Managing editor Jess Cagle discusses the backlash surrounding ''Here Comes Honey Boo Boo''

By Jess Cagle
Updated August 24, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Anytime TV critics use words like “the end of civilization” to describe a new show, you can’t help but watch it. And so I spent the weekend catching up with TLC’s new Toddlers & Tiaras spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. It’s not the end of civilization — that’s not scheduled till Kim Kardashian’s next wedding — but it is a big dose of weird.

Honey Boo Boo, which centers on the family of grade school pageant vet Alana Thompson (her real name), barely dips into the pageant world. Instead it takes a deep dive into the lives of the child’s family in rural Georgia. There’s lots of banjo music. The family seemingly subsists on marked-down junk food. And they attend a fair called the Redneck Games, where one of them bobs for pigs’ feet. Alana’s mother, June, is really the star of the show. She gained notoriety earlier this year for hopping up her daughter on a cocktail of Red Bull and Mountain Dew before a competition. June is clearly in on the joke: smart enough to do and say what the producers want, and sophisticated enough to pander to viewers tuning in for a rush of elitist superiority. What’s more, June seems to love her family and teaches them to love who they are. The problem is, we never see an ounce of aspiration in any of them, and the show gets pretty damn depressing fairly quickly. Even though I laughed some and developed a grudging admiration for June, I couldn’t stomach more than three episodes. You start to worry about the future of Honey Boo Boo herself. You worry about her pregnant teen sister and the baby. You worry about our country’s obesity epidemic. You get uneasy every time you see a Confederate flag in the background…and on and on. Reality shows like Honey Boo Boo — which debuted to big numbers for TLC — seem to bring out the worst in us. I’ve seen online comments, which generally savage the family and TLC, predicting that Honey Boo Boo will end up on a pole (she’s 7), and the term “trailer trash” (which is more offensive than anything on the air) is being thrown around unchecked. Shows like this are designed to get us revved up, and in that sense Honey Boo Boo is a pretty shrewd piece of cheap reality. It’s also banking on our worst instincts — trusting that the audience is too callous or naive to notice what little truth actually finds its way to the screen.

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