While I was away, a strange thing happened.
No, the sex scenes on Game of Thrones did not suddenly appear plausible, the work of a mature mind and not some sketchy, loser 16-year-old guy with a serious porn habit. That did not happen.
What happened is that Marjorie Kaplan, group president of the channels TLC and Animal Planet, promised that TLC would abandon what she called "freak show" programming in favour of "programs with heart." She said, "The further the brand went from being The Learning Channel, the harder it got for people to see the purpose."
This caused some cheering in the TV trade press. More weddings and dating shows. More of 19 Kids and Counting. But no more Honey Boo Boo. No more My Husband's Not Gay. Applause, applause.
I beg to differ. What is sneered at as "freak show" programs is often a rare elucidation of the underbelly of American society – the poor, the uneducated, the misguided; the fringe-dwellers who do not aspire to be bourgeois. In the case of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, happy hillbillies cavorting in the mud.
On mainstream TV, you don't see much of American society beyond a narrow band of nice suburban or urban middle-class people. Those on the margins who get attention are there because they aspire to be better, richer, slimmer, more sober and sedate. Watch The Biggest Loser and you see hand-picked contestants being shouted at and derided. By proxy, the viewing audience gets to belittle and deride those who are different.
The widespread contempt for the fat, the poor and the uneducated is a kind of hysteria. It's vitriolic snobbery.
Surely television has multiple roles. One is to distract by entertaining. Another is to open up the dark corners of complex societies. Yet another is to open up closed minds.
Besides, one person's "freak show" TV is another person's cautionary tale. The truth comes out when what appears lovably odd or idiosyncratic is under the relentless glare of the camera.
Some of those charming, rascally rednecks on Duck Dynasty turned out to be stubbornly bigoted, narrow-minded reactionary jerks. Thanks to TV, the charm withered. And as for Honey Boo Boo, yes those who felt there was something slightly disturbing about the Thompson family of McIntyre, in rural Georgia, were correct.
TLC cancelled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo when it was clear that "Mama June" Thompson was dating an ex-boyfriend who had just finished serving prison time for molesting an eight-year-old girl. The disturbing dynamic inside that family and that community, there for the keen-eyed viewer to see, emerged eventually into the cold light.
Perhaps some biases were affirmed, but something terribly wrong was exposed and known. Those critics who called the series "exploitative," or "socially irresponsible," were wrong. It is best to cast a probing spotlight on the underbelly of society, rather than pretending it doesn't exist.
It's a pity that TLC now scorns "freak show" TV. The channel is merely adhering to an orthodoxy about what is acceptable as charming and fun TV. On one hand this shift speaks to an intolerance of those who are different, on the margins. And simultaneously it deprives the audience of seeing ugliness and seeing it for what it is.
TLC's mandate used to be this: "Offering remarkably relatable real-life stories without judgment, the network celebrates the reality that 'everyone needs a little TLC.'" Now it judges and takes away the tender loving care. A strange thing.
Also airing tonight
Airing tonight, Hockey Wives (W, 10 p.m.) reaches its season finale. The gist is this: "Noureen faces the future; Tiffany dishes out the truth." Speaking of freak shows and cautionary tales.
NOVA (PBS, 9 p.m.) is called Nazi Attack on America. It's actually about undersea explorer Bob Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic, investigating the wreck of a German submarine that lies at the bottom of the sea near New Orleans, La. It was part of a U-boat operation aimed at attacking East Coast cities during the Second World War.