Over her three-week stint as the Rickards' calorie commandant, Dr. Hark tries to be both teacher and preacher.
Wanna get a parent good and pissed off? Just predict that his kid is destined to be a 400-pound failure with a face full of gin blossoms and a body on the verge of collapse. Such provocation is the premise of TLC's latest example of intervention as home invasion, Honey We're Killing the Kids! While it claims to be a wake-up call for our passive, post-millennial mothers and fathers, it's more a chance to eavesdrop on fatsos finding out that gluttony, not genetics, is the source of their ever-expanding waistlines.
Based on a BBC series of the same name, the U.S. edition is lorded over by registered dietician and nutrition specialist Dr. Lisa Hark. Investing her angry school marm shtick with good-natured gravitas, Hark is introduced to a family in need, then sets out to diagnose their failings. The entire brood is given a good going over from both medical and lifestyle standpoints. Tests are run, household habits are scrutinized. Using morphing techniques that resemble a beer-bellied version of Michael Jackson's "Black and White," Hark gives her charges the incredibly bad news: if Mom and Dad don't stop larding their offspring with crap, by age 40, the kids will look like broken down, alcoholic Teamsters.
Even given her pseudo-scientific pronouncements (which tend to neglect other life factors like education, talent, and class), Hark still holds out hope. She lays out a few simple rules. Many reek of common sense simplicity ("Sack the Sugar," "Set a Bedtime Routine," "Exercise Together"), while others are more unusual (she does not tolerate tantrums, disrespect, and quitting). The result is behavior modification, the camera adding a dollop of shame that may or may not inspire speedy change.
None of this is new. Honey We're Killing the Kids! combines Dr. Phil's self-scourging pap with the sight of chubby children being deprived of the things they love (mostly convenience foods and PlayStation). Like other nu-reality shows, it offers insight into the "human condition" via spectacle and sentimentality, as when an obese pre-teen weeps over having to eat vegetables or play outside in the sun. The point is not to wish them well, the point is to cringe while watching them pitch a fit when Mom starts preparing whole foods, instead of the usual Hamburger Helper and Hi-C.
Take the Rickard Family from Pittsburgh. Melanie and Rocky are cigarette-smokers who apparently shovel all manner of junk food into their two sons' pie holes. Anthony, a 12-year-old butterball, and his eight-year-old brother Stevie spend their waking hours stationed in from of the TV, either plugging away at their video games or cheering on the Steelers. Exercise is a no-no for these portly pals, and Mom and Dad don't worry that Anthony weighs three times more than the average kid his age. After the initial testing, Dr. Hark delivers her bad news, and the Rickards' world is rocked. "That's not my Stevie," Melanie says. "His hair's yucky."
Over her three-week stint as the Rickards' calorie commandant, Dr. Hark tries to be both teacher and preacher. Sometimes, her efforts lead to hilarious consequences. Anthony states, "Dinner was just disgusting. I'll bet dog poop is better" and the kids several times spit up the food put in front of them. At other times, as when they get a kick out of exercising at a local boxing gym, Hark's theories are right on the money. And at still others, even common sense seems a burden: Mom quits smoking via acupuncture, hoping to improve the air quality for her children's health. Dad, on the other hand, uses his hatred of needles to keep puffing away.
When their 21 days in TLC Hell are over, the Rickards are rewarded with a new look at Stevie and Anthony's futures. Instead of resembling bloated, dopey losers, the projections now show happy faces and fashionable clothing to match. This seems a backhanded approach to the body ideal that has ruled the media since the start of the '80s. What Honey We're Killing the Kids! illustrates is that, via a standardized approach to image and health, happiness can be achieved. No other aspect of experience is considered.
Not every episode revolves around weight. Future shows promise to show children facing diseases (diabetes and asthma. But everyone eventually faces the graphics gauntlet, a gimmick that sets the show somewhat apart from, say, Super Nanny. Truth be told, however, the CGI angle only underscores what's missing in current Western social structures, a sense of self-control. It's a truism that reality tv viewers seek others' humiliation as televisual diversion; in this instance, even as Hark reintroduces the concept of personal embarrassment to her subjects, the rest of us watch from a distance.
Honey We're Killing the Kids! offers no follow-up, no chance to see if Dr. Hark's rules take root or are merely a temporary bandage on more profound problems in the home. Call it a mean-spirited makeover. Honey We're Killing the Kids! is scare tactics as entertainment.