TLC's mental illness network

With its growing roster of hoarders and compulsives, the cable channel is going all crazy, all the time

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published January 6, 2011 4:14PM (EST)

A scene between a man and his doll on TLC's "My Strange Addiction"
A scene between a man and his doll on TLC's "My Strange Addiction"

Are you a hoarder? Do you believe babies look best when wearing tiny crowns? Do you have eight or more children?  Do you have a compulsive disorder that makes your life -- and those of your loved ones -- a living hell on earth? Are you Sarah Palin?  Be not ashamed, you misunderstood, quite possibly seriously mentally ill person. There's a place for you. It's called TLC.

On Wednesday, the network that gave us "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" and "Hoarding: Buried Alive" aired the second episode of its newest self-explanatorily titled nightmare: "My Strange Addiction." And if you enjoyed the toilet paper eater from last week, you were in for quite the treat, America. And coming soon, TLC will introduce us to both an obsessive ventriloquist whose fiancé "gave her the ultimatum 'it's me or the puppets' -- [and] chose the puppets" and a self-proclaimed "crazy cat lady." That's entertainment!

It wasn't too many years ago that the network was a soothing bastion of feel-good weddings, babies and home improvement sagas. Then along came the Gosselins. Jon, Kate and their brood didn't ruin civilization all by themselves, of course. And TLC does still pay lip service to the quest for a perfect dress. But as competition for eyeballs becomes fiercer with every passing season, the need to up the freak show quotient becomes more urgent. And, because audiences keep proving they'd rather watch someone stockpile 1,500 sticks of deodorant or dumpster dive for coupons than do something as pedestrian as redecorate a house, TLC keeps cranking out the crazy. They dole out the "amazing" transformation of a once happy looking blonde who's rotted out her mouth swallowing household cleansers. They let us "explore the complex daily life of a polygamist family." It's pretty much just one big 24/7 extravaganza of jaw-dropping horror.

It's not as if deviation from the norm doesn't make for compelling drama -- Shakespeare and Dostoevski knew that. And by illuminating the "extreme" -- "extreme hoarders," "extreme poodles," the "extreme delivery room dangers" of the "Obese and Pregnant" --  TLC may be doing a service to those viewers who suffer silently from their own emotional problems. Its website offers plentiful resources for hoarders and substance abusers, and blog areas for people to anonymously share their tales of surreptitious eraser sniffing and dog food eating. Information is power, especially for those who must feel terribly alone and frightened inside their own minds.

Yet TLC's casting call page -- with its tantalizing invitation to "Get on TV" -- makes it very clear what the network's bottom line is. "Are you a Freaky Eater? If you or a loved one have an extremely freaky eating habit and need professional help, please contact us." And "If you have a sexual condition or dysfunction, or a unique or interesting sex-related habit or lifestyle, we'd love to hear from you." Come to TLC! Here we love the freaky and dysfunctional! That's not public service. That's just trolling for weirdos, luring them with the deliciously addictive carrot of attention. And it's as sick and dysfunctional and potentially damaging as anything the network itself could dream up.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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