Say what you want about the voyeuristic sideshow that is TLC, but the executives at the network have an uncanny knack for tapping into the zeitgeist. A half-decade ago, in the waning days of the real estate bubble, TLC’s line-up was jammed with reality shows about property flipping and home makeovers. Now, more than three years into the Great Recession, their line-up still focuses on the domestic sphere, but it reflects a decidedly warped version of American life, where mundane objects and quotidian habits have become terrifying. The bland DIY shows have been replaced by harrowing programming like I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant, Freaky Eaters, and Hoarding: Buried Alive. “Watch out,” the network seems to be warning us. “Your home could kill you!”
The latest addition to TLC’s domestic carnival is My Crazy Obsession, a series that, as its rather nebulous title suggests, is all about people with peculiar fixations of one sort or another. The first obsessives we meet are Joe and Pat Prosey, a retired Maryland couple who’ve amassed a collection of 5,000 Cabbage Patch Dolls. The second subject is a middle-aged Californian woman named Kitten Kay Sera who is obsessed with the color pink—wearing baby pink from head to toe, renting a pink limousine when she needs to drive, and even consuming all pink foods.
My Crazy Obsession should not to be confused with My Strange Addiction, a show about people who do seemingly inexplicable things like eating laundry detergent and sleeping with hair dryers—and also one lady who’s really into cats. Though I’ve watched an embarrassing amount of My Strange Addiction, I’d be hard-pressed to explain to you how it is different from My Crazy Obsession. I suppose an addiction to a certain substance or behavior is different from an obsession with a particular object, but it’s an awfully blurry distinction—and that’s one of the things I find so problematic about both these shows. They don’t bother to provide context for the “crazy.”
I am going to be upfront with you: There is a lot of programming on TLC that I enjoy, albeit with a kind of morbid fascination. I like 19 Kids and Counting, mostly because I am obsessed by the Duggar clan and their Quiverfull ideology. Then there’s Extreme Couponing, which is basically a reality version of the ‘90s Lifetime game show, Supermarket Sweep: How many free bottles of Electric Raspberry Powerade can stay-at-home mom Sarah score on double-coupon day at Food Lion? I don’t know, but I will definitely be tuning in to find out! Fitting with the times, it's a show that, at least nominally, is about frugality. Only “frugal,” by contemporary standards, means stockpiling candy bars, bags of chips, and gallon bottles of Mountain Dew. It’s just another form of overindulgence.
Intentionally or not, TLC—and, to a lesser extent A&E—knows just what freaks America out. A few months back, Carina Chocano wrote a great piece about the profusion of “stuff”-related reality shows on cable television (the various hoarding shows, but also Storage Wars and Extreme Couponing). She argued that these shows are animated by “the idea that our relationship to our stuff has the potential to distort and derail us.” You could argue that nearly all of the shows on TLC are driven by this same fear of excess, whether it's too many cats, too many kids, or too many wives.
My Crazy Obsession clearly fits into this pattern but, unlike Hoarders or the various copycat shows it’s inspired, it makes no attempt to explain the abnormal behavior it portrays. My Crazy Obsession’s only goal is to convince us that its subjects are “weird,” not to explain why they do what they do. As a result, watching it makes me feel like a nasty fourth grader gawking and pointing at a burn victim at the mall. Not that people like Kitten Kay Sera or Joe and Pat Prosey are mentally unbalanced or disturbed in anyway, necessarily—but if they are, we wouldn’t know it. The show goes to great lengths to catalog the extent of their obsessions, rattling off various lists and statistics. We learn the Proseys have spent a million dollars on Cabbage Patch Dolls and that they live in a 700 square-foot trailer while their “kids” live in a 6,000 square-foot house. The narrator carefully enumerates all the pink objects in Kitten’s cramped apartment, from her pink toothpaste to her pink vacuum cleaner. We also discover that she spends $100 a month dying her dog pink (but don’t worry, she uses beet juice).
There is, however, very little effort made at explaining the origins of these fixations. For instance, we have no idea when or why the Proseys started collecting Cabbage Patch Dolls, when their harmless collection became a full-blown obsession, or whether both spouses are equally compulsive about their habit. These are all questions that would, at least, make all the gawking feel slightly less icky. Likewise, we learn that Kitten’s pink obsession started some 28 years ago after someone complimented her on an all-pink ensemble she was wearing, but that’s it. Whether because of creative or financial restraints—or just good old-fashioned cynicism—TLC doesn’t bother to ask some rather urgent questions.
All three subjects in tonight’s episode seem emotionally stunted and infantile. The Proseys carry “Kevin,” their favorite Cabbage Patch Doll, with them everywhere they go, and Kitten’s apartment looks like a 6-year-old girl’s idea of heaven. (And yes, I’m sure the editing exaggerated these impressions.) You don’t have to be Freud to deduce that there’s something slightly amiss here, but the show leaves these glaringly obvious issues unexamined. Unlike, say, Hoarders, My Crazy Obsession doesn’t even bother with the dark side of things. There are no mental health professionals to be found on the show, and if Kitten or the Proseys’ behavior has led to their social isolation, we certainly don’t hear about it. Even the soundtrack is wacky and whimsical, an aural message that tells us not to take these people seriously. The problem with this show isn’t that it’s exploitative—which it is—but that it’s not actually interested in the human stories behind the obsessions.