The theme song of TLC’s Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a fart. Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s about four seconds of guitar noodling as the camera pans down to the Thompson family of Georgia, posed cheerfully in front of their house, until the tranquillity is broken by a loud, sound-effect BRAAAAP! that we’re meant to believe is issued from “Mama” June, the family matriarch. (The two episodes that TLC premiered Wednesday night used two different fart sounds in the sequence. Maybe it’ll be the equivalent of The Simpsons‘ couch gag.) And … roll the opening titles. America, meet your new family-comedy royalty!
Honey Boo Boo is nominally a spinoff of TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, the horrifying judgmentfest about child beauty pageants and the sugar-buzzed girls and obsessive parents who populate them. “Honey Boo Boo” is the self-given nickname of Alana Thompson, a 6-year-old ball of corn syrup and ambition who minted poetic, unsettling catchphrases like “A dolla’ makes me holla!” (Another quasi–Toddlers spinoff, Eden’s World, aired on Logo earlier this year.) So that’s “Honey Boo Boo” as in: “Girls must be crazy if they think they’re gonna beat me honey boo boo child!”
But the pageants are secondary in Honey Boo Boo, which is less like Toddlers and Tiaras than it is a reality-show version of The Fatties: Fart Two, the Klumps-like fartsploitation movie-within-a-movie starring Jack Black’s character in Tropic Thunder. The real focus is gawking at the redneck-and-proud world of the Thompsons, who buy pork rinds and cheese balls in bulk, discuss passing gas as a weight-loss strategy (I did not make that up) and have their dialogue subtitled throughout — sometimes necessarily, sometimes just to mockingly reinforce how alien they are.
Just in case you didn’t get that, in the first episode, the Thompsons visit the Redneck Games, an annual party/competition in South Georgia that June says is “similar to the Olympics but with a lot of missing teeth and a lot of butt cracks showing.” Her comparison is more dead-on than you might think: the Games were started in conjunction with the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as an in-joke about the kind of Olympics the outside world might think the South would put on, complete with mud-pit belly flops and bobbing for raw pig trotters.
Honey Boo Boo basically serves up this image for 21st century reality TV, minus the knowing satire. If you ever need a mental image of what it looks like when the boundary between ironic self-parody and the actual embrace of a stereotype collapses, it is a teenage girl dunking her head in a plastic tub to snap up an animal’s severed foot.
The show is like the long-lost collaboration of Flannery O’Connor, Mike Judge and Larry the Cable Guy, sometimes lovingly tweaking the family, sometimes serving them and their community up — belly flab, teen pregnancies and all — as object lessons of American decline. There is probably no other ethnic group in America TLC could caricature so blatantly and get away with it. Next to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Jersey Shore is The Godfather II, The Real Housewives of New York City a John Updike novel.
That’s the show’s selling point: holy crap, would you look at these people! And yet, while I was creeped out by the way Honey Boo Boo was framing the family and presenting them to us, I couldn’t help loving the Thompsons themselves. The real focus of the series is not Alana so much as June, pageant mom and extreme couponer, who — her gas-passing introduction notwithstanding — turns out to be dryly funny and self-aware enough to know what viewers are probably thinking of her. “You like us or you don’t like us,” she says. “We just don’t care.”
It’s the just-don’t-caring that’s infectious. (In this way, Honey Boo Boo recalls another video-phenomenon honey, the honey badger. Honey badger don’t care.) The Thompsons have already been on TV, and they’re clearly smart enough to know how people perceive a show like Toddlers and Tiaras, and yet they show an unalloyed joy in a life of junk food and dress-up. They are who they are, memorably and unapologetically. At one point in the Redneck Games, Alana joins in the mud-pit flopping, and it’s a fantastic image: an overexcited little girl TV star in a beauty-pageant sash jumping up and down in a wallow of mud. USA! USA! USA!
Alana herself is unfiltered, competitive and vivaciously mouthy. Told by June that she can’t swim in a river crowded with people because of the posted danger of bacteria (“I would prefer my kids not to be in the redneck bathtub”), she shouts at the swimmers: “I hope y’all are getting that flesh-eating disease! I’ll laugh!”
But overall, she has a kind of sassy sweetness to her. In the second episode, she gets a pet teacup pig as consolation for losing a pageant and decides to dress him as a girl, which she says will make him gay. The ensuing argument with her older sister is both ridiculous and oddly wise in a 6-year-old way: “It’s not gonna be gay.” “Yes it is, because we’re making it a girl pig! And it’s actually a boy pig!” “O.K., but it’s not gonna be gay.” “It can if it wants to. You can’t tell that pig what to do.”
You can’t tell that pig what to do. See, you can look at that scene, like you can most of Honey Boo Boo, several ways. You can laugh at the intensity of Alana’s conviction that she’s right. You can tut-tut at the gender-role signals this pageant girl must be getting to conclude that you can “make” someone or something gay by dressing it in girl clothes. But you can also see something kind of remarkable in it: a little country girl, whatever confusion and misinformation she has in her mind, fervently arguing a teacup pig’s right to determine its own sexual identity.
Now, I’ve watched enough reality TV to know that, if I see the Thompsons transcending Honey Boo Boo‘s mocking format, it’s because TLC has edited the show to allow me to see that. And I’ve watched too much reality TV to presume that, by watching TLC’s edited picture, I can discern which aspects of the Thompsons are “real” and which are a performance. (Is June being honest when she tells her teen daughter, who wants to diet, that she’s “happy with [her]self,” or when after later weighing in at 309 lb., she says she wishes she could lose weight?)
But there’s enough in Honey Boo Boo to see what the producers feel will be the attraction of the show — the train-wreck, freak-show aspects — and to be creeped out by that assumption. In the second episode, for instance, there’s a typically reality-staged sequence in which the Thompsons “decide” to sign their daughters up for etiquette lessons with an Atlanta teacher. Because imagine them trying to act like proper mannered gentlefolk! Hilarity must ensue! When the family loads up on junk food at a discount “food auction,” banjo music plays. During an interview, when June has a lengthy sneezing fit, the camera lingers on her as if she’s a bear being pestered by bees in a nature documentary.
At moments like that, Honey Boo Boo is most uncomfortable to watch. But more disturbing, when you think about them, are some of the ways in which the show makes it comfortable to laugh — in particular, when June visits the Redneck Games and cracks wise on her heavier, more uncouth fellow attendees: “Women that are of voluptuous size — put some clothes on. All that vagiggle-jaggle is not beautimous.” Because June turns out to be sharp and observant — and a wizard at lyrical coinages — she gives you permission to laugh at those other rednecks, further down the hierarchy of redneckitude. Because hey, even she’s laughing at them! It’s cool!
Which might lead you to say the Thompsons are being used in Honey Boo Boo. I don’t know if that’s true; they seem savvy and happy enough, they’re getting paid, and I’m not sure they’re so unaware of, or concerned with, how TLC viewers are perceiving them. The depressing thing, really, is the TLC viewers, or rather, the way the show seems to assume that those viewers will look at this family and the world.
I don’t feel sorry for the Thompsons. But for me — for the presumed me, anyway, that some producer anticipated laughing and gasping and tweeting OMG, shaking his head smugly at an America full of people getting pregnant too soon and putting their toddlers on display and stuffing themselves with fried pigskins and wallowing in the bacterial rivers of a ruined landscape? I feel sorry for that guy.