The television show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is the chronicle of a precocious young woman, a child of relative wealth and an aspiring writer, who along with three close friends explores the emotional contours of twentysomething life in Brooklyn, New York. It has been alternately lauded and mocked for its frank approach to gender, body type, and sex.
No, that's not right.
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is a reality show about a young girl and her family in McIntyre, Georgia, a town of fewer than 1,000 people near Milledgeville, where Flannery O'Connor spent the last 14 years of her life. It airs on a network whose acronym, one or two critics have pointed out, stands for "The Learning Channel." Its characters, in addition to the titular Boo Boo—real name Alana Thompson, age seven—include several of her sisters, their mother, the mother's boyfriend (now husband, since the seasons' interregnum; wedding colors were camo and hunter orange), and an orbit of guest characters, who in the first season included an etiquette coach, Miss Georgia 2011, a gay uncle, and a teacup pig, who Alana decided was also gay. The show hasn't received as many critical accolades as Lena Dunham's Girls, but it boasts many more fart jokes, not to say actual farts. (I mean, I assume. I haven't actually seen Girls.)
It seems at least somewhat likely that "fart" will be a featured smell on TLC's "Watch & Sniff" cards, ten million of which the network arranged to insert into issues of People and Us Weekly ahead of the second-season premiere this week, the idea being that, at appointed moments during the show, viewers will scratch their cards and immerse themselves in the olfactory environment of its characters. So we see the network's approach toward its shockingly popular commodity hasn't much evolved. We are still well within the spirit of pure exploitation.
Exploitation looked to be the show's spirit at its premiere last August, but somewhere along the line that began to seem less of an inevitability. A funny thing happened: the characters transcended the format, and they kept doing that, all through the season. But how long can it last?
Honey Boo Boo is a spin-off of the grotesque Toddlers & Tiaras, a reality show about the children's pageant circuit, which has the mothers of young girls dressing them up like chintzy porcelain dolls for competition. That show was in the news recently after an episode about a "Bollywood"-themed pageant in which some of the mothers took "Indian" to mean "Native American," a notion the producers surely weren't eager to disabuse them of, and so you can imagine the results. Incidentally, Honey Boo Boo touched on the Native American issue in a Thanksgiving special. "The Indians lost everything and just got a crappy meal," Alana observes. "And casinos."
Alana, who is loud, vulgar, and hilarious—so is her mother, June Shannon, aka Mama June—was such a draw on Toddlers & Tiaras that TLC decided to give her her own show, which focuses on the family's day-to-day life in McIntyre. In the series premiere, they attend the Redneck Games, whose own origin story bears somewhat on Honey Boo Boo: a group of locals decided to form the games in response to jokes being made, at the region's expense, as Atlanta prepared to hosts the 1996 Olympics—as if to puncture the stereotype. Alana's sister Pumpkin participates—she loses pretty badly—in a game of bobbing for pigs' feet. We're introduced to the rest of the characters, an agglomeration of white-trash cliches: The four daughters are from different fathers (so I'm using familial terms like "sister" loosely here); the oldest is pregnant. Nobody is thin. They wash their hair in the kitchen sink, eat cheese balls off the floor, and shop at auction for groceries. The father figure, Sugar Bear, is a reticent blue-collar guy who usually has a dip in. Mama June is a champion couponer; she is a champion of using the word coupon as a verb.
The beginning of the series focused heavily on contrivances, on staged events: not only the Redneck Games but a lesson for Alana and Pumpkin from an etiquette coach, who looked unhappy to explain that farting at the dinner table is "probably the height of rudeness." Well, it was an innocent question. June was indifferent to her concerns: "She's what we call a square," she explained later. "And we're kinda like a lopsided, obtuse, triangle, oval all put together." Later in the series Alana struggles with another nicety of etiquette: "If I don't talk with my mouth full, when am I gonna talk?"
The production values are terribly gimmicky. If the music isn't plucky banjo, it's pure blooper reel. Commercials break over moments of ridiculous suspense: Will 300-pound June make it to the top of the water slide? Will she show her daughters her "forklift toe," deformed from a workplace accident? Will her daughter Chubbs, whose secondary nickname is Chubbette, barf after eating too many raw collard greens?
Another of these gimmicks is the producers' resistance to editing out interview moments that they otherwise would—when Mama June has a sneezing fit, for instance. Instead the camera lingers. But the most infamous trick is the use of subtitles for the family, who have thick, though not incomprehensible, southern accents. This induced in me a kind of extreme saltiness when a subtitle sported a copy error—an occasional occurrence. (A misspelled seriously, for instance. Who's the idiot now? I thought about yelling at the screen.) Even that game turns out to be rigged: A 40-minute special looking back on the first season includes a viewer participation opportunity called "Guess What They Said," wherein we watch a clip and then decide, from a multiple-choice menu, what the line was. One of these is baby talk: literally somebody talking at a baby. It's not supposed to make any goddamned sense.
After establishing our heroes sociologically vis a vis the Redneck Games, the producers ease off a bit, and viewers gain a more casual access to the family's life. Though Alana is the title character, her mother is the star, the chief voice and narrator. She translates the family's unique weltanschauung. "We like to be ourselves," she says. "You like us or you don't like us, we just don't care."
If that sounds like it's coming from the "I'm not here to make friends" school of reality-TV strategies, it's not. Actually, everybody is here to make friends. There's a lot to admire in June and her brood, who seem to constitute a functional family unit, rare in real life, rarer on television. They like each other, they support each other, they have a nice time together. In the Thanksgiving episode June has promised the girls she'll take them to a farm to see some animals, but they have to get up before dawn to get on the road. "ALRIGHT LET'S GO Y'ALL WANTED TO MILK SOME FUCKING COWS," she hollers happily, banging a spoon on a pan. It's somehow a very sweet moment. And Alana turns out to have a predilection for milking. "They call me Dr. Boolittle," she says.
Members of the family poke fun at each other in ways that engage, pointedly, the prevailing redneck stereotypes: a fat joke or a hygiene joke or whatever. From the beginning of the series, they seemed to have a pretty nuanced understanding of how they were representing themselves and, by extension, regional idiosyncrasies like the Redneck Games, which June described as "similar to the Olympics, but with a lot of missing teeth and a lot of butt cracks showing." The fact that they've come to this realization but TLC hasn't is the show's most interesting tension: Alana's family can crack wise at their own expense in ways far more interesting, and funny, than the producers can, and so the show's tricks have a particularly embarrassing feel, like somebody trying to explain a joke.
Critics have not known quite what to make of Honey Boo Boo. The New Republic published an appreciative article about the family gaining the affection of American audiences; when Boo Boo began airing in Britain, the Atlantic's Allison Yarrow suggested that it "is exactly the kind of cultural product America should be exporting" because it "features among the most real, relatable, unpretentious Americans on television."
There's a lot to admire in June and her brood, who seem to constitute a functional family unit, rare in real life, rarer on television.
Harsher evaluators of the show seem to side with its producers—a weird confluence—in finding the characters gross and detestable. The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman managed to work a hefty number of fat references into an early review condemning TLC for giving audiences "a green light to laugh at rednecks and fat people." He suggested June might be "too dumb to be savvy enough" to exploit the stereotype that she's clearly exploiting, but one wonders if he'd feel the same way now: June, who, as I mentioned, is a champion couponer, said earlier this year that the money the family makes from the show goes directly into a trust fund for her four daughters, untouchable but for emergency and education until they're 21. Goodman described Alana's "apparent seriousness" when she says, obviously joking, "I hope Mama don't eat Glitzy," her gay pet pig.
Similar condescension characterized an A/V Club review by Ryan McGee, who wrote about the family, "They either don't know how to change or don't understand that change is even an option." Yikes! Meanwhile Adam Levine observed to TV Guide, which itself condemned the show in 2012, that Honey Boo Boo represented "the decay of Western civilization." Adam Levine is the lead singer of Maroon 5.
Nancy Grace is also not a fan.
These reviews aim their ire at both TLC and, on a more ad hominem level, the family themselves, commenting on their looks and weight and behavior and wondering how—and why!—their self-perception so differs from our perception of them, whoever "us" is. "It's easy to watch Mama talk positively about her looks and wonder what she sees in the mirror," McGee wrote. I'll hazard a guess: She sees a woman who's happy with her body despite a culture that insists she shouldn't be. She sees someone she likes. (Or do fat people need to be stupid in order to respect themselves?) In a hopeful estimation this may explain the show's popularity: viewers aren't disdaining these characters but simply enjoying them, because it's hard not to.
But for how long? What, in addition to more-complex opportunities for viewer engagement with personal odors, will the second season bring? Already YouTube mash-ups of Alana looking miserable on talk shows have circulated. Asked in a couple instances whether she likes being on TV, she indicates that she doesn't, but that's hard to read: Is she just acting like a tired seven-year-old? Or is this essentially June's enterprise, and she's dragging her family into it? Reports indicate at least a little local dissension. Earlier this year June banned from the show Crazy Tony, a first-season guest, after he was arrested for his role in a prank: somebody dressed up like a gorilla and ran out onto the highway, trying to scare motorists. Crazy Tony, who does seem like the sort of person you wouldn't want your kid on a four-wheeler with, disagreed with the decision. "TV's changed that family," he told TMZ, beautifully.
Will Alana keep competing in pageants? She's a natural ham, but some of the TV show's most uncomfortable moments come while she's in the midst of a pageant: a fake reality within a fake reality within a TV. This isn't anybody's natural environment, but it's especially not Alana's or June's; as Willa Paskin wrote shortly after the first season premiered, "The stank eye June gets from some of the 'classier' mothers and judges during these competitions is a piece of minutiae with endless implications about class in America."
Onstage Alana looks not only unnatural but unconfident, a problem she decidedly does not suffer in . . . real life. Her smile looks forced; she looks unhappy. And she looks different than the other girls: unpracticed and, yes, not as thin, and less winning—she yearns for a Grand Supreme title, but the best she could do at the end of the last season was win an audience poll. She was happy to have it, though. "I'm the people's favorite," she said. And that's true.