Everything That’s Wrong with TLC

(and you and me, for watching it)

Scrolling through the “TLC Casting” website is uncomfortable. It would make you feel uncomfortable even if it were a casting call for fictitious roles, but it isn’t. They’re looking for real people to cast for their really popular Reality TV programs. It’s not your run-of-the-mill casting call; TLC is looking for bona fide pregnant teens, genuine Young-Grandmothers-To-Be, and sincere polygamists who are looking to add a sister wife. Do you have a rash, psoriasis, or undiagnosed skin condition? If you’re afflixion is sufficiently worthy of being gawked at, you might be the perfect candidate for Dr. Pimple Popper.

“Now, TLC doesn't stand for anything”

TLC is an acronym that used to stand for — no joke — “The Learning Channel.” Yes, the network that now airs a bizarre plethora of numerically titled shows, including My 600 lbs Life and 7 Little Johnstons, used to be a channel devoted to education and learning. Now, TLC doesn’t stand for anything. Instead, the network focusses on programming centered around heterodox lifestyles and disfunctional family life.

No wonder “Life Surprises” has been its guiding slogan since 2008.

Watching an episode of a TLC show can produce almost unbearable feelings of cringe. Take SMothered, a program about “Extremely Close & Over The Top Moms & Daughters,” as a case study. In one episode, a mother/daughter pair decides to do photoshoot together … in the nude. Then they proceed to gift a framed photo of themselves naked together to their incredulous father/ex-husband. The father/ex-husband dutifully performs shock and disapproval for the camera. It’s weird, but kind of amusing. What’s weirder, however, is the father’s reaction posted on his daughter’s Instagram: he’s glued to the TV, eating chicken wings, gawking at himself. At one point you can hear him say something like, “Damn, I look good.”

The way his vanity so quickly overshadows his sense of morality and paternal duty made me wonder why people subject themselves to being on Reality TV in the first place. Is it, to quote Ecclesiastes, all vanity? My initial reaction after watching these people is to feel bad for them. How else can you react when you watch a man have to use Google Translate to tell his pregnant Brazilian fiancé that he was once convicted of arson and terrorism? The way their personal problems and individuals foibles are shamelessly put on exhibition for our entertainment makes me want to conclude that these people are being exploited. But that’s not the whole story, because these people have also consented to exploit themselves. Many of them also appear to enjoy their own exhibitionism. To varying degrees, they all want to be watched. And since they have made themselves objects of attention, don’t they now deserve to be criticized, mocked, and laughed at?

But perhaps their motivations aren’t entirely cynical. Maybe these people instead thought it would be smart or fun or mentally healthy to become reality television characters? I find this hard to fathom, but it’s possible?

A part of me suspects that people who sign up to go on Reality TV are not as stupid or outrageously self-centered as one might think, they’re just really naive. They mistakenly buy into the fallacy that they will somehow portray themselves in a way that’s different from everyone else whose ever pretended to be real on TV. They’ll be the exception, not the rule. Only after they see themselves on the show must they realize how easy it is for an editor to cut clips and portray however they want.

What’s weird about most shows on TLC, however, is that the reason people watch them seems to be different from other reality TV shows like The Challengeor The Bachelor. Those programs at least feature contestants engaged in a competition ultimately vying for some kind of prize. But most of the shows on TLC have no real objective at all - it’s pure exhibition. Moreover, unlike shows like The Hills, where you might watch so you can fantasize about one day being rich, beautiful and famous yourself, these shows aren’t made so that the viewer can identify with the characters. On the contrary, these shows are watched because they produce feelings of dissociation and antagonism. TLC is like catnip for that part of the human condition that feels compelled to judge others hypercritically. Pregnant teens and sister wives and unfortunate people with horn-like cysts exist on the most distant margins of society. As such, they’re the easiest people for a “normal person” to look at and think: Thank God I’m not that person. I’m not a psychologist, but I think this is called “projection.”

TLC is not quite a cable TV freakshow as much as it is a vehicle for a perverse kind of catharsis. After all, each show provides its own flavor of self-assurance for viewers with different needs. For the demographic who watches the pregnant teen stuff, both the teenagers and parents can say: well, at least I (or my kids) haven’t fucked up that badly. No matter what your relationship is with your parents, anybody can watch SMothered and feel reaffirmed in believing they have a more normal relationship with their family. All romantic relationships have varying degrees of conflict, tension and weirdness, but when you watch 90 Day Fiancé, it’s easy to leave an episode thinking you have a stable marriage. These shows are captivating in the same way a car crash is captivating. I think the psychological tension fueling viewers can be best epitomized by a comment on a YouTube clip from an episode of Dr. Pimple Popper — Angela asks: “Who else found this disgusting yet carried on watching?”

I think a more pressing question is: should we be watching? Is this weird symbiosis of exhibitionism and psychological projection good for anyone? I don’t know. Probably not. If I had to offer an answer, I’d say you’d be better served watching or doing something else. It seems likely that repeated adventures in voyeurism are unhealthy. And even if TLC isn’t you dumber, it definitely isn’t making you smarter.-

Writer-at-Large. Canadian, but I contain multitudes. Twitter : @christwebs

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