After “Fear Factor” was laid to rest in the reality TV morgue, it seemed American audiences had grown weary of watching contestants eat boiled buffalo testicles and willingly trap themselves in rat torture chambers. Sure, there’s still a hefty amount of reality TV that offers carnival-esque opportunities for viewers to jeer at contestants, but it seemed our fascination with watching people willingly torment themselves had ended.
Unfortunately, a different variety of television has reemerged, and though it doesn’t have “contestants” or a macho Joe Rogan cheering on hopefuls, it seems eerily similar to the antics celebrated on “Fear Factor.”
TLC’s “My Strange Addiction” a show that chronicles individuals’ bizarre habits and dependencies, is attempting to present a new vein of tragically honest reality TV, à la A&E’s “Intervention” or “Hoarders.”
In case you haven’t had a chance to delve into the eccentricity of “My Strange Addiction” each installment follows two addicts revealing their obsessive behaviors, subsequently dealing with the shame of divulging their addiction to family and friends (and us), and then seeking help from a therapist.
The addictions range from thumb sucking, extreme bodybuilding, tanning, scab picking and perhaps most disturbing, the eating of couch cushions. More than one episode focuses on an addiction to consuming inedible items, like soap and detergent, toilet paper and household cleaner.
Though one could argue TLC is attempting to elevate the conversation of addiction and remove the stigmas, similar to what “Intervention” has documented with their startling portrayals, the way in which these two shows deal with obsessive behaviors is vastly different. Yes, it’s true that the addicts profiled on “My Strange Addiction” don’t have the same fatal addictions as those on “Intervention,” but the way in which their addictions are addressed makes them seem trivial, ultimately making the show difficult to take seriously and more like a game of dare.
With “My Strange Addiction” the tone of the show is jovial (right down to the light-hearted music accompanying each scene), making the entire production less profound, thus transforming the addictions into a spectacle. All that’s missing is a circus ringmaster directing everyone to the big tent: “Come one, come all, see the incredible cushion-eating woman devour an entire love seat!”
It admittedly intensifies the entertainment value of the show, but at what cost? These people are coping with addiction, and as comical as it may seem at times, addiction is still a serious, debilitating illness.
But from a network that introduced such riveting television as “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant,” “19 Kids and Counting” and “Toddlers and Tiaras,” are we really surprised?
Beyond the presentation, perhaps the biggest beef I have with “My Strange Addiction” is the way the female addicts are portrayed. Out of the 16 episodes slated to air this season, only two men are profiled. One is addicted to training for Strongman competitions and the other treats a life-size silicon doll as if she were his real wife.
This isn’t meant to be a vehement feminist tirade against TLC’s programming, but as a spectator, you can’t deny this show presents women in a manner that makes it impossible not to mock their addictive behavior and demented psychology. And looking through TLC’s catalog of other reality programs, crazy women seem to be the trend.
Michelle Duggar, the incubator for “19 Kids and Counting,” symbolizes, to me at least, the reverse of feminism, churning out kids more quickly than she or husband Jim Bob can think up another J moniker. And then there’s “Toddlers and Tiaras,” which unveils the twisted reality behind the term “stage mom,” in which mothers transfer their unfulfilled desire to win the coveted pageant crown to their unsuspecting children.
And of course, TLC couldn’t ignore the opportunity to expose our favorite female politico as she paraded her rogue Palin self all over Alaska’s glaciers.
Being that this is the premiere season of “My Strange Addiction” it may be true that of all the addicts who self-diagnosed themselves as having a “strange” addiction, most of them have been women. Or maybe women really do have stranger addictions than their male counterparts. I still sleep with a teddy bear — I guess you could classify that as a strange child-like dependency to an inanimate object.
Regardless of the difference in gender portrayals, “My Strange Addiction” has taken the grim reality of obsessive behaviors and turned them into a jocular romp that isn’t really about healing, but rather, about exposing a vulnerable category of addicts for an audience’s cruel pleasure.
But maybe since I’m still watching it, I’m the one who needs an intervention.
Ann Rivall ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism.