Feelings of superiority and gawking are both staples of unscripted TV, and Bravo has successfully wedded them in “Extreme Guide to Parenting.” Basically, the series brings the voyeurism of “Hoarders” to the more relatable if imprecise art of raising children, introducing families whose good intentions place them on the fringes of what even the most diligent parents might consider normal. Still, such extremes are out there, and the series is riveting in a way, if slightly uncomfortable when contemplating that the kids have been innocently drawn into an entertainment that invariably sets up their parents as objects of curiosity and derision.
The first episode, notably, focuses on two families and winds up feeling incomplete, while a second, considerably stronger, follows a single brood for the entire hour. In the debut, a mom with a difficult tyke describes her approach to child-rearing as “shamanistic,” which includes liberally spraying aromatic therapies all over herself and her kids. Across the country, a gay couple suffocates their toddler with affection, refusing to leave even for a few hours to let someone watch her without them around.
In a later episode, another couple fears vaccinations, and wants to throw a chickenpox party, thus exposing their toddler and others to the disease early as an alternative. The wife, Christian, also talks wistfully about cooking up placenta (yes, most mammals eat theirs) and advocates “elimination communication” — essentially letting the kid run around diaper-free, assuming she can intuit when the next deluge might occur.
To the skeptical eye it is, at the risk of sounding uncharitable, a freakshow, however earnest the parents might appear. And that, of course, is the principal source of the program’s appeal. “I don’t care about anyone’s decision regarding my parenting style,” Christian says defiantly — and unconvincingly, given how much she seems to seek others’ approval.
For Bravo, the show has the potential to become the guiltiest of pleasures — a chance to judge other people’s parenting foibles and feel perhaps a bit reassured about one’s own. Moreover, for a channel chasing a female audience under 50, concerns associated with children (often relegated to the role of mere accessories in the “Real Housewives” shows) are prevalent and potentially lucrative themes.
Granted, some viewers might be overcome by the “ick” factor in this, especially in the way these families are exploited. Yet given their apparent commitment to their views, one suspects that being given a platform to present them is compensation enough, and the promotional tie-ins/interviews with the likes of “Today” and “Dr. Phil” practically write themselves.
In short, Bravo hasn’t done anything here to advance the cause of parenthood. But from a bottom-line TV perspective, it just might have struck the mother lode.