The idea that dermatologists could save lives was once so laughable, Seinfeld did a whole episode about it. (“The whole profession is, ‘Eh, just put some aloe on it,’” Jerry cracked to Elaine in “The Slicer.”) You might think that a show called Dr. Pimple Popper wouldn’t do much to bolster dermatology’s image, but with her new TLC series, Dr. Sandra Lee aims to prove she’s more than just a whitehead warrior.
Having built an epidermic empire with her pimple-popping, cyst-lancing, blackhead-extracting videos on YouTube and Instagram, Lee now has a bustling practice in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It’s there we meet her patients-of-the-week, people who are saddled with disfiguring skin conditions that go way beyond blackheads and breakouts. Melissa has a cantaloupe-sized lipoma (a benign tumor made of fat tissue) on her shoulder, which she hides by wearing hooded sweatshirts all year round. Tyler from New Hampshire is very reluctant to get the large lump on his forehead checked out because cancer runs in his family, but he’s finally ready to face his fears after the birth of his daughter. Amber hides the painful keloids (growths of scar tissue) on her ears with ever-present headbands, and Tahj is tired of the 60-plus boils (the result of steatocystoma multiplex) covering his torso.
Like E!’s plastic-surgery-gone-wrong series Botched, Dr. Pimple Popper takes our natural — if not exactly admirable — tendency to gawk at the grotesque and wraps it in a gauzy blanket of human interest. Getting to know the men and women behind the troublesome bumps, boils, and blobs makes it all the more satisfying when Dr. Lee — who takes on every challenge with a brisk but approachable bedside manner — vanquishes the offending growths with her scalpel. A note of warning: Pimple Popper is spectacularly graphic. White ribbons of pus shoot from a newly lanced boil; the camera closes in as a pair of tweezers pulls a “calcified” substance from a cyst; Lee wrests handfuls of something that looks like raw chicken from a freshly opened lump.
If reading that last sentence sent your gag reflex into spasms, this is not the show for you. For Dr. Lee’s millions of followers, though, seeing these disgusting procedures play out is weirdly cathartic. To put it in TV terms, watching Dr. Pimple Popper at work is the dermatological equivalent of a procedural crime drama: Bad guy (hideous skin growth) commits terrible act; victim turns to a highly trained team of experts (Dr. Lee and her staff) for help; and by the end of the hour, the criminal has been sent away (in this case, to the medical waste bin)… hopefully for life. And Pimple Popper delivers that blast of feel-good warmth you want from a makeover show, as the patients offer tearful post-procedural testimonials about how Dr. Lee changed their life for the better. Those warm-fuzzies just happen to come with a heaping helping of pus. B