Reality’s Believe It or Not

Who among us hasn't tried to weasel out of a traffic ticket with some creative excuse? "But the light was still yellow, officer." Or "I'm late getting home to feed the kids." Or "I really, really have to pee." Chances are you never came close to the alibi Matt Roloff used recently. Roloff was pulling out of a restaurant parking lot in Washington County, Ore., when he took a wide turn that clipped the double yellow line, then crossed it again a little further down the road. Within seconds, he had flashing red lights in his rearview mirror. The cop said that Roloff was weaving and suspected a DUI. Roloff explained that he was having trouble controlling the car because the pedal extensions on his van were set up for his wife, whose legs are a few inches shorter than his. Then Roloff—a little person who stands about four feet tall—opened the door to show what he, and the pedals, looked like. Hard to argue with that. But the officer still insisted on a Breathalyzer test. Roloff, insisting he was innocent, refused.

So Roloff will have to plead his case in traffic court, though there's some solace in that. He is the star of the TLC show "Little People, Big World," and his court fight provides great material for the series' third season premiere on March 3. Not that "Little People" needs a drama boost. The show draws about 7 million viewers a week, and it has become part of a TV cottage industry, along with "I'm Obese," "Joined for Life: Abby and Brittany Turn 16," "The 627-Pound Woman" and the like. These shows are as American as P. T. Barnum, and they're certainly nothing new in the post-Jerry Springer age. But like junk food at the home of the "Half-Ton Man," they're everywhere, from MTV to TLC, and in reruns around the dial. Many of those shows, even the one called "My Giant Foot"—about a woman with a condition called lymphedema, which causes her left leg to swell to enormous proportions—try to cloak their voyeurism in terms of medical information or self-help. All of which raises an ethical question about reality TV's guiltiest pleasure: where does entertainment end and exploitation begin?

The folks who broadcast these shows don't appreciate that question. They say they go out of their way to select people and situations that accentuate the positive aspects of their subjects' lives. "It's entertainment that softly promotes tolerance," says Debbie Myers, the vice president of programming at TLC. "Eventually, the differences fall away and you see what you have in common with these families." Sure, folks tune in to "Little People, Big World" to see how big the Roloffs' furniture is or to gawk at how the parents raise their three average-size kids along with the one who is, like them, a little person. But Roloff's wife, Amy, says that viewers soon see that her family functions pretty much like everyone else's. "People are going to stare at us anyway," she says. "Now they know my name." Then there's the fame game. Myers says that the channel is deluged with volunteers looking to appear on its extensive list of shows, though she's selective. The concept can't be too mundane. A show called "Shalom in the Home," about a rabbi who counseled families, debuted at the same time as "Little People," and it bombed. "It was a little too real," Myers says. "If we watched reality TV about what we all go through, that's not entertainment."

Myers doesn't want her programs to be too sad, either. The key word is "inspirational," with a side order of "transformation." "We look for ordinary people with extraordinary lives," Myers says, "people who look different on the outside but are wonderful, inspirational people." There are plenty of those, such as Rosemarie Siggins, or, as her show dubs her, "The Half Woman." Because of a genetic disorder called sacral agenesis, Siggins's legs were amputated when she was young. She finds it easier to "walk" on her hands or get around on a skateboard, so she is an unusual sight. Siggins defied doctors' predictions (and recommendations) by giving birth to two healthy children. TLC and Discovery have made two documentaries about her, both of which are popular in reruns. Blogs like ParentDish.com have recommended the programs because they say Siggins is a wonderful mother, noting, among other things, how Siggins taught her son how to ice skate by attaching blades onto one of her old skateboards. She could appear on the cover of the Dr. Seuss classic "Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?"

Not everyone feels so lucky about having participated in these shows. Michael Hebranko has been the subject of two TLC programs, the first of which immortalized him as the "Half-Ton Man." That's the one that shows him in tears, being hauled out of his New York home with a forklift and deposited on a sling designed to carry marine mammals. The obesity shows provide some of the most affecting—OK, inspirational—narratives because their subjects have the capacity to transform themselves. But they also can be the most cruel, like when we see giant, half-clothed people get hoisted in and out of bed while the narrator says: "He's 780 pounds of man mountain that just keeps on eating." There are endless variations on the theme, including TLC's "Big Medicine," a sort of plus-size "Marcus Welby," about a father and son team of gastric-bypass surgeons that manages to be both clinically sympathetic and, in episodes such as "The Most Extreme Skin Removal," grotesquely curious. "Those shows are appalling," says Frances White of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "What a shame TLC can't do a show about fat people where they are as lovingly portrayed as the family on 'Little People, Big World.' Instead, fat people are robbed of their dignity."

Hebranko, whose weight has fluctuated from 198 to 1,000 pounds over the last 20 years, wouldn't argue with that. "People watch because they like a freak show," he says. But he's willing to play the part, he says, because of the supportive letters he gets, and because he knows how badly others like him need the help. Two of the people filmed at the Brookhaven obesity clinic in New York City, where Hebranko received treatment, have died since the shows were broadcast. "What makes it worthwhile for me," he says, "is that people who need help can reach out instead of staying in their house and just dying."

You hear a lot of mixed emotions from the stars of these shows—none of whom, by the way, is paid to appear. Abby and Brittany Hensel allowed the world to watch them take their driving test, even while the conjoined twins—they have two heads but one set of arms and legs—decided who would control the gas (Abby) or the blinker (Brittany). "Abby and Brittany Turn 16" is handled with great care, the girls are given plenty of time to talk about their anatomy in nonsensational ways. They explain that they made the film "so people wouldn't have to always stare and take pictures. Cause we don't like it when they take pictures … so they just know who we are and stuff." But as the film progresses, you see that any time the twins leave their Minnesota town, people blatantly photograph them, leaving the girls feeling "violated," according to their mother, Patty. She gets teary in the documentary when she explains how she doesn't want her girls to grow up like circus performers, and she hasn't let the girls speak to the media since the movie debuted two years ago. Watch the movie now—it's still in heavy rotation on the Discovery Health network—and you can see why they'd shun the spotlight. It's hard to shake the creepy, voyeuristic feeling you get when you watch the girls make pottery or brush each other's hair. The narrator explains that they are, "in nearly every sense, perfectly normal teenagers." But we know we're watching precisely because they're not.

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