Animal Planet’s sensationalist medical documentary series Monsters Inside Me returns for its third season on 5 October, once again providing icky testimonials of parasitic infection. If the show is not exactly dinnertime viewing material, what with all the bacteria and fungi and tapeworms and so forth, it’s still unusual in the sprawling galaxy of reality testimonial cable television programming.
Monsters Inside Me breaks no ground in terms of its formulaic construction. Three cases of infection are explored per episode, incorporating interviews with the infected and their families, scientific explications from biologists (mainly sort-of host Dan Riskin, who flatly intones the facts), doctors, and other epidemiological experts, corny reenactments, archival photos, and computer-generated visualizations of the internal physical processes involved. These last elements, while done on the cheap, are often the most squirm-inducing elements of the show. If you’re troubled at all by pale bugs writhing on red internal tissue (even in pixilated form), these moments may be a bit much for you, and turning away or discreetly slipping off to the washroom may be advised.
The first couple of episodes of the new season feature earnest middle-class Americans sharing their True Parasite Stories. We meet a teenage boy from the South falling alarmingly sick after a swim in a lake, a toddler who will eat nothing but cat food and the salt of pretzels, an adult workout nut waylaid by extreme abdominal pain, and a Southern belle growing lethargic and mentally unbalanced after giving birth to her first child.
In the gradual revealing of symptoms and diagnoses, there is something of the detective story to the structure of the nonfiction narratives. The cases themselves, often confounding medical professionals and sparked by peculiar points of contact by the victims, recall the central puzzle of any given episode of House (minus Hugh Laurie’s charmingly rude misanthropy, of course). This is particularly the case in Episode Two, wherein a middle-aged couple from New Mexico fall mysteriously, dangerously ill during a trip to New York City. There’s even a misdirecting clue given, as a mention of a lavish seafood dinner the night before their symptoms appear sets off alarms in the viewer well versed in the mystery genre. “It was the fish!” you might say, but it will turn out to be something else entirely.
Despite occasional points of interest, however, Monsters Inside Me remains merely a televised mediocrity, though an admittedly odd mediocrity. The show mixes straightforward information dissemination with breathless, dramatic hyperbole and narrative shaping, adding up to the fairly silly hybrid of education and entertainment prevalent in the miasmatic swamps of cable. Additionally, like most depictions of health care in America, fictional and nonfictional, the show excises even the slightest mention of how the treatments for these rare conditions are financed. In a post-Obamacare America, the fantasy of cheap and easy care goes unchallenged in its entertainment.
But that fantasy has little to do with the show’s focus on the monsters. Though not an uninteresting topic for a television show, the wide spectrum of parasites and infections that can afflict the human body carries a strong element of the grotesque with it. This isn’t the same appealing, essentially secure grotesquerie of medical or criminal investigation dramas. There’s rarely much that the afflicted could have done to avoid their physical plights, and almost never any telling signs that they ought to have caught and that we at home can feel superior about noticing, unlike similarly pitched shows, like I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. Indeed, a better title for this show would be I Didn’t Know I Had A Parasite, although the current moniker is more than absurd enough as it is.
My question is, why does Monsters Inside Me exist? To educate and warn viewers of the (admittedly remote) risks of dangerous infection, maybe. To entertain them with the delayed revelations of a detective story narrative frame, possibly. But the Warholian angle of the show is much more interesting to consider than the show itself is to watch. In a culture where everyone can be famous for 15 minutes, simply by catching crabs or selling antiques or buying property or competing in any number of reality genre competitions, it may as well follow that you can share in that fleeting fame simply by catching a bug. If a parasite can get you on TV, then what cannot?