Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Suffering Channel

"It's sad, you know?  Honey Boo Boo just keeps getting fatter."

So sums up what we learn from The Learning Channel's (TLC) second season of its hit show.  Children fed steady diets of sketty (one part Country Crock(tm) + one part ketchup + one part noodles), exploitation and child pageants  tend to pack on chub and disillusionment at an alarming rate.  The show's trajectory must certainly veer toward darkness:  those watching in 2030 will perhaps see the last episode in America's big former little darling's story--sketty-clogged aorta blockage, death at 32 years old, and the hoisting of her piano case coffin into the earth.

It's a good bet America will continue to eat up Mama Jean's sketty sauce.  It's damned fine entertainment.  On August 29, 2012 more people in the 18-49 age demographic watched Honey Boo Boo--over 3 million of us--than watched the Republican National Convention.  Honey Boo Boo's success might well be responsible for Romney's failure, since the very demographic that had voted for George W., roused by Honey Boo Boo, was insufficiently roused to vote for Romney.

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is just one example of TV's new direction.  Ten years ago David Foster Wallace imagined a fictional channel devoted entirely to human failure and misery.  Wallace calls it (and the story) The Suffering Channel (TSC), but I dare anyone to differentiate today's very real TLC today from Wallace's fictional TSC.

TLC has sent its cameras out to all corners of, mostly, America, to bring us scenes of human failure and suffering through reality shows about human misery:
  • I Eat 33,000 Calories a Day
  • I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant
  • The Man Who Lost His Face, and 
  • Best Funeral Ever.  
Their most startling show is called "The Man With the 132 Pound Scrotum."  No joke.
Timothy Rugg appears in the TLC special, "The Man with the 132 lb. Scrotum." (TLC)
These are real shows about, ostensibly, real people.  These shows are driven by the desires of millions of viewers.  TLC may have once been about learning, but these days it's about big balls, big butts, and beauty pageants.

That's one of Wallace oversights, one instance where his vision was not quite dark enough.  He knew we'd have a channel devoted to human idiocy, but he didn't foresee that we'd have the audacity to call it The Learning Channel (TLC).

A clip from Johnny Knoxville's forthcoming film, one of these Borat-like creations in which semi-fictional characters blunder into semi-real people and settings, made me think about all this.  Starting at 1:30, you see Knoxville as an old man persuading his grandson to don a wig, enter a beauty contest, and win the prize money.
When "Cherry Pie" comes on and the boy dressed as a girl disrobes, reaches for the American-flag topped stripper pole, and is the lucky recipient of Knoxville's "making it rain," the audience at the pageant registers shock, but it's the movie audience who get the real joke.  The kid's not laughable, the pageant audience is.

Thankfully, I ride a bike.  I don't need to catch my suffering on TV.

Many of the problems Wallace and others worried about--is media stripping us of empathy? focus? health?--don't seem as pressing to me.  Of course, I can worry about others (that, after all, is the prerogative of age), but if I lack empathy, I don't have Honey Boo Boo or "The Man With the 132 Pound Scrotum" to blame.

On my bike an hour or two a day, I usually whisk on by: the homeless, the lost tourist, the accident victim, the drunk wandering home, the motorcade, the flattened rat corpse, the sights of Washington DC, where I live.  Easy as it is to pass without feeling, it is somehow a more human distance than a television or even the windshield through which most folks view the city. 


Fatmarc Vanderbacon said...

well done.


Iris Mallemarok said...

Yes to this many thousands of times.