Is Honey Boo Boo’s Family the Most Loving One on TV?

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July 17 2013 8:00 AM

Are These Farting Rednecks TV’s Most Loving Family?

In praise of the Henderson-Thompson-Shannons of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Honey Boo Boo (Alana Thompson), Mama (June Shannon), and Chubbs (Jessica Shannon) sitting on a pickup truck bed in the Season 2 Premiere of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Honey Boo Boo, Mama, and Chubbs sitting on a pickup truck bed in Here Comes Honey Boo Boo

Photo courtesy Chris Fraticelli/TLC

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, TLC’s divisive reality hit about the antics of an energetic, self-identified redneck family, begins its second season on Wednesday night. To celebrate the show’s return, TLC has wedged scratch-and-sniff cards into issues of People and Us Weekly, and will prompt viewers to use them during the show’s premiere, possibly scratching to sniff bad breath, fish, rotten milk, a baby diaper, a fart, or maybe something more pleasantly aromatic—cheese puffs? The scratch-and-sniff is a goof that sounds about as enjoyable as eating the snot-flavored jelly beans from Harry Potter, but it effectively establishes just how the producers want us to feel about 7-year-old Honey Boo Boo and her family: that they are totally fun and totally gross. I’m with them on the former, but it’s the producers who are gross.

The only TV program that could imaginably contain more farts than the one-hour premiere of Honey Boo Boo is How Stuff Works: The Whoopee Cushion Edition. But the show is intimately concerned not only with the output, from whatever orifice, of its characters—irrepressible Alana Thompson who, due to her imitation of a “sassy black lady,” got herself the nickname Honey Boo Boo and a TV show; her 300-pound mother Mama June; June’s three other daughters and her baby daddy, Sugar Bear—but what they put into their bodies as well. There is no show on television that plumbs the extremely real and loaded connections between food and class in America like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, a series that regularly sneers at the lower-class family it films because of what and how they eat and how what they eat makes them look. But there are worse things than never eating your vegetables, and more important ones too. The Honey Boo Boo clan often transcend the narrow condescension of the series’ producers—between-scene interludes include shots of humping dogs and the sound of a toilet flushing—with a deep familial affection and a rousing, Amelia Bedelia-esque esprit de corps.

When Honey Boo Boo premiered last year, it set off the sort of “Now this is the true sign of the apocalypse” hand-wringing that reality shows occasionally engender and Mama June took the brunt of it, chastised by none other than king hypocrite Dr. Drew, dressed up in pageant clothes by Anderson Cooper, and then subjected to countless mommy-blog tirades. Mama June is a brash, morbidly obese, I-am-who-I-am sort of woman who farts, yells, extreme coupons, and talks about her weight all with a Jersey Shore-like freeness and facility with language. (Since the success of last season, the only change in her appearance is a better dye job, though her roots are already growing in.) She may not be an Emily Post-approved child-rearer, but she is intimately involved with every aspect of her children’s lives and is clearly adored by them. And she adores them in return, at very high volume, no less. Though June has certainly committed one cardinal sin of parenting—she has let her children appear on a reality TV show, a crime for which she at least has the defense of needing the money—the sin for which she is most mocked by her television show is what she is willing to feed her children and herself. (Duck Dynasty, A&E’s hugely-rated comedic reality show proves a counterpoint here: It is also a series about a proudly redneck family, the Robertsons, but a much richer, thinner, and male one. Needless to say, none of the Robertsons have come in for it like Mama June has.)

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo exists because of food: Alana and June first came to attention on TLC’s pageant series Toddlers and Tiaras, when June served the already high-strung Alana go-go juice— a mixture of Red Bull and Mountain Dew— and watched her go-go, a segment that became an outrage-stirring viral video. The dietary habits of the family were a regular topic in Season 1, and that’s even more the case in Season 2. In the premiere, the family is notified that a hog has been hit by a car, and they get to butchering. This is a family people know to call when they see fresh roadkill: It’s a part of the diet. TLC makes much of how horrible slaughtering a pig smells, a phenomenon not particular to roadkill. (“Why spend money at the store when we know it’s fresher and cleaner at the side of the road?” June asks, which is maybe supposed to make her look crazy, but is actually just true.) The cameras are also sure to capture the moment when one of her children attaches a hog tail to the back of June’s shirt. June, who is regularly shown at horrifying angles and having trouble getting into and out of go-karts, turns the meat into a meal of pork and beans. She’s seen sautéing big chunks of fatback, massaging pig hooves, and then giving Alana a tail bone to happily gnaw on. Later, Sugar Daddy tries to seduce June with a Hostess Cupcake. She replies that he should give her a deep fryer.

And yet, despite their love of all things fried, the Henderson-Thompson-Shannons are living life the exact right way. Their priorities are: love, enjoy, and hang with your family. In the premiere episode, when the gang is not butchering, attending local wrestling events, or putting together a Dukes of Hazzard surprise party for Sugar Bear, June is trying to figure out what to do about her children’s out-of-control smartphone use.  The girls are slacking on their chores, so June confiscates their phones in an empty cheese doodle barrel, commanding that they have more quality sister time. The girls insist she give up her phone too. Without their phones the sisters get up to no good, creating an indoor slip-and-slide with oil and butter, while June realizes she misses her phone even more than her kids do.  It’s the stuff of multi-camera sitcoms, and certain details aside — the cheese doodle barrel, the butter—it’s also the stuff of homes with device-addicted teenagers everywhere.

For a certain segment of the population, the idea that a loving parent could not give a hoot about what her children put in their mouths or how loud they farted it out or if they exercised is beyond the pale. Mama June genuinely doesn’t seem to care about these things and if her kids are unhealthier than they might be, they also seem, especially compared to many reality-TV families, loved. Alana, a little ham who in a more affluent family would just be enrolled in acting classes, talks about how wrestling and making dog piles are her family’s favorite things to do, which essentially means everyone jumping up and down on each other in June and Sugar Bear’s bed, cackling and screeching in the small house with one bathroom that they all share. If the producers want to make much of all the noises emanating from that bathroom—and they do—the stink is on them.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

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