Whenever I have a real day off of work — one that isn’t dedicated to an event, traveling, or running errands that I can only get done during business hours — I revel in the opportunity to indulge one of my rare guilty pleasures: daytime talk shows. I love planting myself on the couch and watching programs like Maury and The Jerry Springer Show. I sit with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment at the predictable storylines. And they are nothing, if not satisfyingly predictable.
For example: Just about every paternity segment on Maury includes the same elements. There's the shocking or sad story about how a woman got pregnant. There's at least one (but sometimes more) would-be father who vehemently denies that he could possibly have fathered the child based on logic that is never scientifically sound. The mother compares a photo of the baby with a photo of the would-be dad on a huge screen so that the audience and viewers can also assess. The would-be father slut-shames the mother in a poorly scripted confessional. The pair bicker onstage. Maury Povich, the host, sits calmly, taking no sides, and reads the results. If it turns out the man is the father, he’ll bury his head in shame while the woman dances and gloats. If he is not the father, he dances and gloats while the mom runs backstage in tears or embarrassment.
After 26 years and over 2,500 episodes, inconsistency is never a critique you could leverage against Povich. Despite this, the truth is that Maury is trashy. As is The Jerry Springer Show. There is no way around it. The whole premise of the genre — which was once dominated by “respectable” white women like Sally Jessy Raphael, Jenny Jones, and Ricki Lake — is that “respectable” white men make a profit by exploiting the interpersonal turmoil of poor people, mostly people of color (though Jerry Springer has a certain affinity for “white trash”). These shows make a spectacle of their pain and methods of expressing their feelings on a national platform.
So why have I enjoyed them, especially Maury, for the better part of 20 years? What is the allure of these programs? How have they managed to stay relevant for all these years? Ironically, I don’t think the formula for these shows’ success is that different than some of our more “respectable” viewing options.
Fun fact: I have personally known not one, but two people who have been guests on Maury and The Jerry Springer Show. One of them was my ex-boyfriend from high school — who always had a flair for the dramatic — who went on Springer just to try it out. The other was a neighborhood friend who wanted to take advantage of Maury’s free paternity services. He was not the father, but did his own amount of performing for the cameras. Truth be told, daytime talk shows were the average Joe’s one shot at fame before reality television became the booming industry it is today. Memorable guests are often invited back to the show and/or other guests mimic their storylines and antics. We are a culture that is obsessed with getting an exclusive glimpse into the “real” lives of other people. Does it get any realer than baby daddy drama?
On another note, while the representation of people of color is certainly problematic, diversity has never been an issue on these series. I can’t think of another genre of television that regularly focuses on the stories of poor people of color. That was refreshing to me as someone who grew up Black and very working class. I certainly feel some type of way about the fact that these people are minimally compensated while Povich and Springer are both worth millions. But I in no way intend on shaming them for daring to be poor, Black/Brown, and troubled in public.
The politics of daytime television are complicated. A tricky cocktail of racism and respectability send the message that we shouldn’t consume them, even though those same components are part of the reason why we still watch.