The show, premiering with two episodes Wednesday night, is a horrifying and yet strangely sweet glimpse at American life as it is lived by a particular style of Americans that television finds increasingly irresistible, and yet: “We are not rednecks,” claim the family’s older daughters, even as they prepare to spend their day at a redneck pride festival that features bobbing for pigs’ feet, mudhole belly-flop contests and overweight women clad in Confederate-flag bikinis.
This is a show about seemingly dumb people who are in fact quite smart, starting with Alana (a.k.a. Honey Boo Boo) herself, whom fans of the network’s popular “Toddlers & Tiaras” have already met. Alana was an overnight hit when she first appeared on the show in January; with this spinoff, TLC is simply admitting that they — and we — are captivated by Honey Boo Boo. Just point the camera at her and let it roll.
Alana has been raised to express herself in the urban patois of reality TV’s black women. Nearly every utterance includes a head swivel, a sassy snap or an “oh-no-she-din’t.” It’s a funny and deeply disturbing tangle of cultural cues, as this chubby little white girl essentially performs a 21st-century version of minstrelsy. By finding Alana hilarious and egging her on, her family and her viewers are participating in a complicated, multilayered, possibly benign display of latent racism that could keep linguistics professors and social scientists busy for decades.
Curiously, the people at TLC seem to believe that Alana and her family need subtitles in order to be understood — something I see increasingly on reality shows in which the subjects have a thick accent of any sort, not just foreign, whether it’s Southern, Latino, street urban or even New Englander. Are we really so incapable as a viewing public of comprehending people who aren’t from our neck of the woods? (Is our incessant babble leading us back to Babel?)
If this series were a documentary or someone’s dissertation, perhaps we could go there. As it is, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” is mishandled raw data, in which a working-class family amps up its drawling, strutting nature for the camera’s benefit. You’ll blow a gasket if you watch this show with any trace of superiority or outrage. Instead, bafflement is a good resting spot; a guilty-pleasure glee works even better.
Living in a little house by the railroad tracks of McIntyre, Ga., the family members do what they can to make ends meet. Mike (“Sugar Bear”), 40, works “seven days a week” mining chalk, while Mama June, a 32-year-old, 309-pound force of nature, trims the family budget by hoarding rolls of toilet paper and other nonperishables through extreme couponing — another facet of TLC’s world. (“Now you are going to pick every one of them up,” June bellows after Honey Boo Boo tips over a plus-size jug of puffed cheese balls.) Alana describes her three teenage sisters — nicknamed Pumpkin, Chickadee and Chubbs — as “the craziest,” “the pregnanciest” (!) and “my BFF.”
You could hire all the comedy writers you want and still not come up with more ludicrous sitcom characters — and anyhow, all the comedy writers would have gone to Ivy League schools. Their conception of such folk would be just as stereotypical and somehow not nearly as true.
“Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” eventually turns to its real franchise, as June and other obsessed moms drag their children to various chain hotel meeting rooms for pay-as-you-go weekend beauty pageants, where their little princesses get dolled up like Pamela Anderson and preen for the judges. Once more we journey into that seriously uncomfy JonBenet Ramsey milieu — a vulgar pageant scene virtually unchanged by decades of sophisticated disapproval and satire. Hopped up on iced coffee, Pixy Stix and Mountain Dew, Alana has difficulty concentrating on her routine, fails to win a trophy and bursts into tears.
And yet she remains a champion in her own mind. “Win or lose,” she tells the camera, “you’re still good.”
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo
(two 30-minute episodes) premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on TLC.