When parents tell their children they are unique, they are most likely lying to create some touchy-feely sense of self. When Brittany and Abby Hensel’s parents told their children they were one in a million, they were being literal.
The Hensels are sisters who share a lower half. Regular TLC viewers should be familiar with Abby and Brittany, who have had two documentaries made about their lives, in addition to a Life magazine cover and an Oprah appearance when they were 6. The first documentary when they were 11 was meant to introduce the pair to the world. Another doc caught up with the sisters when they were 16. It climaxed with Abby and Brittany getting their driver’s licenses. They had to take the test twice to each get a license despite driving a car in the same way they accomplish most tasks: through an uber-coordinated division of labor.
TLC has a difficult balancing act when it comes to documenting the lives of Abby and Brittany. Abide the audience's’ curiosity and risk turning the sisters into a freak show to be gawked at, such as other TLC offerings like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (although, that’s faced its own backlash), or risk creating a false sense of normalcy around two women who don’t share that definition with the general populace. It’s even part of the opening sequence: “This is the story of our normal, regular life,” the sisters say in unison. “Well, our normal conjoined life.” When does documentary end and entertainment begin?
This question may have fed into why TLC has pulled back from promoting the show, failing to enter it on to its press site and having the stars give limited interviews, probably because of the invasive (and valid, yet invasive) questions publications would ask.
But any controversy surrounding the show before it aired about how the producers might portray Abby and Brittany is largely unfounded. Their indefatigable positivity is at the center of the show, and their normalcy is the main narrative. Abby is the louder, more outspoken one of the two, while Brittany is the chiller, more go-with-the-flow sister (if only evidenced by her preference for wavy hair). Abby controls the right side of their body, while Brittany controls the left. Their lives are a series of compromises and negotiations. When they drink coffee, for example, Brittany’s heart starts to race, while Abby feels fine. Their dexterity is marvelous to watch in action.
The repeated overtones of normality worked during the hour-long documentaries when they were kids, but feel shallow now that they’re adults and have made the decision to have cameras follow them around for an eight-week limited series. In the premiere episode, they get ready for their 22nd birthday party by baking a cake. Sure, that’s normal, but basic confectionary skill doesn’t make for compelling television.
Abby and Brittany attend Bethel University, a small Christian college in Minnesota, where they major in elementary education with a focus in math. But in the first two episodes, they seem to live in a bubble. Their friends and roommates acknowledge how difficult the Hensels’ lives must be, but there are no examples of the stares from strangers because we don’t see anyone outside of the sisters’ circle, aside from a waiter or a manicurist who was surely prepped before appearing on camera.
Still, it’s fascinating to watch Abby and Brittany simply operate their shared body and discuss the logistics of their lives in the same way that the initial documentaries were compelling. Not only do they finish each other’s sentences, but they often speak in unison, creating an odd sort-of chorus when they talk to both their friends and in the confessional interviews. In the second episode, they travel to Houston for a job interview (which we unfortunately don’t get to see), and go shopping for interview clothes. “I love this,” Abby says about a red ensemble. “But I don’t need it,” Brittany replies. Watching other people shop has never, and probably will never again, make for such compelling television.
But as their friends say, after a while they forget that the girls are conjoined twins, and the novelty of watching the Hensels do banal things like bake can only extend so far. Ordinary might be extraordinary in real life, but it has almost never made for compelling TV.