Four shows about little people, some of whom make chocolate.

Four shows about little people, some of whom make chocolate.

Four shows about little people, some of whom make chocolate.

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Sept. 3 2010 11:38 AM

Dwarf Stars

Four shows about little people, some of whom make chocolate.

The Roloff Family from TLC's Little People Big World.
The Roloff family from TLC's Little People Big World

By coincidence, I beg the attention of Skokie, Ill., at the start of the High Holidays. On Sept. 26, Matt Roloff, the star of Little People, Big World (TLC, season premiere on Monday at 8 p.m. ET), will appear at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center (9603 Woods Dr.) in connection with its current exhibit on the pseudoscience of the Nazi leadership (degeneration). Roloff will discuss his advocacy for little people's rights. A question-and-answer session follows.

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Until last week, Roloff—a family man from Oregon and a six-season veteran of reality TV—had flown beneath my radar. Then I caught the news that this coming season of Little People, Big World would be its last and witnessed each fan trying to say goodbye in her own way. For instance, a commenter at EW.com calling himself "Sam" greeted the news with sangfroid: "the midge show had to end sometime." Scarcely an hour later, one "teresa" offered an indignant retort: "Yeah Sam, you learned a lot from watching the show," she scolded. "Like how little people are the same as you and me.... Way to grow as a human." A third commenter, "Hey Sam," also took offense at the incorrect language of the OP: "Sam, Its Midget."

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Of course, "teresa" is in the right here. Little People, Big World—which ranks among the most esteemed of our culture's numerous dwarf exhibitions—aims to be assiduously respectful of Matt, the little woman, and their three children, and it steadfastly encourages viewers to grant the Roloffs basic human dignity. The liability to this approach is that it makes the Roloffs look like basic humans.

I hesitate to call the show a docudrama not because I suspect it of ginning up fictional drama by taking factual liberties but because it gins up no drama at all. One episode finds son Zack (a dwarf) getting a routine haircut. Another sees Zack's twin brother, Jeremy (not a dwarf), gaping with astonishment at the price of college textbooks. These pass for exciting events. An exceptionally racy moment came when Matt made a trip to his boring hometown, San Jose. He misted up when passing by his old bachelor pad. "It was a party house every night. Wasn't focusing on work very much, was focusing on play," he said, drawling the last word out like a lecherous elf. But Matt has put away childish things, and now it passes for excitement when, redoing the yard, he has a cordial conversation with the landscapers. The only difference between you and them is that, they, having less mass, are fractionally less dull.

Home improvement is also a theme of TLC's The Little Couple ("Bill Klein and Jen Arnold are your average newlyweds, except for the fact that they are both under 4 feet tall!"). And here, watching a scene of Jen (a physician) and Bill (a sales guy) breakfasting with another couple, you even hear about the kitchen sink of their non-dwarf friends. That said, Jen's got charisma. Getting fitted for her wedding dress, she said, " I always feel like I'm six feet tall. ... It's a game I play with myself." Watching Bill stalk through the French Quarter with his bros, just another strutting doofus with the tail of his striped shirt, I decided she had married down.

Meanwhile, on Little Chocolatiers, TLC explores the world of unhyphenated small business owners. You call tell from the title that the show is low concept. Steve and Katie, a husband-and-wife team, run an artisanal-chocolate shop. Steve handles the business end, and Katie does the heavy lifting, literally, as a scene of her slinging multiple kilos of cocoa into their SUV attests. Despite the fact that the business has been in the family for three generations, Steve still gets that old tingle—"Oh, my gosh, I smell chocolate!"—and we share in his thrill. (Perhaps the problem with the baker in the Raymond Carver story is that he'd become jaded about the scent of fresh bread.) The little chocolatiers are quite content that many customers first venture into their Salt Lake City storefront out of curiosity. You come for the Oompah-Loompahs—yes, they use the O-L word—and stay for the Champagne truffles. In the main, we see them work in the kitchen. It's stirring, literally.

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By contrast, Shorty Rossi, the 40-ish star of Pit Boss (Animal Planet), is more immediately engaging. In his younger days, Shorty betrayed criminal tendencies—grubby little fingers, dirty little mind—and even did some time in Folsom. Today, he presents symptoms of coarse grandiosity. That a felon with a Napoleonic complex works behind a desk in Los Angeles should come as no surprise.

As the founder of Shortywood Productions, Shorty manages a stable of little-people performers and hires them out for private parties and corporate events. Further, he devotes himself to pit bull rescue for both private profit and the public good. I think he's running about even, ethically. Shorty is ethically minded. He is delighted to land a gig with a Renaissance Faire: With its diversity of geeks in costume, "people can't say I'm exploiting my little people," he reasons. Naturally, Shorty combines his passions by encouraging his dogs to tear mirthfully around his office. When he calls out, "Here," it's never immediately clear whether he's summoning a pup or a employee. With his outsized personality, Shorty suggests an enlightened update of the grand teensy-weensy entertainers of days to which we have said good riddance. P.T. Barnum gave us not just General Tom Thumb but also a Commodore Nutt and an Admiral Dot, promoting to top brass professionals of good stature.

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