I was minding my own business over the holidays, lying on the couch in a semi-conscious state, letting the comforting puns and punchlines of some marathon or another — I think it was “Sex and the City” — soften my focus, when a difficult commercial popped my bubble, “popped” being the key word.
It was an ad for the TLC series “Dr. Pimple Popper,” and it was not a joke. For a second, I thought I’d stumbled onto a fake “Saturday Night Live” commercial — but I soon had my hand over my eyes, unable to look at the very real science-fiction-like nightmare unfolding before me. Yes, there is a show about removing globules, pustules, lipomas, boils, cysts, zits, and pus — a veritable “Macbeth” witches’ brew of soggy atrocities — from various body parts. Furthermore, there’s a solid audience for it, as the show has just returned for a second season after last year’s 16-episode first season, which averaged 2 million viewers per episode.
Somehow Mr. TV Man managed to miss even a mention of Dr. Pimple Popper for over a year.
And it doesn’t seem to be merely a relaxed audience that just happens to tune in to watch the ministrations of the compassionate, burst-loving Dr. Pimple Popper — also known as Dr. Sandra Lee, author and owner of a skin care line. The viewers are simply gaga for squeezing. On a YouTube video of the doctor removing blackheads and whiteheads from a man’s face, using a tool to draw out the pudding like Bavarian crème from a doughnut, the comments are passionate: “OMG I wish that I could remove them. . . . I am like having the best feeling watching this,” says one. “I wanted more I didn’t want it to end. Great video Dr. Pimple Popper,” says another. More than a million people have watched the clip, and many more millions have seen her other clips on YouTube, where she began her video career before TLC called.
Even those viewers who are completely grossed out are enthusiastic, in the same way horror-movie fans are, throwing out spelling rules in favor of emphasis in the comments: “I wanna watch it cuz it’s satisfying but then I dont wanna cuz it’s DISGUSTANG.” Yes indeed, that is the best of all possible words: DISGUSTANG.
The formula and the atmospherics of “Dr. Pimple Popper” are very much like those on any makeover or self-improvement reality show, with music signaling the tension and then the joy in every case. Each person who comes to see the doctor is carrying a burden — of physical pain, and in many cases of embarrassment severe enough to keep them from leaving the house. In her visits with them, Dr. Lee looks at their bumps and blisters and explains what they are and how she’ll remove them to end the torment, torment that in the season premiere threatens to end a marriage.
And then: The real action. I’m sure the feel-good messaging appeals to viewers, as emotional battles are fought and often won, but the heart of the “Dr. Pimple Popper” drama is the surgery, during which the camera zooms in for as many details of the grotesquery as you can take. While she removes the 68 lipomas that line a patient’s arms in the season premiere, pulling out the little shrimp-like bits from under the skin, Dr. Lee talks about how “satisfying” the process is — for her. She affectionately calls the lipomas a “litter” of “gremlins” as she places them on the side table, but let’s be honest: There’s nothing cute about the slippery, rubbery monsters she has released from captivity.
Watching the YouTube video where Dr. Lee drains all those blackheads and whiteheads, the strains of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” rose up into my consciousness: “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye.” Many claim the most disgusting word in the English language is “moist,” but I think I could make a good case for “discharge.”
So it has come to this. Reality TV has gotten absurdly specific, and apparently there is an appetite for vivid images of embedded detritus being set free from the body. Are we this bored? This is a time when TV is featuring the best scripted shows in its history, when there are always too many good or better series to catch up on, but still there is a taste for “Dr. Pimple Popper.”
What can I say. There may well be legitimate reasons for disapproving of the series — perhaps because, like many self-improvement reality shows, it gives a false sense that fixing one thing, a pimple, will solve everything. But for me, the distaste for “Dr. Pimple Popper” is far simpler. I cry foul. It’s all DISGUSTANG.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.