Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Bravo’s Thicker Than Water is the reverse Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—same game, but on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson and her family are down-and-out, self-proclaimed rednecks; the Tankards of Thicker Than Water are a black family living a lavish life in a sprawling mansion. What both clans have in common are their size and general dysfunction: Ben Tankard lives with third wife Jewel, children from their previous marriages, and one granddaughter, born to 24-year-old Brooklyn when she was 14.
What the Tankards and the Thompson-Shannons also have in common is a certain shamelessness in their choices—either due to a lack of perspective or a calculated ignorance as to what they look like when sprawled out on camera in their full glory. On Thicker Than Water as well as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the stars exhibit a rawness and unvarnished indignity.
But it’s harder to spin Thicker Than Water as an exploitation narrative, as many have done with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Ben Tankard is an extremely rich, semi-retired music producer who now runs a church and is a for-hire motivational speaker. He’s also launching a line of clothing called Full Tank. In addition to the mansion, the family owns nine vehicles and is in the market for a few private jets. Ben and Jewel are extremely religious and believe that God wants them to be fabulously wealthy. Indeed, they seem to find luxurious wealth a crucial part of their practice and ministry. Oldest daughter Brooklyn left home young, had a child, and then set up a private strip lounge with her sister Britney working as bartender. The place was shut down the night of Brooklyn’s 21st birthday.
As all this information is laid out, Bravo aggressively cuts from the family telling its stories to assorted bystanders’ reaction shots. Every scene is underscored with the network’s signature musical cues: bounciness for the ridiculous and harsh discordance for the shocking. Essentially, it asks: “Are you offended yet? No? Well, how about now?”
This endless effort to upset the audience by presenting another disappointing specimen of the human species is wearying. Bravo is well aware of how ludicrous the Tankards appear to a wider audience—avaricious, hypocritical, and apparently proud of it. Racial stereotypes are also built into the equation: The camera’s constant implication is that money can’t buy you class, disgustingly perpetuating the idea that the cast members’ race somehow makes all this worse. The show allows viewers to sit comfortably with that insinuation, convinced of their own superiority as compared to the subjects being scrutinized. The network expects the outraged or the holier-than-thou to stop by and gawk at those who are less self-aware—and it’s built a template for its programming on that expectation.
It works, of course, though not all that well. The premise of the Tankards’ existence is more interesting than their day-to-day lives, in which the patriarch unclogs a toilet or youngest daughter Cyrene attends her prom. The details of their lives offer a few moments of the ridiculous: For example, Jewel has a full-time makeup assistant to prepare her each morning, a process during which she recites affirmations aimed at becoming a billionaire (since she’s already managed millionaire status). But the mechanics of the family members’ lives are rather dull. Ben hassles his stepdaughter’s prom date, teasing him about being responsible and admonishing Cyrene to stay “pure.” Brooklyn fails to register for a marathon on time, but then tells her parents she ran all 26.2 miles. It’s on par with a predictable sitcom, and no one can deliver lines with a straight face. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is made of the same stuff as Thicker Than Water, but it’s more playful. The children on the former show are much younger, and the complications of race and religious affiliation don’t come into play. TLC can’t always decide whether it’s mocking Honey Boo Boo; Bravo is clearly making fun of the Tankards.
It’s good to see the Tankards having fun with the absurd reality of their lives, but it’s frustrating to see yet another iteration of voyeuristic television from Bravo, which already has the Real Housewives brand. It all feels like it’s trying a bit too hard, and at this point, the formula feels played out. The rest of the season promises suspected drunk driving, a wedding, and “black people playing croquet”—none of which bodes well.