TLC's new series Extreme Couponing (premiering tonight at 9/8c) has no business being as riveting as it is. Like the one-hour special that preceded it in December, the show follows deal-obsessed shoppers as they engage in mental gymnastics and loophole-jumping to maximize their savings at the grocery store...and their stashes at home. It's like Supermarket Sweep with all the hustling playing out in these people's heads. The climactic visits to the checkout line are pulse-pounding. (Will all the coupons go through? For what reason will the register lock up this time?) Their resulting booty is unbelievable. (Sixty boxes of cereal! Thirty-five bottles of Maalox! Enough chips to feed 800!) The amount they pay for it is unreal. (These guys regularly save 90 percent or more on hundreds of dollars worth of stuff.) The whole thing feels familiar to an almost soothing extent (who can't relate to visiting the grocery store?) and yet...extreme. Besides just having the decency to live up to its name, here are a few more things that make this show special:
1. The quirk runs deep. These people's extreme behavior doesn't stop at couponing. J'aime (yes, you read that apostrophe right) goes on and on about her image and wears sexy boots to do her extreme couponing. Jessica, meanwhile, thinks her stockpile "is almost as beautiful as my family." She goes as far as calling it "gorgeous." Extreme Couponing is where aestheticism and consumerism meet.
2. It represents both sides of the coo-pon/q-pon pronunciation divide. Each of tonight's back-to-back episodes profiles one shopper who says "coo-pon" and one who says "q-pon." Fox News has nothing on this show's fairness and balance.
3. Mustard gets to have its day. It's a favorite condiment of stockpilers because, as a voiceover tells us, "Since mustard doesn't spoil, it can be stored indefinitely." Take that, ketchup! Your move, mayo.
4. There is an undercurrent of sadness. Unlike every other reality show in existence, Extreme Couponing doesn't hit you over the head with all of its elements — it allows a bit of space for subtext. On the surface, the show's tone is as bright as a supermarket's fluorescent lights, but stray comments sneak in to suggest that all is not well. J'aime got into couponing as a result of her husband's job loss, but there's detectable insecurity when she informs us that people look at her and think, "She has a lot of money." Meanwhile, Tiffany talks about feeling her walls close in on her. She calls the day she had to install a shelving system in her room to handle stockpile overflow was one of her worst. The concept of hoarding is mentioned only once (by gorgeous stockpile owner Jessica), which makes you wonder if people are hiding denial amongst their hundreds of rolls of toilet paper.
5. It gives strangers the opportunity to openly ogle. Inevitably, when the extreme couponers make their way to the checkout line with their lines of carts, fellow shoppers line up on the sidelines to watch the magic of deal-maneuvering in real time. They comment loudly, clutch their pearls and bow reverently, dignifying the spectacle and our fascination with it.
Will you watch the premiere?
Watch our interview with Episode 1's Tiffany Ivanovsky below. In it, she tackles the question of hoarding, among others...