Dignity is a privilege. Life would be far prettier if it weren’t. But the word “civilized,” for example, is a tricky one—a word that implies both running water and flush toilets as well as genteel manners and refined taste. Wealth, more often than not, begets education, and education (so the Bible would tell us) teaches us shame. Television is typically about the highest echelons of American society—the upper middle class, or even the upper-upper middle class. The shows that aren’t about that class often are singled out by critics, because otherwise television is a playground of Pottery Barn interiors and polished manicures. Aspirational television isn’t terrible, but it’s a little tiresome after the fourteenth shot of Italian espresso and yet another inexplicably massive kitchen, impressively decked out with granite countertops. In the past season of television, some of the most refreshing moments have been shows and characters frankly acknowledging the mundane frustrations around money that plague most of us. On The Good Wife, Kalinda, Alicia, and Cary all vied for salary increases. On Shameless, Fiona clawed her way into a middle-class wage job so she could move up from her menial job cleaning out roach-infested apartments. On The Middle, Frankie Hecht puts herself through dental hygienist school to have a shot at a better life.
Look: Nobody wins on reality television—it’s a medium designed to make everyone look as bad as possible, a theatre of state-sanctioned casual exploitation. Practically every reality show has some element of horror buried under the sound effects and smash cuts. Even the most enjoyable ones trade on manipulation. So there’s no doubt that Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is both exploitative and even reprehensible; it comes with the territory of reality programming. TLC, Honey Boo Boo’s home network, has made an art of walking the line between sympathy and contempt for its own characters, whether that’s on Breaking Amish or Say Yes To The Dress. It’s a frustrating dichotomy—because essentially TLC is saying that it wants it both ways. It wants to be able to make fun of its subjects, culled from the most obscure corners of America. But it also wants to sympathize with them, drawing us into their experience of love and life, only to then expose it as ridiculous.
This is clearly its modus operandi for Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the spinoff of Toddlers And Tiaras that aired its second-season première tonight. On one hand, the producers are clearly charmed by Honey Boo Boo herself, a seven-year-old named Alana Thompson who says the most outrageous things, statements that are absurd and true and funny, all at the same time. Charmed, and horrified. Who is this loud, chubby (it must be said), Southern-accented pageant contestant?
If Alana is reality television gold, her family is the goldmine; the source of her power, as it were. Her family is unusually crass and disjointed; they are overweight, slovenly, and crude, what Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas might call “raw as hell.” They are also, obviously, dirt-poor. “Mama” (33-year-old June Shannon) is raising five girls from four different fathers more or less on her own, though current beau Sugar Bear is gradually becoming a fixture in the Thompson house. They are so poor that they eat roadkill, as is demonstrated in “Mo’ Butter Mo’ Better.” They are probably desperate for the money offered to them by TLC for the production of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo; five is a lot of children, after all.
Let’s momentarily read between the lines. Mama Shannon had her first, Anna, when she was 15 or 16 years old, judging by their current ages; her eyesight is terrible, but uncorrected, probably because she cannot afford optical care. Sugar Bear is not father to all the children, but seems to genuinely appreciate the presence of the other girls, except when he wants occasional alone time with his “woman.” Admittedly, we are not privy to much of the internal lives of the six Shannon-Thompson girls, but the four that can speak seem remarkably happy. Good-natured, amused, able to get along with each other, surprisingly open and able to trust. There is not an angry daughter, though 12-year-old Pumpkin sometimes does like to yell. There is not a sad daughter or an ignored daughter, as far as we can tell.
Generally speaking, the Shannon-Thompsons are a family of unbridled joy. This might be the strangest part of their fame. Not only are they shameless in their poverty and destitution, but they’re also happy with it. It’s their very comfort with their “redneck” or “honkey” ways that is so appalling and appealing to the viewing audience. TLC’s way of estranging the Shannon-Thompsons from the rest of America is so obviously manipulative that it’s almost funny. As Ryan McGee wrote in his pointed review of the pilot, the Shannon-Thompsons are totally subtitled—as if they are speaking in a language—when of course they’re not—but in fact, they kind of are. There’s a distance being established between you and the Shannon-Thompsons, and the more disgusted you are by them, the more TLC is accomplishing its mission. Is it exploitation if subjects in question don’t quite care as to whether or not they’re exploited? I am not quite sure. It’s unlikely that the Shannon-Thompsons would find anything inaccurate or embarrassing about their portrayal on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—they seem about as aware as anyone is of the indignities of their life. But in many respects, the joke’s on us; they’re getting paid to be themselves, perhaps with some added hamming up for the camera (a talent the women of the family seem to have in spades), and they seem to like themselves just fine.
Disliking Here Comes Honey Boo Boo seems to be an exercise in fear. Fear that the Shannon-Thompsons are not that different from the rest of us. I doubt that a few decades ago Mama Shannon’s desperate means for feeding her children would have been quite so uncommon; probably in a few years someone or other will be romanticizing the idea of eating roadkill as a cruelty-free, economical practice. And yes, they are obtuse. Wildly hypocritical, certainly undereducated, probably flirting with diabetes. But otherwise they do not seem to be much else except humans struggling to survive in dire circumstances.
I am not afraid of Honey Boo Boo; nor do I think anyone needs to be. She is an outspoken, sassy girl who has been encouraged to speak her mind. She appears to be happy, as do the rest of her sisters (if that’s all farce, then this review needs to be revisited). There’s a surprising amount of joy embedded in the second season première of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—a joy that manifests itself in amateur and semi-professional wrestling, go-karts, recreational farting, and, well, a slip’n’slide made entirely of margarine… and other vegetable-based oils. It’s unabashedly gross and crass, but it’s also funny enough, if you like fart jokes and clever words from a seven-year-old. They’re filthy and weird, yes. But in their infuriating shamelessness, they call out the shameless ham in all of us.
- This is one of those shows that defies grading. I do not know how to explain this show as a “B” —it could plausibly be almost any grade, because the quality is almost secondary to the phenomenon of the show itself. I know that's frustrating, and I'm sorry to be vague.
- The daughters are, in order: Anna, called “Chickadee,” 18; Jessica, called “Chubbs,” 16; Lauryn, called “Pumpkin,” 12; Alana, called “Honey Boo Boo,” 7; Kaitlyn, called Baby Kaitlyn, 1. Their last names are either Thompson or Shannon, and I don’t quite know what the logic is there. Apparently, in this season, Sugar Bear will ask Mama to marry him.
- There was a “Watch ’n’ Sniff” contest that accompanied the premiere. It was very confusing. Given the subject matter of the show, I would not have felt comfortable scratching and sniffing when the screen prompted me to.
- A “Cup-Of-Fart” is a thing that is invented. I'll let you figure it out for yourself.