Maggot Brain

Summer is a notoriously slow time in television, particularly July.  In fact, the networks recorded their lowest ratings in thirty years for the first week of the month, further evidence that broadcasting is dead, dead, dead.  So if you’re not interested on wagering as to whether or not certain people can in fact “dance,” summertime presents slim pickings.

Happily, the Animal Planet has stepped in with a series that is ideal for summer viewing, a short cycle of shows that--like all great television--makes no real demands on your intelligence or time but simply washes over your gray matter like cool pink lemonade.  And, as is also the case with pouring a sticky-sweet sugar drink over an actual brain, the series is unbelievably disgusting. 

Monsters Inside Me provides a whimsical look at those creatures that have the greatest potential to eat us—not in a spectacular Grizzly-Man display of entrail spaghetti —but through a slow and pernicious burrowing into your softest and juiciest organs.  The “Monsters” in question here are parasites.  Each episode pairs up two case histories of innocent human meat-puppets suddenly beset by a plague of tapeworms, screwworms, maggots, bedbugs, scabies, and other organisms that remind us sometimes the “circle of life” is a pus-filled sac of hookworms hanging from your duodenum.   Did I mention the show is disgusting?  It’s disgusting. 

I used to think the most extraordinarily padded sequence I had ever seen on national television was a “cat attack” segment on Fox’s When Good Animals Go Bad (Fox’s whole documentary wing, alas, appears to have been destroyed by the Internet, where a mongoose to the crotch video is only a few clicks away).  When Good Animals Go Bad once did a full seven minutes on a woman who went into a Manhattan pharmacy and apparently had a cat startle her by jumping out from behind an incontinence display.  Since there was no footage of the actual “cat attack,” Fox had to juxtapose a Polaroid of some dubious scratch marks and a talking head interview with the “attacked” woman, interspersed with video footage of an adorable tabby made sinister through posterization, reverse-negative effects, zooms, bad-synth washes, and some nicely choreographed leaps.

You know you want to see it, and you should—It’s right up there with the shower-scene in Psycho, a testament to how a skillful segment producer—working with a decent editing intern-- can rob you of a few minutes of your life without you actually caring all that much.

Crazy Store Cat!

The woman here claims to be a “tourist,” but the tiger-print jacket and razor-nails she chose to wear to her nationally televised “cat attack” interview suggests: a). she is actually from one of the more gaudy of the five boroughs; or b). she works for the production company itself.  Fox has proven it will lie about pretty much anything, so I see no reason to believe their Animal Attack bureau operates at a higher standard.

“Crazy Store Cat!” is pretty good, but Monsters Inside Me is maybe even more impressive for taking the gross yet ultimately minor tragedy of having a fly lay maggots in the back of your head and somehow stretch it out to three 7-minute blocks.  Here’s essentially what they have to work with in each episode:

1.    An interview with the poor schlep who suddenly discovered he had “MAGGOTS IN HIS HEAD,” augmented perhaps by the family physician who discovered and then had to remove the MAGGOTS IN HIS HEAD.

2.    Location B-roll of where the person most likely hooked-up with their hookworm, and any relevant photo stills of the actual rashes, boils, and/or infections triggered by the creature. 

3.    Re-enactments of people poking at their suspicious bumps or seizing when a voracious tapeworm finally makes it to the brain.

4.    Computer animation of that episode’s featured parasite illustrating its most disgusting activities once inside your body.  Particularly horrifying are the demonstrations of how various worms get from point A to point B by eating through your flesh.  The episode I saw featured some abomination that has a rotating head with hooks to better tear his way through your tender tissue. 

5.    Hipster biologist Dan Riskin explaining just what the parasite is up to, and what would happen if you didn’t do something about it (hint: things don’t go well).

The overall look of the show is straight out of the America’s Most Wanted style manual, only no one wants a Raccoon Roundworm Infection.  Wisely, the program avoids outright comedy, but the overblown narration and hyper-disgusting animation suggests that everyone on both sides of the screen know why we're watching.  It's summer.  Nothing else is on.  Parasites are really disgusting.

The episodes also allow us to imagine what we would do in a similar situation. For example, in one segment a woman has a rash on her breast that eventually becomes a raised "worm-shaped" lump.  When she pokes it, it moves.  And yet she patiently awaits her scheduled appointment with a dermatologist the next day rather than, say, IMMEDIATELY BLOWING THROUGH AS MANY RED LIGHTS AS NECESSARY TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM AND HAVE THE SQUIRMING BREAST-WORM REMOVED ASAP.  

Infinitely more disturbing than seeing a lion or shark attack, no doubt because parasites carry a much different psychic load by reminding us of how fragile we are—not in terms of having porous bodies that break down frequently, but as an autonomous ego that likes to pretend it exists in some lingering Cartesian divide apart from the bloody pile of viscera that actually houses consciousness.  Perhaps this is the real source of the show's appeal.  Parasites are disgusting, but so are we--after all, we're both part of the same grotesque eco-system.  Getting eaten by a lion, that's fine, at least you have the illusion of two mighty beasts locked in mortal combat as warring subjects (until blacking out from the excruciating pain).  But having worms eat their way into your hypothalmus and drive you insane is just more evidence that evolution hates us. 

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