Since, say, the end of Roseanne, popular television has shown America what it wants to be: the affluent urbanites of NBC’s Must-See lineup from Frasier to Friends, not a one of them worried about making the rent; the doctors and lawyers of an endless parade of hourlong dramas; even the wealthy “Housewives” who migrated from an ABC soap (where they were Desperate) to Bravo unscripted TV (where they were Real) without losing a single spangle off their miniskirts.
You don’t get much more real than Mama June, who was revealed to have once been arrested for contempt of court stemming from a charge regarding an older daughter’s child support. But she’s handled the press revelations with characteristic savoir-faire and minimal rumination, owning up to a past mix-up and moving past it.
While young Alana may not quite realize it—or care—her popularity heralds a welcome validation of a long-term strategic shift for the network she calls home. The onetime “Learning Channel” has, over time, morphed into a window onto the surprisingly bizarre lives of everyday Americans—or maybe onto the surprisingly mundane lives of various cultural outliers. Whatever it is, it’s working.
Not for TLC are those outsized, high-living housewives of Bravo or the garish, entitled Kardashians. Everything about TLC’s various hit series is fundamentally normal—but for one little twist. For instance, the typical suburban mom at the center of the program may have eight kids and is undergoing a divorce, as with Jon and Kate Plus Eight’s Kate Gosselin, the network’s first true breakout star. Or the suburban mom may be a national politician who unwinds by felling the odd caribou, as with Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Or she practices polygamy, as on Sister Wives. Or belongs to a small religious sect (Breaking Amish), or has weddings just a bit more over-the-top than the ones to which we’re accustomed (My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding) or conducts breezy chats with the dead (Long Island Medium).
Whatever their unusual lifestyle situations, what these characters have in common is their wonderful banality. Honey Boo Boo is at once TV’s only utterly normal child (sorry, Modern Family kids, but you’re in the uncanny valley) and its greatest comic creation. Her self-acceptance is practically revolutionary. (At one point she reminds her mother to be sure and spray the tan-in-a-can “under my fat roll.” Lena Dunham couldn’t have said it better.)
After four years of economic stagnation, it’s starting to look like aspiration has lost its sparkle. While the flailing broadcast networks continue to focus on unreasonably wealthy and sophisticated young adults (even CBS’s 2 Broke Girls live in a nice loft), cable has increasingly showcased characters whose financial struggles mirror those of their audiences. Walter White only “breaks bad” and begins cooking and selling meth because he lacks the money to pay his medical bills and support his family. When the once-chic idlers on Downton Abbey face the Great War, they do so in the spirit of shared sacrifice, allowing their dresses to go out of fashion and their house to be overrun with soldiers. The Girls of HBO are all underemployed, and Hannah can’t even count on her parents’ support anymore. And even the surface aesthetic comforts of Mad Men paper over the fact that its central protagonist was born a poor farm boy and faked it till he made it. Dick Whitman became Don Draper; Alana Thompson became Honey Boo Boo. Both have achieved the American dream, but Don Draper’s is flavored with ennui. Maybe he just needs to take a trip due South.
How did we find this angel? Reality TV, at least on TLC, wasn’t always so in tune with the zeitgeist. “The management prior had moved toward a formatted, contrived, celebrity-oriented area,” said said Ms. O’Neill, the TLC/Discovery executive (the corporate siblings are based in Silver Spring, Md.). Jon and Kate were the key to a whole new strategy. In 2008, when the suburban Pennsylvania pair were plucked from TLC’s corporate partner Discovery Health and their show’s title changed from Surviving Sextuplets and Twins, they became personalities and not just medical test cases. When Jon and Kate announced they were separating, the show set the all-time record for TLC programming, with 10.9 million viewers, despite the fact that, sadly, the split wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary for the American family.
The “old TLC” spotlighted home decor, clothing and weddings (some examples, like What Not to Wear and Say Yes to the Dress, endure). But shows like A Baby Story and A Wedding Story, which feature a different cast enacting essentially the same 30-minute narrative on each episode, don’t ring nearly as true as Honey Boo Boo heaving herself down the “redneck slip ’n’ slide” or Theresa Caputo, with her blonde bob and long French-tip nails, delivering a spontaneous psychic reading on a strip-mall sidewalk.
TLC’s programming has not been universally embraced. Some viewers find it exploitative and crass. The Hollywood Reporter’s Tim Goodman called Honey Boo Boo “peculiarly reprehensible,” even by the standards of “this country’s most socially irresponsible channel.” Time critic James Poniewozik referred to the series as “fartsploitation,” noting banjo music cues he found insulting, and claimed that an unnamed TLC producer was “shaking his head smugly” at the Thompson family. (He had praise, though, for the wit and charm of Honey Boo Boo herself, and her “Coupon Queen” mother.)
TLC’s general manager Amy Winter dismissed such criticisms. “We’re not mean-spirited in our approach with people on our air and the content we have,” she told The Observer. “There’s a distinction between making fun of people and having fun with people. For the most part, if there’s some sort of comedy or something humorous, the people involved in that realize that there’s something funny in that.”
Maybe it’s the critics who are condescending, then, in refusing to recognize that the series’ subjects are in on the joke.
“The way that we appeal to our audience—we appeal to the type of person who is curious about lives that are unlike theirs,” said Ms. Winter. “They’re open-minded and open-hearted about that. Going into gypsy culture, to a family of polygamists, family from rural Georgia—you have to be intrigued and curious, because there’s something very different about each of the characters. Once you dig in, people do fall in love.”
Sooner or later, they have to. As the deeply perceptive Mama June—who washes her hair in the sink but still thinks she’s looking good—said after an etiquette coach proposed remaking the family into one befitting a future Miss America, “I think that she’s what we call a ‘square,’ and we’re kind of like a lopsided, obtuse, triangle, oval all put together like a, like a deformed shape.”
So too, right now, is the squeezed, stressed-out and now waterlogged TV viewer. Alana isn’t likely to become Miss America. But for a role model with an unshakable belief in her own potential, our down-in-the-dumps electorate could do a lot worse than this kooky 6-year-old.
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