It’s a recipe for an instant viral video. Take a person who has a family member or spouse that has been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan in private or at a public function, film him or her or them under some pretense, have their newly-returned servicemember surprise them, and sit back and watch the highly emotional reunion unfold. So infallible is this formula that TLC (which previously was “The Learning Channel,” but perhaps now stands for “This Looks Cool,”) has devoted an entire series to this premise: Surprise Homecoming. The producers of this show have set up various scenarios in which the titular event happens: at a Disney World parade, during a wife’s graduation, even having a deployed woman surprise her family by delivering pizza. All in all, it sounds like the perfect hour of television, but why do I hate it?
I have watched the internet videos of surprise homecomings and sure, they are nice. These videos are uploaded to the internet by the family themselves to share that moment with the world. Yet, in this show, the “joy” of the moment comes from the unwitting participation of one of the family members. What is supposed to be sweet and heartwarming comes off as oddly voyeuristic and invasive. The host of the show, Billy Ray Cyrus, says in the opening that doing this show is his way of “giving back to the troops,” which I don’t understand at all. I am certain he is not volunteering for this gig. To his credit, Cyrus has done numerous USO tours – which are volunteer gigs – and for that he is to be commended. However for someone who regained relevance in society outside of the military community on the back of his daughter’s Disney show, I am taken aback by the inclusion of his cameras in other people’s family matters. I also don’t understand how keeping the soldier from his or her family while the “gag” is set-up “gives back” in any substantial way.
Those personal-taste criticisms aside, the larger problem I have with this show is that it creates a false-sense of “all’s-well-that-ends-well.” With the voluminous problems facing the veteran community, a show like this allows those whose lives haven’t been affected by the wars to delude themselves into thinking that as soon as those tearful hugs are passed around, everything is okay. If only this were true. For many veterans, the problems that arise from prolonged and repeated deployments happen well after the initial high of being reunited with friends and family dissipates. When the tears dry and the parties cease, the business of getting on with life – whether it’s finding a job, a place to live, or simply leaving the war behind – is where the challenges begin. These situations do not wrap themselves up nicely in a 17-minute segment on television and are therefore ignored.
Any television show or network that wishes to give attention to the troops and their families is inherently a good thing. After almost a decade at war, these images are noticeably absent from the popular culture. And perhaps, I am being too hard on TLC and the producers of this show. Yet watching these reunions I am not moved to tears but instead put off by how contrived it feels and my thoughts turn to those who didn’t have a happy homecoming and the problems that lay ahead for them. I realize I might have misinterpreted what the public-at-large may take away from this show. Perhaps this will spark an outreach movement or bring to light the problems within the veteran community all from a place of positivity. I doubt it, but maybe, just maybe, I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
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