Having just returned to America after two years in Taiwan, it's perversely appropriate that one of the first television shows I've come across is an episode of TLC's Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a Toddlers and Tiaras spinoff focused on Alana Thompson, a little princess sassy and trashy enough to rise above a sea of pre-broken angels and become her own meme. (You can watch the first two episodes online following the link above.)
I've never seen Toddlers and Tiaras, but I remember the Honey Boo Boo video that came out a while ago and know a star when I see one. Even by herself, Alana Thompson stands out like the underwear flag poking out of that Texas-sized island of floating plastic. But she's not alone. Her mother, June Thompson, overshadows her literally and figuratively as Alana's proudly massive and crude matriarch. Fun as it to watch Alana, she's merely the frosting on June's cake.
So of course there's a show focusing solely on them, expanding the cast to include their entire family. Alana has three sisters: Lauren ("Pumpkin") 12, Jessica ("Chubs") 15, and pregnant Anna ("Chikadee") 17. On top of that, there's Sugar Bear, a chaw-chomping island of quiet masculinity who keeps his sanity by working seven days a week.
The show fascinates on a couple levels. It has obviously been designed for maximum armchair head shaking at a world gone insane. It's nearly impossible to watch the show and not feel superior to these people -- even if you're one of them, according to the all out lack of self-awareness on display here. (The family even has a mini argument over whether or not they're rednecks. June, Alana, and Sugar Bear say they are. The teenage girls say they aren't. The world says: Holy shit, yes.)
You can see it all over the place. The interview clips end a little later than normal so we can witness all the sneezing, burping, and nose blowing that occurs once someone has finished saying their bit. Exterior shots of the Thompsons' house never fail to feature a train rocking the tracks just beside their bedroom windows. The whole middle segment highlights an annual event called The Redneck Olympics with exploitative glee. Even the decision to subtitle these hicks feels pointed. It's fun but ugly.
But of course, this family is ugly, too, and the show is only possible with their consent and full participation. Capitalizing on their sudden attention, June and Alana in particular seem to understand what people want from them and deliver with gusto. The other three girls don't quite have it down yet, save maybe for fifteen year old Jessica. We barely see or hear from Lauren or Anna because they conduct themselves with near normalcy.
But for all this ugliness, there's an even more interesting dynamic at this show's core. Despite their crudeness, this family really appears to love each other. Their physical hearts may be overburdened and clogged, but their poetic hearts kind of soar. The five ladies just sloth around their house snacking and washing their hair in the sink. There's none of the histrionics or drama you might expect from a set up like this.
Unearned confidence is kind of at the core of the Thompsons' abject exteriors, but maybe there's something to it. With events such as "Bobbing for Pig Feet" and "Mud Pit Bellyflop," The Redneck Olympics seemly exists only to affirm the community's redneck bonafides rather than provide real competition. But you can't deny that everyone's happy. No one really gives a shit about coming in second or anything.
A later segment even brings a little reality to this reality show. Tired of having everyone call her "Chubbs" and "Chubbette," Jessica decides she wants to go on a diet. If you watch the episode (and I believe everyone should, at least for anthropological reasons) notice how accepting June is of her daughter's decision, despite knowing full well she's going to fail. Even more shocking, Lauren asks her mother to diet with her, and June agrees. Now it's Sugar Bear's turn to quietly support a clearly doomed premise, which is the right thing to do.
This whole diet subplot leads to a kind of re-introduction of the family based around watching them all weigh themselves. The numbers revealed inspire everyone to call each other "fat" a lot, but none of it feels mean or spiteful. The lack of negativity on this show is remarkable.
Of course, the obvious next step is to seek out the show's hidden sadness. Look at Sugar Bear, for instance. An almost note-for-note recreation of perhaps my favorite Bob Odenkirk character, Sugar Bear literally works every day of his life to support these five hungry hungry hippos (like a lot of modern culture, this whole show seems like a Mr. Show sketch blown up to by SNL exaggeration, which makes its reality that much more perplexing). Sugar Bear is so weary that at one point a daughter has to smack him awake on the interview couch (which is clearly not inside the family's house). It's not so obvious in this episode, but later Sugar Bear brings home a pet pig, and the way he talks about it reveals an extremely sweet, lovable man, clearly burdened financially by his wife's insistence that his daughter win beauty pageants.
Also note how Alana introduces her family at the beginning of the episode. She calls Lauren "The Craziest," and she calls Anna "The Pregnant-ist," but she calls Lauren her favorite, "She's my BFF." This will become more apparent when she receives her pet pig in episode two, but Alana does not have any friends, or seemingly any human contact outside her own home. While I think she lives in a positive, if physically self-destructive-household, she also seems sheltered and lonely. Furthermore, Alana's the only daughter burdened with this pageantry stuff, and the near inevitable future we imagine for her (at the pageant we find out her ambition is "to be anything she can choose.") weighs down the kind of humor the show strives for by focusing on her penchant for bunching up the fat on her belly as she speaks.
By giving us a look at one of Alana's mini-pageants (sort of a warm up for the real deal) the episode's final segment brings this sadness to the forefront. I don't know if this was a blatant part of her Toddlers and Tiaras appearance or not, but Alana is no champion. She's a loser in a loser's "sport," which is about as pathetic as you can get. The whole idea of prepubescent beauty pageants may be ridiculous and abject, but these other girls come to play, while Alana seems lost and completely out of her league. With her soft, protruding tummy and forced, white trash snarl/smile Honey Boo Boo takes to being "beautimous" the way a wheelchair bound geriatric might take to a dancing competition. Meanwhile, the other girls look positively bone-able.
So what is this show about, really? It's far too obviously manipulated by editors to really stand as a sign of cultural end times. And you kind of want to root for this family of pigs once you realize they recognize and celebrate their own filth (June and Alana anyway, Lauren's wish to diet kind of betrays this a bit). We're taught at a young age to accept who we are and be ourselves. I suppose the Thompsons provide an illustration of that mindset taken too far, but you have to kind of covet their success. Truly not giving a shit takes dedication and probably results in a more fun -- albeit much shorter -- life, so long as we don't consider June and Sweet Bear's lovemaking limitations.
Like a lot of reality shows (admittedly, from the little I've seen of the genre) the point-and-laugh surface of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo loses some of that appeal when we recognize its tragic elements. This Honey Boo Boo girl has some hard knocks ahead of her, and her happy but lonely and indulgent home life is not going to make those knocks any easier. The only hope she really has is for her seriously persistent stupidity to mask the truths of the world long enough for her inevitable heart attack.
Either way, she's an anomaly exceptional enough to land on television. The sign of our intellectual demise comes not from the handful of rare beasts on display but the multitude of average chumps who spend their free time wallowing in the Thompsons' filth merely to verify their own superiority. Chumps like me!