A couple of weeks ago, on NPR's "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me..." one of the panelists was shocked to learn that there was an upcoming show on TLC about "extreme couponing." She thought it sounded rather boring - "how can you make a show out of something like that?" For the moment, on the radio show, it was a source of great humor and laughter.
At the time of this NPR broadcast, I'd been seeing commercials for Extreme Couponing almost every single day and was thinking I might watch the premiere. Being currently unemployed, I unfortunately have a lot of time to watch TV - which has the added benefit of allowing me to hone critical thinking skills in terms of the media (example: I adore the portrayal of a career woman who actually is living a balanced and respectable life in TNT's The Closer). But I digress.
Extreme Couponing follows the lives of a select group of people as they spend most of their free time searching through newspaper ads, websites and even, yes, going door to door in the their neighborhood, looking for coupons. They are all about the deal, the chase, the success story. And in a way, it's stunning to see someone get $1200 worth of products for $51 and change.
But then you realize that the "haul" is 200 boxes of pasta, 186 bottles of Gatorade, and a 175 candy bars.
And you begin to think that there is something very, very wrong with this picture.
The way the show works is that they follow these "extreme couponers" on a shopping trip - everything from the preparation for the trip, which can take up to three days of clipping and calculating, to the shopping itself to the trip home. It's obvious that they are pros at this task - frequently, the pre-trip interviews are posed against a backdrop of their previous hauls. One lady, who is married with one young boy, has shelves built into her garage for all the stuff that she buys...and yet she still goes shopping for more. She has enough pasta, pop, treats, and canned goods to survive the Second Coming and then some.
And yet she still wants more.
The thing that I find most disturbing about the show is not the act of saving money, but the idea of saving money unnecessarily. These people are so good at what they do that they don't even need to do it anymore. I mean, what are you going to do with 200 boxes of different kinds of pasta? What are you going to do with 186 bottles of Gatorade, especially when you yourself say that you don't exercise (sidenote: Gatorade, in large quantities, is dangerous for you if you're not exercising)?
Only one of the five people on the show donate their goods to a local charity/food bank.
And this highlights a disturbing trend in American society: We are way too concerned about STUFF. We are way too concerned about the narrative we can tell others, the feeling of awe that saving 99% on groceries inspires in others. But saving that 99% is worthless in practicality if the food simply expires before you ever have a chance to use it - you're actually throwing money away, money that would be perfectly good and useful in many other areas.
And TLC celebrates it.
My friend Kirby referred to the show as the precursor to Hoarding, another TLC show in which people have literally filled their houses with stuff and need therapy to clean out their lives. But the mood in that show is far different from the mood in Extreme Couponing. They are both about the acquisition of THINGS, but one is celebrated while the other is pitied, but they are different parts of the same disorder.
Let's get a conversation going:
What are your thoughts on the prevalence of shows that, on the one hand, celebrate the acquisition of things while ignoring the possible disorder that underlies them? Do you find these to be bad or good examples? Is there redemption here?
Feel free to wax poetic in the comments - I'll be reading and responding.