One symptom of profound internal conflict on the part of the American population is the presence of opposing reality shows. No, really. That's why we have shows about the perils of overeating and shows about the beauty of cupcakes; shows about the dangers of hoarding and shows about the thrill of using coupons to accumulate more paper towels than you could use in a lifetime of pouring coffee directly onto your countertop.
And now, one day apart, we have two new shows about perhaps dysfunctional spending habits: My Shopping Addiction tonight on Oxygen and Extreme Cheapskates tomorrow night on TLC. So if you want to see people who perhaps spend too much, that's tonight. If you want to see people who perhaps don't spend enough, that's tomorrow night.
Extreme Cheapskates, a pilot for which aired last December as a special, establishes the philosophy that hardcore thrift itself is offbeat enough for television: the pilot made no distinction between people who save money in ways that make no sense and people who save money in ways that, while meticulous, aren't really strange at all. On this show, the guy who brings his wife dirty dead flowers out of the dumpster for their 25th anniversary was no different from the guy who rides a bike and knows how to use up the last bit of jelly in the jar. (Pour in some cider vinegar, shake it up, and you get a sauce/dressing.)
Quite frankly, when jelly-jar guy explained that he and his wife periodically do weeklong "fasts" where they don't spend any money at all, thus pushing themselves to use up all the change and bits of things they would otherwise never get around to getting rid of, it sounded kind of ... genius. That guy seems like he should have an advice column.
You might have put him in a different category from the woman that episode featured who substitutes pieces of cloth for toilet paper to save money, leaving them in what seems to be an open bucket in the bathroom until laundry time. (The show is candid about the fact that some people think this sounds weird and/or gross.) (You can't see me, but I am slowly raising my hand.) And then there was the guy who thinks he engages in "bartering" but who actually seems to be engaging more in offbeat reverse-busking when he, for instance, loudly recites "Jabberwocky" in a bakery in exchange for a donut. It's not clear that he grasps the crucial difference between being given a donut in exchange for reading a poem and being given a donut in exchange for not reading another poem.
But for the purposes of the show, they're all the same: cheapskates. In the new episodes, you'll meet Kate, who washes her clothes in the shower.
It appears that bathroom habits will play a pretty significant role in the definitions of cheapskatehood.
Over on My Shopping Addiction, the premiere visits two women, Heather and Roshanda. Heather inherited millions of dollars and spends $30,000 a month on fancy clothes and other high-end items; Roshanda loves the 99 cent store and seems to mostly like the experience of coming home with a lot of physical stuff in her arms. They're in different situations, but they have the same problem: for whatever reason, they accumulate things compulsively, irrespective of the actual value of those things.
Considering how much of our lives we spend thinking about and dealing with money, pop culture is historically pretty squeamish about it. It almost never comes up on scripted television in any meaningful way; characters on TV often seem to rely on periodic money drops from leprechauns. People have jobs, of course, but limitations on how much money those jobs bring in rarely alter anyone's direction. There are historical exceptions – Roseanne may be the greatest of them – but they are, in fact, exceptions.
Unscripted shows are different. Money — and not having enough of it — is constantly in the background for people on Hoarders, on Bridezillas, on Toddlers & Tiaras, and yes, on Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. That doesn't make those shows good or respectable by any means. (If you see a Honey Boo Boo blurb that says "Different ... respectable! — NPR", you'll know I've been misquoted.) But it makes them more in touch with one specific element of most people's existence than many classier projects tend to be.
But the nitty gritty of day-to-day cash flow hasn't been the subject all that often. It's always been fashionable to make fun of excess and the places where it blooms most extravagantly – there's a reason there are no Real Housewives Of Milwaukee. But what you spend on laundry detergent and groceries hasn't usually been considered great TV fodder.
As television finds people who will drop their guard about things that were once considered too personal for dinner parties, let alone basic cable — sex, parenting, birth, weddings, diseases — specific finances haven't gone public quite as quickly, unless either you're poor for reasons that are plainly heroic (see, for instance, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) or you're bragging about how much you have and how much you can afford to spend (see, for instance, MTV's posh-party show My Super Sweet Sixteen). WeTV had a show called Downsized for a couple of seasons, about a large blended family trying to cope with the economic downturn, but that didn't last. Extreme Couponing — the obvious precursor to Cheapskates — comes close, but that's more about hobbyists than finances themselves.
Here, they've made financial variations on existing templates: My Shopping Addiction is a "get help" show, like Hoarders or Intervention, about people being treated for a disorder. In fact, Dr. David Tolin, who handles the psychology, has actually been on Hoarders, too, and he winds up working with Roshanda, who seems like she could become a hoarder pretty easily. Extreme Cheapskates hasn't decided yet whether it's going to be an actual good-advice show (like it is with the jelly-jar guy), a show about oddballs who seem to be doing shtick (like it is with the dead flowers guy, who finds himself hilarious), or a show about cringing at gross things (like it is with the potty cloth lady). Each of those segments is a spin on something that's been done many times, so now they're trying to find out whether we're ready to talk about money the way we apparently have decided to talk about everything else.