Ashley Spurgeon is a lifelong TV fan — nay, expert — and with her recurring television and pop-culture column "And Another Thing," she'll tell you what to watch, what to skip, and what's worth thinking more about.
In my previous column on the Airlock Scene, I mentioned that I have to examine my own bad viewing habits — especially the ones that put real people, rather than characters, on display. For you see, much like Templeton the Rat from Charlotte’s Web, I have a voracious appetite for garbage. Television is my dusty after-hours fairground, and lowbrow fare — from burned-out stoner humor to exploitative reality TV — are just a few of my many rotten treats. I typically like to write about the stuff that makes me look good; for instance, how much I enjoy watching strange foreign-language costume dramas, or the occasional acclaimed series that pulls off the oh-so-rare hat trick of tight writing, acting and production.
But somewhere, deep in my heart of hearts, I am still just an adolescent girl eager to get home from school, snap into a Slim Jim, kick back and enjoy a little lite afternoon Sally Jessy Raphael. I was too young for the early heyday of trashy daytime talk shows that aired in the 1980s — no Donahue or Al Capone’s vault for me. And by the time my post-school and summer viewing patterns were set, Oprah was by far the most respectable name in the game, better known at that point for being a self-help guru and sued by (if memory serves) publicity-starved Texans than making housewives cry — so I wasn’t interested in WSMV’s 4-5 p.m. weekday programming.
No, my sugary snacks gathered from underneath the bleachers were, of course, the aforementioned Sally Jessy, a legend as far as putting Out of Control Teens in Boot Camp. There was motherfuckin’ Jenny Jones, whose show played a part in a murder (I’m pretty certain YouTubers haven’t started murdering one another yet, but don’t worry, they eventually will ... or rather, definitely do worry). Obviously Jerry Springer was the cultural touchstone for this specific brand of trash. No surprise, because his show was self-consciously aiming for the title by being the worst of the worst, very explicitly filling the role of old-school freak show, with a dash of hate crime. I could get highbrow here and talk about reifying stereotypes, or I could be honest and share that I always liked the part on Jerry Springer where the audience got to shame the guests.
But no matter how many thousands of people filed through that studio chanting Jerry’s name, real Trash Rats know the undisputed king of the genre is Maury. Does he need a last name? No, he does not. His out-of-control-teens episodes are great, and everybody loves to hate a cheater, but Maury saw the concept of “Write a tragic story using only six words,” and replied “I only need five: You are NOT the father!” Cue dramatics! Good shit.
College and working life all but ended that phase. The good news is, I had cable. Where daytime talk shows dropped off, reality shows on cable stepped in. Shows where you follow actual murder investigations (The First 48), actual interventions of actual drug addicts (Intervention) and actual hoarders (Hoarders) were grimly entertaining in a rubbernecky sort of way, but the real trash treat for me was shows in which the general ideas was: “That’s way too many kids.”
We’ve seen the fallout from Jon and Kate Plus Eight and 19 Kids and Counting in the years since the shows began — and who could have seen it coming? Literally everyone? Say what you will about your Springers and Poviches, but here’s how they work: The show pulls together a motley crew of a couple dozen head cases a week, and they air 10 or so minutes with a couple hundred weirdos a year. And then, unless they’re in a follow-up episode, these folks are shoved on the earliest flight back to Michigan and told to have a nice life, never to be heard from again.
Instead of spending 10 minutes with hundreds of people, why not spend hundreds of hours with real people, and watch them abuse their kids in real time, all on camera? I vividly remember the first time I saw Teen Mom because I remember thinking, "Wow, this show is a fucking train wreck." But here I am, the trash rat still nibbling away at dusty flip-flop gum.
Like I said, it’s a bad habit I’m very much trying to break. I need to start snacking on carrot sticks, instead of the childhoods of people whose parents more or less sold them to TLC. Until then, did you know there are entire subreddits dedicated to following the social media and non-televised goings-on of the assorted Teen Moms and Sister Wives? It’s good to know I’m not alone, and can swarm together with fellow trash rats into a rat king, that we may all partake of the veritable smorgasbord of human dysfunction.