (and, quite honestly, more than anything in the world) – is a TV show about five (though sometimes four, or six) women who live in New York City (though sometimes New Jersey, or Miami or Atlanta) pulling each others hair out, flipping over tables, and falling slowly but surely into a (usually alcohol-induced) collapse?
The answer is twofold: These shows (generally Bravo’s The Real Housewives of… but also MTV’s Jersey Shore or VH1′s Mob Wives) are ridiculously entertaining, and not just because they are ridiculous. They are well made. They are wrought. The producers of all of these shows deserve credit not just as evil geniuses, but as innovative storytellers. They are artists. Certainly, when you look into the cold, drunken stare of Andy Cohen (Executive Vice President of Development and Talent at Bravo) you know that on one stormy night during his undergraduate career at Boston University, walking home from perhaps a sad exchange in the darkened back room of a club with a name like “Old Mary’s” (I assume that all gay bars in Boston take their names from Irish Homophobia), he came across a man in a trench coat with piercing red eyes and breath that stunk of sulphur, and with that man he made a deal… BUT NONTHELESS, what Cohen has engineered is nothing short of genius. This most recent season of The Real Housewives of New York is a good example. Nothing really… happened (I mean, sure, there are at least two bonafide alcoholics, a mild case of adultery, a rather high-strung lady with one leg and a general case of megalomania all around. But that’s nothing compared to Kelly Bensimon) and yet Cohen, partially with the aide of his talk show Watch What Happens Live (which airs an astonishing five nights a week and generally features the cast of his own shows talking about… what just happened on the show) created a season that I, at least, couldn’t look away from (but then again, IT’S NOT ABOUT ME, IT’S ABOUT THE CHILDREN WITHOUT LEGS.) And that brings us to the second mark of irresistability that The Real Housewives franchise and all others of its ilk bear, the reason these shows have made me jump through emotional hoops the way that a Manet still life or a Shakespeare sonnet never could– I am an asshole. I, despite all of my relative fortune, still all-too-easily find ways to despair in my daily life, to feel inferior and lost and alone, and it is really soothing to watch people who have everything (or at least, great apartments, nice skin and a social capital I generally lack) tear each other apart over someone bringing their husband along on what was supposed to be a “girl’s weekend.”
Do I get into fights with my friends and loved ones? Am I sometimes selfish and unkind? Of course. But do these fights errupt over hundreds of dollars worth of champagne on a boat floating off the shores of St. Bart’s? No, and it’s not that I want to see people going through the anguishing minutiae that I sometimes go through (it’s not that I want to see, for lack of a better word, reality). It’s that it’s nice to know that you can be surrounded with all of the trappings of happiness (perhaps money can’t buy you class, Countess, but it’s certainly hard not to at least crack a smile when you drop a couple hundred bucks on a pair of shoes) and still be miserable, lost and alone. That is enough drama and catharsis and whatnot for me, and I have no problem lining Mr. Cohen’s pockets to shill it out.
This, for years, has existed as a suitable formula for Reality TV– have people of questionable morals do terrible things to each other. That is, until a certain Boo Boo came along.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo could not be a more appropriate title for this riptide of a program that follows seven-year-old Alana Thompson, who first became known to America on Toddler’s and Tiaras as “Honey Boo Boo Child,” an eccentric, caffeine-addicted baby beauty queen who is always “on” and is not afraid to speak her mind. While there is a bit of pageantry in Honey Boo Boo, the show tends to focus on the home life of Alan’s mother, June Shannon (better known as “Mama”) and father, Mike Thompson (“Sugar Bear”) and the four daughters, including Alana, whom they raise in a house next to a train track in McIntyre, Georgia. Little did this country family know (or maybe they knew all too well) that they would totally rock the landscape of reality television.
TLC’s programming has traditionally been softer and more family-oriented than the shows on Bravo, MTV or VH1 (think Say Yes to the Dress– ladies love clothes and shoes and chocolate, but they hate making decisions!). But nothing lasts forever in reality TV Land. Just look at John & Kate Plus 8, which started out as a wholesome show following the lives of John and Kate Gosselin and their struggles (but, weirdly, mostly joys) in raising eight children (one set of sextuplets and one set of twins) That is, until the couple’s very public divorce and the show’s subsequent renaming to Kate Plus 8.
It seemed upon its premiere that there would no doubt be plenty for cynics to revel in on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The show features a pig being kept as a housepet (#teamglitzy), something called the “Redneck Olympics,” a seven-year-old who whose diet consists of cheese balls, Sketti (which is spaghetti cooked up ketchup and Country Crock) and “go-go juice” (a clever mix of Red Bull and Mountain Dew), her 17-year-old sister, eight months pregnant with a child who will ultimately be born with three thumbs, and an obsese 32-year-old grandmother-to-be who obsessively coupons so that she can put her child through the pageant circuit and buy her makeup and a new dress. In all of Mama’s interviews, the cameras take special care to stay rolling as she burps, farts and sneezes through her sentences, which are largely subtitled because her mumbled southern garble is, TLC assumes, a foreign language to its viewers on the coasts. If that doesn’t sum up America, I don’t know what does.
But Honey Boo Boo surprised us. The show managed, in its ten-episode first season, which wrapped up last week, to be one of the most unironic, uncynical shows of its kind. Ultimately, June and Sugar Bear are really good parents who are doing their best to raise four daughters and a grandchild, and their best is actually pretty good. Yes, the idea of child pageantry is nightmarish, but Alana seems to be the exception that proves the rule. She competes in pageants because she has the energy of, well, a seven-year who wakes up every morning to a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew, and as we see on the show she almost never wins. This is, of course, totally fine with June, and after a quick (and adorable) cry it’s even okay with Honey Boo Boo. June may be many things, but a stage mom she is not. Alana certainly does not want for food or love, and you get the sense that if she wanted to quit the whole pageant thing tomorrow, June would be fine with that. (And so would TLC, probably, because Lord knows there would still be enough material for like, at least five more seasons of this shit.)
It’s also important to note the family’s surprising bout of tolerance, as demonstrated by the visit of Sugar Bear’s brother, “Uncle Poodle”, in the season finale. Why is he called Uncle Poodle? Well, because “Alana calls every gay guy a poodle” (of course, it’s not entirely clear how many gay people Alana has actually met.) And why is Honey Boo Boo so excited for Uncle Poodle’s visit? Well, because she wants him to teach her some new dance moves. Because, you know, gay guys– er, sorry, Poodles– are good at that sort of thing. Not totally un-problematic, but touching and surprising nonetheless. Sure, TLC is a TV Channel and its content is probably filtered through the Hollywood types (read: Jews and Gays) who produce it. Any explicit homophobia that might have been displayed by Honey Boo Boo and Company is erased, leaving us only with the child’s proclamation that there “‘Ain’t nothing wrong with being a little gay. Everybody’s a little gay.”
I, for one, was touched. Not only to hear these words (so, okay, they’re not the lyrics to “We Shall Overcome,” but they’re a start) out of this red state child’s mouth, but for the full-on table-flipping (no, not that kind of table-flipping) that TLC had pulled off. Maybe June is a crazy stage mom (she has, after all, put her daughter on TV for public ridicule) Maybe the Honey Boo Boos are horribly bigoted people cooking meth in their basement and using Uncle Poodle as their mule (because … well, I don’t need to make the joke in mixed company) BUT we’ve come to an age where none of that matters. There is no novelty to reality TV anymore, the line between the narratives on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and the narratives on The Wire are basically the same– they both cull from real life to tell a realistic story using the tools of fiction, do they not? So until the awful nature of the Boo Boos outs itself (and I actually have a feeling that it won’t), all we can do is stand in awe of a program that cleverly used a familiar asethetic to, in an age of total cynicism, tell a story that’s ultimately about values and tolerance.
Do I hope that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo totally subverts the house that Real Housewives built, and makes Reality TV nastiness a thing of the past? Absolutely not, sir. But I do think we smartypants in big cities (those Housewives included) should take a step back and examine who the real idiots are.