The Trouble Area You Never Knew You Had, by Tom McAllister

NOTE: This post is part 9 in an ongoing series of reviews of syndicated daytime TV shows by Barrelhouse editor Tom McAllister.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fear lately, how the delusion of safety is easy to puncture and difficult to reconstruct. I’m reading Dave Cullen’s excellent book Columbine, and this week Community College of Philadelphia was evacuated when some kid pulled a gun on another kid, and last week some other other kid in California shot a bunch of people because he was sexually frustrated, and a month before that 20 people got shot at Fort Hood. By the end of summer, there will be another mass public shooting somewhere in this country, and as much as I’d like to believe it won’t involve me or my family, I have no reason to believe this, aside from optimism and the fact that America is huge and there are a lot of people yet to be shot. 

All it takes is a man with a gun and a grudge. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do for a living or whether you deserve it or not; by being in public in America, you tacitly agree to the risk of being shot in the face by someone you’ve never met. 

I teach at Temple University, a very large university in North Philadelphia. As with any urban campus, safety is a constant concern. Last semester, I talked to my students specifically about the issue of school shootings—it was relevant to the course materials, and there are occasional scares when mysterious packages are found on campus or people make threats—and not a single student said they felt safe. I felt like my job there was to reassure them in some way, but what was I going to say? Don’t worry, statistically plenty of other people are more likely to get shot than you. How was I going to reassure anyone when I didn’t feel at all safe? Was I even supposed to tell them about the chemically imbalanced student who had cornered me in the stairwell a few years ago and threatened me? 

This isn’t an indictment of Temple. They’re doing what they can do to keep us as safe as they can, given the many variables out of their control. It’s sort of an indictment of a culture in which we establish masculinity via violence, in which even the act of questioning the proliferation of assault rifles is considered unpatriotic. But it’s also just me asking: what are we supposed to do? How am I supposed to feel safe? 

* * *

Anyway, the CBS talk show The Doctors isn’t about school shootings, or guns, or anything like that. But I’ve been thinking about those things.

And The Doctors is a frightening show. It is designed to scare you. 

Let’s be honest, you should be afraid. The world is terrifying. 

* * *

The basics: The Doctors is a talk show staffed by actual medical doctors with actual expertise in their respective fields. Their bios are impressive, as you would expect from accomplished physicians. The titular doctors are intelligent. They understand science and support it vocally, as they should, especially in the science-hostile environment of daytime TV (their segment on measles outbreaks and anti-vaccine advocates was particularly good because every doctor took a moment to first debunk a stupid vaccine myth and then to stress the importance of actual science and data-supported decisions rather than just blindly going with your gut). They’re pretty good at explaining complex medical concepts in clear terms, which my wife (a nurse) assures me is a rare quality in physicians, and which is a valuable service to the community. 

Most episodes include numerous segments on a broad health-related theme; one episode was based on ROYGBIV, the colors of the rainbow, discussing the various ways different colors can manifest in the hospital. Episodes move in rapid-fire fashion, never dwelling particularly long on any specific topic, and frequently running a chyron on the lower third of the screen promising that some other topic is coming up within minutes. 

The show is particularly interested in “gross” topics that I am 100% certain these doctors do not find gross, because no experienced doctor is grossed out by mucous. One segment featured some fucking guy who calls himself Dr. Disgusting, because he works on things that are disgusting (i.e., the entire human body). That level of dumbing down was a bridge too far for me, and I truly hated the moment when Doctor Travis Stork (once a contestant on The Bachelor), led into a segment by saying “Well—it’s green and it just may come out of your baby’s butt. What is it? Come back and find out.”

You know what it was? 

Of course you know what it was. It was poop. Poop comes out of babies’ butts. 

We’re all adults, The Doctors. Let’s all just talk like adults. 

* * *

So what’s scary about The Doctors? Pretty much everything. The show seems legitimately dangerous to hypochondriacs, who will watch and be convinced by the end that they have toenail fungus, MS, high blood pressure, and maybe measles. As a non-hypochondriac (maybe just a chondriac?), I still worried halfway through my fourth episode that I might have a number of malignant processes occurring in my body while I watched this show for this stupid project. 

But it’s not just a hypochondria thing. It’s clearly an intentional choice made by the producers. The tenor of the show is one of foreboding. The quick segments lead to frequent commercial breaks (an average of 7 per episode, compared to the 4-5 I’ve seen on other shows), and they run teasers both pre and post break in which an intense voiceover warns about the various maladies you might be about to endure. 

Is this condition a sign of something dangerous to come? 

Could you get it too? 

Secret tips you can’t afford to miss!

When side effects turn to tragedy!

Some creative editing makes it seem more ominous than it is; for example, one episode kept teasing a doctor saying “I would worry,” but then when he said the whole sentence, it was “If this condition persisted for a week, I would worry, but otherwise it’s not a problem.” They did the same with the phrase, “they’re very alarming,” which turned out to be part of a much longer sentence essentially saying that the test results in question were not alarming. There is a lot of ominous music. There is the endless reminder that although you feel ok right now you might soon face a life-threatening illness. 

I’m writing this before the airing of the May 30 episode, but here’s the teaser they used to promote it:

It’s the trouble area you never knew you had. Where it is and how you can keep yours looking great

That basically sums up the show. Every day, they’re going to tell you about a new unseen threat. They’re going to let you know about another thing you should fear and lay out some symptoms of this mystery illness. They’re going to make you uncomfortable. A cynic like me would then expect interstitial ads for products to solve these mystery illnesses, but that’s not really the case. There are a lot of ads targeted at decrepit seniors, but there are just as many for unrelated products.

The onslaught of worrying messages then seems a little less insidious, if still dangerous. It seems designed to create fear for no particular end besides letting people know there are infinite ways to die. 

Often these ways involve obesity; every episode for the past two weeks has featured at least one weight loss segment. Sometimes they involve kidnapping and imprisonment; known huckster Dr. Phil stopped by one day to talk about Ariel Castro’s imprisonment of three young Cleveland women. Usually they just involve the body breaking down and betraying you despite your best efforts. 

Although the doctors themselves can’t be blamed for the production values—they generally say responsible and intelligent things about the topics because they’ve read the research and they know what they’re talking about—they are nonetheless complicit in the perpetuation of this fear-mongering, because they continue to happily participate in, and profit from, the show. 

* * *

Last week, a segment must have fallen apart at the last minute, because they ran a useless bit called “What Would Dell Do?” It was a really unfunny pre-recorded sketch in which their producer, Dell, was very zen about a variety of negative behind-the-scenes occurrences, and the point seemed to be, “hey, this guy is cool!” Then they brought him on stage to talk about how calm he is in stressful situations. One of the docs asked him how this attitude came to be, and he said, “I just live every day like I might be dead tomorrow.” This comment made the doctors very uncomfortable, and Travis, laughing awkwardly, tried to defuse the discomfort by saying he does not endorse living like you might be dead tomorrow. Which was a weird turn, because this show is always reminding you of your mortality; however, confronted with the reality of this mindset, the show was unable to own its implicit message.


Tom McAllister is the Barrelhouse Non-fiction Editor. His memoir, "Bury Me in My Jersey," was published in 2010, and his shorter work has appeared in FiveChapters, Black Warrior Review, elimae, and some other places. He has a novel forthcoming from Algonquin in Spring 2016. He co-hosts the Book Fightpodcast and you can find him on twitter @t_mcallister.