Monday, November 15, 2010


In last week's New Yorker (which bears today's date), television critic Nancy Franklin reviews the upcoming reality series called "Sarah Palin's Alaska." Putting the former half-term governor of the largest and emptiest state aside for a moment -- always a merciful thing to do -- Franklin spends a few sentences reviewing the cable channel that will carry this dubious fragment of reality, TLC, or The Learning Channel.

For one thing, the show was going to be on TLC, whose initials used to stand for The Learning Channel but which I like to call The Leering Channel. Among its recent and current shows are “Make Room for Multiples,” “The Little Couple,” “Strange Sex,” “Obese and Pregnant,” “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” “Mermaid Girl,” and “Paralyzed and Pregnant.” Then, there’s the supersized Duggar family, whose show was first called “17 Kids and Counting,” then “18 Kids and Counting,” and is now idling at “19 Kids and Counting.” (At some point it will probably be called “But Who’s Counting?”) The show that TLC is most famous for is “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” which by now needs no introduction except a quick reminder that it was about that awful couple with the twins and the sextuplets.

TLC’s approach to programming is, in a nominal way, educational; if you don’t know any little people, or kids whose legs are fused, or families with nineteen children, you don’t really know what their lives are like. The shows are extremely invasive, though; TLC’s programming is all about babies, weddings, and families in extremis, and yet there’s something inhumane at the center of it all. It panders to our curiosity, allowing us to gawk at its subjects for as long as they are willing to be gawked at—which may be longer than is good for them.

The Learning Channel used to have pretensions of living up to its name, putting on a few programs with historical or technological topics. But apparently it's devolved into one of the oldest and most sordid forms of mass entertainment -- a freak show.

What does this say about the former half-term governor?

I'm missing a lot by not owning a TV. Thank God!

Illustration: still photo from Tod Browning's 1932 film "Freaks"

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