I’ve often wondered if I could, one day soon, watch someone’s entire life unfold through TLC’s programming lineup.
It would start on A Conception Story and then continue with Toddlers & Tiaras, or perhaps 19 Kids and Counting. From there, it’s tweendom in Cheer Perfection, followed by the invariable teen rebellion on America’s Worst Tattoos. Redemption is found, and a wedding is planned with many, many programming options: Say Yes to the Dress; Say Yes to the Dress: Bridesmaids; I Found the Gown; Something Borrowed, Something New; even Sister Wives and My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. Finally, Extreme Couponing and Extreme Cheapskates are the obvious prelude to Hoarding: Buried Alive, in which my fantasy subject is discovered unconscious beneath a pile of juice boxes and cat skeletons.
I do not know where Long Island Medium fits into this. Maybe she intuits to look under the skeletons.
But Extreme Couponing is perhaps the most compelling chapter in the TLC television lifecycle. To quickly sum it up: It’s a reality show about people who, through seriously admirable levels of dedication, have figured out ways to exploit coupons to such a degree that they can buy literally thousands of dollars’ worth of products for pennies. Pennies. And while this requires research and commitment and patience, the whole experience can also be summed up tidily by this woman:
And this is remarkable because it is the most potent metaphor for the American mindset: “I want to consume as much as possible for as cheaply as possible as quickly as possible.” These couponers carefully tend to their “stockpiles,” amassing everything from dish soap to Tylenol to Gatorade in quantities that could easily supply a Haitian refugee camp. (And several people on the show do use their couponing juju for good, donating their booty to the needy in the end.)
But most important, I am addicted to this show because it is the most unadulterated manifestation of free market capitalism combined with the satanically manipulative editing that makes most reality TV so watchable. That there is a television show in which you simply watch people buy things is at once dystopian and amazing and surrealistically David Foster Wallacian. That’s all the show is. Watching people buy things, and watching other people cheer those people on for buying things.
Lots and lots of things.
I’m not trying to be a coastal elitist about couponing in general. I truly am fascinated by the practice. In fact, I recently found out that someone close to me is an extreme couponer, and I kind of envy her. Had I a basement or a game room or a garage, I might consider gaming the coupon system myself. As it is, though, my kitchen is roughly the size of a bad motel bathroom, so I don’t take storage space for granted. I’ll buy my soap piecemeal, like a rube.
Watching this show, I am by turns envious and horrified. Sure, the woman who buys 20 pallets of kibble and six dozen cases of sports drinks for less than a dollar is getting a deal too, but on what? Sugar water and chicken beaks? “Now I can feed my family for a month,” says one couponer, ignoring the fact that her stockpile is made up exclusively of processed foods, nary a leaf of lettuce in sight. And while I would never judge someone too poor to afford nutritious food — hey, I’ve been there — most of these couponers manage to live in large, bright McMansions, so shouldn’t there be a budget for, like, apples?
And perhaps there is. Extreme Couponers doesn’t show us that. We don’t know about these couponers’ lives except on the most superficial level (and for reality television, that says something). Every episode follows the exact same formula: zoom in on Couponer; Couponer shows off their stockpile; a goal is set, usually “the biggest buy I’ve ever made”; finally, a trip to the grocery store, which is filmed at a breakneck pace with hand-held cameras as though it were a life-and-death race. But it’s not. It’s just a Wednesday.
Then the Couponer arrives at the register, and happy-to-be-on-TV store managers begin the long process of ringing up their haul. The Couponer breaks into a sweat, sorting through his or her carefully organized coupons which have suddenly become very disorganized. And then the register breaks: “We’ve never rung up this many coupons before!” More nervous sweat from the Couponer. (Why? Is someone going to call the coupon police?)
But before long the register problems are resolved, and the gathering crowd applauds, and the music swells and the credits roll, but not before we see the Couponer wheeling their caravan of shopping carts triumphantly into the parking lot.
I can’t wait for the next episode.
Photos via Oh No They Didn’t!