Some things in life are so awful that I can never quite wrap my head around their existence. I can be aware of these things intellectually, I can know them to be real, but when I encounter them or think about them at any length, they surprise me every time with their enormity (or some facet of it). Child abuse is a big one. All abuse, really. Racism, of course. And here, I’ll pluck a totally random example out of the air... now let’s see. Oh yes, the coronavirus. I can’t stop thinking about it and yet I can’t quite believe it either. My mind produces a kind of curdled wonder. This is what it is like to be awestruck by toxicity.
Another less severe but remarkably tenacious example is WEtv’s continued involvement with Mama June Shannon and her family. I wrote about this at length upon the second-season premiere of the cable network’s Mama June: From Not to Hot, a reality show focused on its titular star’s weight-loss journey. This show arrived after her family’s first show, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, was dumped by TLC in 2014 in light of the news that Shannon had reunited with her former boyfriend, who had been convicted of molesting her oldest daughter, Anna “Chickadee” Cardwell when she was 8 years old. Per photographic proof published on TMZ, Shannon had brought the man, Mark McDaniel, around her youngest daughter, Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson, after the man had served 10 years in prison for his sex crime.
This was objectively despicable, but not too despicable for WEtv. Suffering is fuel in the network’s tank. WEtv’s recent offerings have included the sinfully addictive Love After Lockup and its spin-off Life After Lockup follow former inmates who attempt fresh-out-of-prison romances (several have drug problems, including the show’s most magnetic tragedy, Tracie Wagaman, whose revolving door jail visits owing to her drug use have been dutifully documented on the show), and the 2019 season of Marriage Boot Camp: Family Edition featured a rattled Aaron Carter, who around the time of the show’s airing had a series of public “meltdown” episodes and a reported overdose scare. WEtv has also featured multiple people with white-supremacist symbol tattoos, including Love After Lockup’s Mark and Mama June Shannon’s friend Michael “Big Mike” Mclarty. After viewers spotted a swastika on Mclarty’s arm, WEtv devised a workaround to keep him on the show: long sleeves and blurring.
The shot above is from Friday’s Season 4 premiere of Mama June: From Not to Hot, which has a second subtitle, Family Crisis. That makes for a rather confusing title card.
The new season premiered with a new focus: Shannon’s ruin. What went from a purportedly lighthearted portrayal of a reality TV veteran’s weight-loss journey has become dark, dark, dark, via Shannon’s relationship with a man named Geno Doak. From Not to Hot captured their courtship and Shannon’s kids’ ostensible bond with Doak. But then things took a turn. Shannon and Doak were arrested in March 2019 after a domestic dispute. Both of them had drugs in their possession and were charged. So began Shannon and Doak’s wild yearlong ride, which according to TMZ’s breathless reporting, has included several skipped hotel bills, Doak driving into the door of Shannon’s garage, lashing out at paparazzi, and the disregard of social distancing.
WEtv and From Not to Hot’s production company Thinkfactory have kept cameras rolling and pointed at Shannon’s family. Watching the Season 4 premiere, I wondered if the powers that be were hoping for this kind of hyper-dramatic implosion. Certainly, it comes as no huge surprise, given Shannon’s history of reckless behavior. (TMZ reported that Shannon will not get a paycheck this season because she did not technically participate as a subject.) And it comes as no surprise that WEtv is continuing to follow a family in disrepair, given its programming history and seeming disregard for its subjects’ mental health. The idea that a 14-year-old child who is estranged from her mother should be telling that story in a public forum, as it’s still playing out, is simply absurd.
But there Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson was, talking about her life with such pathos that it felt like watching a therapy session. This segment came cloaked in the vérité pretension of an ensemble reality show’s reunion special, with behind-the-scenes prepping inserted. The forced rawness was abandoned after this scene:
Canned discussions and plot contrivances ensued. Alana and Lauryn Michelle “Pumpkin” Shannon, Alana’s old sister caretaker in Mama June’s absence, had a conversation on a playground about the way things are that they both seemed bored by, probably because they’ve had it already so many times before. Mama June’s manager, Gina Rodriguez, invited both Alana and Pumpkin out to Los Angeles to get away from it all, while separately inviting Jennifer Lamb Thompson, the wife of Alana’s father Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, to participate in a photoshoot. By the end of the episode, all parties were in Los Angeles (Jennifer and Sugar Bear had flown out to confront Alana and Pumpkin for going to Los Angeles against their wishes—I’m sure that photoshoot is imminent though). Meanwhile, Shannon’s sister Doe Doe and the aforementioned swastika-tattoo rocking Mclarty took off from Georgia to Alabama to find June.
Attempts at levity included an extended bit about Doe Doe’s new Chiclet-like veneers and subtitling Pumpkin’s baby daughter Ella’s vocalization with articulated thoughts, like Look Who’s Talking but cheaper and stupider.
There is probably some sort of documentary to be made about this family—its refusal to stay off television and what it really means to be coping with scandal, tragedy, and embarrassment in public. Their narrative is a real modern twist on a fall of a deeply American family. Mama June: From Not to Hot: Family Crisis is not that documentary. It’s not a documentary at all, but a quasi-true life depiction of potentially traumatic destitution and the dissolution of a family before its very own eyes. I can’t think of anything so needlessly craven in its contrivances for the sake of making television. Scenes from the season preview that ran after the premiere include Alana getting into modeling and Pumkin’s baby taking part in a beauty pageant. Who. Cares. There’s no concrete data, as far as I’m aware, that the presence of cameras is affecting the quality of life of the estranged Shannon-Thompson clan, but the correlation between them being on television and utter disrepair is so high that the moral thing to do would be refuse to chance it and keep these people off the air until they’re doing better. This show is disgusting in a new way, even for a family that made Pink Flamingos seem like Sesame Street.
My heart goes out to Pumpkin, 20, who has taken it upon herself to raise her teenage sister. She is out of her depth, and also raising a young child of her own. I can only assume that her decision to stay on the air, as well as that of Alana’s other family members like her generally incoherent father and his self-absorbed wife, are chiefly economic in nature. Despite having been on TV for almost 10 years now, this family is clearly not wealthy, and they don’t have the best models for money management. It is conceivable that they are taking what they can get out of necessity.
But I was particularly unnerved by a scene depicting a conversation between Rodriguez, who is also managing Alana, and Pumpkin. Rodriguez pressured Pumpkin to get her child into entertainment, saying that she’s the next Honey Boo Boo. “Josh and I both agreed to not let Ella grow up to be, like, the next Honey Boo Boo, because we’ve seen how much pressure that put on Alana and I just want her to kinda do her own thing,” said Pumpkin.
But there’s her daughter right there, not doing her own thing but the thing of her family (and the thing that propelled Alana to fame, way more so than beauty pageants): appearing on reality TV. The mere suggestion of a moral compass evaporates as soon as it hits the air. Taking this opportunity to remain on TV in the time of crisis might be this family’s way of making lemonade from lemons, but from where I’m sitting, it looks and tastes like piss.