What I Learned from The Learning Channel

May 24, 2010 at 8:33 pm (By Amba)

At least, that was what it was originally called.  Now it’s just TLC, leaving you to wonder what that stands for:  Tender Loving Care?  Or Transgressive Looking Club?  Quoth Wikipedia:

In 1998 the channel officially began to distance itself from its original name “The Learning Channel”, and instead began to advertise itself only as “TLC”. It is possible the new audience may have held the common misconception that TLC stood for “Tender Loving Care”, a common initialism.[dubiousdiscuss] The marketing maneuver to use only “TLC” may have been intended to encourage this misconception, as the station moved more towards reality-based personal-story programming that would engage a wider, more mainstream audience.[dubiousdiscuss]

(So learning isn’t “mainstream”!)  All that is quite euphemistic, as the “reality-based personal-story programming,” at least in the evenings when we notice it, is almost entirely devoted to the “half-ton mom,” the “man with half a body,” the “baby with 8 limbs,” the world’s tallest woman and man, the mother with 19 children and counting, the “little people” (midgets and dwarves), and so on and on.  It’s the video equivalent of that farthest-out supermarket tabloid, the Weekly World News.  Superficially, at least, it ought to be called the Freakshow Channel.  This seems to have been a winning play for TLC:  people with genuinely kinky tastes may be a small niche market, but who doesn’t have morbid curiosity?

Jacques, no sylph himself, is jaw-droppingly fascinated by the phenomenon of American obesity as manifest in shopping malls, swimming pools, and other public places; we joke that the tagline for his movie could be, “I . . . see . . . fat people!”  So when he wasn’t sleepy yet after The Tailor of Panama last night and in all the 600-whatever channels I couldn’t find another movie to his taste, in desperation I asked him if he wanted to watch the story of “The World’s Fattest Man,” a Brit who was considering gastric-bypass surgery to save his life.

It was mesmerizing!  The body of 800-pound Paul Mason was fully on display (only genitalia blurred out, if one could even find them), and it was indeed . . . what?  far beyond mere obesity, a swollen starfish of blobby petals, prodigiously grotesque . . . but that was actually the least of it.  At one point I said to an absorbed J, “Look at that . . . monster,” and J said seriously, “He’s not a monster.  He’s Paul!” and damned if he hadn’t hit the nail on the head.  Paul was actually quite a charming, intelligent, well-spoken fellow, his nice-looking, witty head emerging from the boulder-puddles of fat like that of a man trapped in quicksand.  He talked about how he’d become addicted to food during a stressful period in his life; showed pictures of himself as a normal, lively little boy; allowed the camera to expose the sacramental act of his addiction, shoving buttered toast nonstop into his mouth; wept with self-pity and self-loathing at what he’d done to himself and to his late mum, whom he’d literally eaten out of house and home (spending mortgage money on food to the point of foreclosure); acknowledged to his doctor that he understood he might not survive surgery; and took total verbal responsibility for his condition while at the same time stating that he could not control the addiction, and while depending to an infantile degree on the British Health Service, which unquestioningly provided two caregivers to wash him four times a day and tend to all his needs.  You could only imagine what the care of this government ward was costing — even before his surgery and prolonged hospital stay.  In politically mixed company, the show would have been sure to provoke spirited philosophical debates on personal responsibility, socialized medicine, the nanny state, the question of free will, the victim mentality, etc. etc. etc.

The uncanny effect of the show, however, was to make Paul seem normal in his abnormality.  To be sure, the quandary he’d gotten himself into was unusually extreme, but you could relate.  The traps you’d gotten yourself into at one time or another might not have gone as far or been as visible, that’s all.  There but for the grace of God.  Worst of all, at the end of the hour Paul had only just had his surgery (also shown in unflinching full color).  He’d survived, but would he lose weight?  Would he relearn how to walk?  That’s not decided even now, because his surgery was just last December!  We’re very nearly seeing this in real time!  To my horror, I found that I needed to know. I had gotten to know Paul, and I cared what happened to him.

When the next show came on, we kept watching.

This one was “The Man with Half a Body.” Kenny Easterday, 35, was born with a rare developmental failure called “sacral agenesis,” which means that for all practical purposes his body stopped at the waist.  (He looks as if he has less than half a body — a thorax, but no abdomen.  It is hard to figure out where he keeps his guts.  But both he and his fiancée state on the show that his male organs are in good working order.)  His vestigial legs were amputated in infancy, so that the bones could be used to reinforce his spine, and his doctor gave him 21 years max to live.  But his father had taught him to walk on his hands — which he does with oddly graceful motions, like a heron or a big cat — and he had had a remarkably normal, active childhood.  Kenny has actually had more than his 15 minutes of fame:  he starred in a TV movie about himself when he was 10, and appeared many times on the Jerry Springer show as “the Messenger.”  But now, osteoporosis is eating away his cobbled-together spine, and repeated urinary-tract infections (he has to catheterize himself to pee) are compromising his kidney function; his days seem numbered, and he wants more than anything to be a biological father, not just a stepfather figure to his fiancée’s two kids, the younger of whom, the girl, might be his.

There were two stunning emotional impacts in this show.  One was the immensely touching devotion of Kenny’s father.  His mother admits that when he was first born she was afraid to touch him; his father picked him up and held him, and never quit.  The show is actually worth seeing just for the humble wonder of that father’s love.

The second was that you expect a happy ending — that Kenny will find out from a DNA test that the little girl is his — but you don’t get it.  There is “zero chance” of that, the report says.  Right in front of the camera, Kenny’s fiancée tries to comfort him, and he slashes out at her and shoves her away.  “Leave me alone,” he says, and hops down from the bed and stalks out of the room.  Next scene, Kenny is saying that he’ll still always consider that little girl his little girl.  And then the show ends and you learn that he and his fiancée have split up.  It is shocking and even angering; of course you can’t know the whole story of the relationship, but having been let so deep into their business, you feel it’s your business.  How can Kenny abandon those two kids who have become so attached to him they already called him Dad?  How can a man who’s been so loved by his own father be so cruelly selfish in his disappointment (his fiancée was unable to have another child)?  It seems a lot to ask of someone who’s been through so much, and yet ask it of him you do — or I did — precisely because he’s so triumphantly claimed the status of a whole man who just happens to have half a body.

Once again, you are drawn in by uneasy curiosity about the physical difference and leave an hour later merely gripped by the same-old, ever-new human drama.  So does it deserve to be called The Learning Channel after all?


  1. vanderleun said,

    Well, horses for courses. I call it “The Freak Show Channel.” Operates pretty much like the Freak Shows of old.

  2. Donna B. said,

    TVC – the voyeur channel.

    One of the things I have noticed over the past 10-15 years is the unwillingness to accept freaks (as vanderleun so eloquently puts it) and the ever diminishing definition of non-freaks.

    We are becoming a brittle society, I fear.

  3. amba12 said,

    I find the channel very paradoxical, devious, and ambiguous in that respect, because its deliberate surface attraction is the “freakshow,” but that’s only the surface; it draws you into a human drama in which their anomaly is actually unimportant. (Yes, Paul’s immediate problem is that he weighs 800 pounds, but he’s finally just a person in a pickle; that’s just the particular pickle he’s in.) So if challenged over being prurient, the channel could put on a pious face and say it’s merely showing us that Paul and Kenny are just like us (we are just like them) in every way that matters; it’s performing an educational service. In fact, it’s having it both ways — the “freakshow” attracts the audience in the first place, but then teaches them a lesson. It can also hook you, precisely because it IS good human drama. You end up really wanting to know what happens to the person.

    Normally, I’d be revolted by the channel’s apparent exploitiveness and wouldn’t watch it for that reason.

  4. wj said,

    I had wondered what had happened to The Learning Channel. Once I got laid off and had time to watch TV again. I think I was happier not knowing.

    Sigh — it used to have some really great stuff. Well, at least PBS and Discovery (mostly) still make a little bit of knowledge available.

  5. amba12 said,

    See, wj, in America today “learning” is not “mainstream”! Boy, Wikipedia really said a mouthful there.

  6. wj said,

    How mainstream has learning been across American history? Yes, it was valued for most of our history — but “mainstream”? Only at the basic, 3 Rs, level.

    I would suspect that the closest that it came to mainstream was as the Baby Boomers hit college age. And even then it was primarily a matter of college being usual for middle class Americans. (And how much of that was remaining fallout from Sputnik, and how much Vietnam-era draft avoidance?)

    Certainly there are professions where life-long learning is a necessity. Outside academia (and then only in some disciplines, from what I have seen), the ones that come to mind are medicine and various high-tech fields where change is constant.

    But all my life I have seen constant outrage from workers in other fields at the thought that they might have to learn something new in order to stay employed. Too bad folks. But the days are gone when what you learned by high school graduation was enough to see you thru your whole working life.

  7. amba12 said,

    Learning and relearning seems now to be a necessity, not a luxury. Simply to keep up with the basic changes in everyday technology, not to mention the world trends that are going to have direct practical impact on your life, you HAVE to keep learning. (Which of course is a boon for the brains of us older people.) Or be left way behind. Ignorance is not a viable option. This is a good thing because it puts positive survival pressure on what I increasingly think of as the most hopeful human quality: curiosity. Curiosity is the opposite of the monotony of addictiveness. Probably so on a neurological level.

  8. Rod said,

    A similar transition has come over the History Channel, which now features shows speculating about astral visits from ancient astronauts. The Cable Channels tend to go where the audience is. If you think about the level of genuine interest in learning among your classmates in your sophomore year in high school, that is about where the market is.

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