Last night I watched something on TV that can only be described as a freakshow of epic proportion. It was disgusting, appalling. The monsters lumbering across my screen were disturbing; what evil demons gave birth to such a cast of unsavory circus sideshow characters? Were they ... dare I say ... even human? And then, I realized that I'd better turn off the first night of the Republican National Convention, because it was time to change the channel to the two-episode season premiere of TLC's conjoined twins docu-reality show, Abby and Brittany.
The women referred to in the show's title are 22 year-old conjoined twins, Abby and Brittany Hensel. The scientific term for their condition is dicephalic parapagus twins. I find the "dicephalic" part of the term to be a bit odd. It implies that there exist in this world monocephalic parapagus twins. One-headed twins? I don't think so, SCIENCE. Anyway, the twins have separate hearts, spines/spinal cords, stomachs, and lungs. They have two arms and two legs, arranged in such a manner as to give the physical appearance of one human body with two heads. Abby and Brittany share a ribcage, liver, colon, and one pair of breasts. Despite each having their own heart, the twins share a circulatory system. Similarly, their separate stomachs empty into a shared large intestine and rectum. They also share a reproductive system. This expositional information regarding the girls' physiology is all rattled off in a five second testimonial clip from one of the girls' roommates, after which all manner of factual information is absent from the shows. In fact, we are not granted any background information about the twins' birth, family, or childhood at all. The first episodes include effusive commentary as to how well the girls have learned to function as a seamless cooperative unit, however the audience is not allowed even the slightest glimpse into the formative years in which these cooperative skills were honed.
The following are my assorted reactions to this week's shows, and my hopes for the series' future.
Disclaimer: I think that Abby and Brittany seem like wonderful people who,despite this profound physical setback, really have a really great vibe about them and seem to have a very beautiful outlook on life. They'll certainly be an inspiration to many viewers, and I like their "whole deal".
I hope the series dares to get darker. The first episodes basically show Abby and Brittany goofing around and having a great time with friends. They have a 22nd birthday party for themselves, go out for "appetizers," and bake cakes. The twins briefly express concerns about their job prospects upon their imminent graduation from college, but these concerns are brief. A lot of the show is just Abby and Brittany doing silly dances and trying on wacky clothing items. Most of the show is total Giggle Town. I understand that the show is meant to be upbeat and inspirational; and yet, I wish I could get some sense of the sadness, the horror, the profound angst that must come with living such a life. What we're getting is "whee!" but what I want is ennui.
Less roommates: Abby and Brittany are never shown without their roommates, friends, or family around. I don’t care about any of these people; that conjoined twins have friends isn’t something miraculous or exciting. What is fascinating, however, is the relationship between two people who SHARE A BODY.
Bethel University, from which the twins are shown graduating, is a private Christian college where students are bound by a set of conduct rules called "The Covenant for Life Together." This isn’t discussed on the show. A visit to Bethel's website reveals that these rules include abstaining from drugs and alcohol, pornography, and gambling; students are also required to limit themselves to only music, theater, entertainment, and dance with explicit Christian values. This is all well and good. Until, of course, we reach the part of the Covenant which reads that sexual activity is appropriate within heterosexual marriage only. Heterosexual! Suddenly, the "we accept them just the way they are because just because they were born a certain way doesn't mean they are any different than the rest of us and should be treated with the same respect and care and love" rhetoric espoused by everyone on Abby and Brittany seems a bit more hypocritical. Conjoined twins who stand against gay marriage? Now THAT’S bizarre-o.
Speaking of, it occurred to me while watching the show that TLC is obsessed with super-Christian families. Between Jon and Kate Plus 8, 19 Kids and Counting, United Bates of America, Raising Sextuplets (The Masch Family), Sarah Palin's Alaska, Table for 12, their multiple documentaries on the McCaughey Septuplets, and now Abby and Brittany (to name a few), TLC has dedicated much of its programming to the daily lives of American devout Christians. This is no coincidence; the anti-contraception, anti-abortion (even while using artificial insemination) stance of these families is one "cause" of their unusual, and thus television-worthy, lifestyles.
Whether or not subsequent shows give further food for thought as far as any of the above, the fact is that no matter how tepid a show TLC ends up producing, it’s likely that I’ll be tuning in every week. The lure of dicephalic parapagus Geminis is just too great. The whole thing is a neuro-physiological gobsmack. Dicephalous snakes naturally occur in nature, but their relationships are far more conflictual. Early in life the snake can barely steer itself around as the two heads struggle for control. One head eventually becomes dominant while the other recedes into vestigiality. The most frustrating thing about this show could be that the very existential subtext to which the show owes its magnetism will remain deliberately, patronizingly, unexamined.