I’ll be honest: I used to hate Dr. Pimple Popper. Every time one of her videos drifted my way via Facebook or Twitter, I would shudder and turn away. No, thanks! Not for me! Don’t want to vomit and pass out, I’d think, as I tried to mentally scrub the image of a lengthy blackhead or a “buttery cyst” from my mind. Just a glimpse would make my knees go weak, a reaction I’m guessing is as common as its polar opposite, the type that makes Dr. Sandra Lee, a dermatologist with over 3 million subscribers on YouTube, so popular: curiosity, satisfaction, and even joy at watching those gooey-ass pimples popping.
Such was my perspective when I heard about Dr. Lee’s new TLC special, Dr. Pimple Popper: This Is Zit, which follows four very special cases indeed on their journey to skin wellness. The audacious title calls to mind the 2009 Michael Jackson documentary This Is It, which, of course, documented the lead-up to the late singer’s last concert tour, never to be performed. Just as MJ was the King of Pop, Dr. Lee is its queen, and now that I've seen the special, I can confidently say I was wrong. Dr. Pimple Popper isn’t just watchable — she’s the ultimate reality TV.
First of all, in case you’re like me and thinking, Sure I’d love to tune in, but I don’t want to faint and fall down a flight of stairs and die, which is how much I hate Dr. Lee’s videos, don’t worry. The TV show format really mitigates the queasiness factor. While I still feel weak in the knees when Dr. Lee fishes out, bare-handed, what appears to be an infant-sized mass of raw chicken from a conscious person’s torso, it really does feel better knowing that person’s name and city of origin. No faceless grapefruit-sized cysts with nervous disembodied voices here!
No longer perfect strangers, the special introduces us to four of Dr. Lee’s patients: Angelina (sporting a ever-growing, softball-sized lipoma under her left breast), Delano (struggling to deal with a massive lipoma on his upper back... OR IS IT?), confirmed popaholic Carla (excited to talk about her “aliens,” five decades-old pilar cysts embedded in her scalp) and Brenda (hiding a large lump above her eyebrow, which Dr. Lee removes in what feels like seconds). I don’t know why knowing a patient has a regulation-sized pool table in her bedroom (I’m looking at you, Angelina!) makes it easier to watch Dr. Lee pop a gigantic fatty lump out of her body, but it really does help to humanize the people behind the lumps.
Watching the show, it quickly becomes clear why, in the golden age of television, Dr. Pimple Popper is delivering something special. She and her all-female support team are making entertainment that is pretty much the exact opposite of most reality TV. In a genre known for blowing the smallest things out of proportion, This Is Zit relies on the reality-bending magic of downplaying, underplaying, and pretending everything is fine in the face of obvious medical problems. It's an approach that seems so much closer to actual reality than staged fighting or story-edited plotlines. Dr. Lee maintains her kindly, good-humored bedside manner in the face of skin problems that would have a layperson screaming, “WHAT IS THAAAAAT?” should he or she find them anywhere on their own body. Her bedside manner is what you pray you encounter — and as any person who fears doctors will tell you, often don't encounter — while dealing with an unknown medical issue.
It’s the inverse of many reality shows, which take a classy thing (being rich, having incredible extensions, inviting your friends to a benefit gala) and make it horrifying. Dr. Lee, meanwhile, is doing the tackiest thing imaginable (digging out a blackhead in front of millions of people) with absolute class and excellence. While most people would flinch or squirm, Dr. Pimple Popper digs in with gusto, usually literally. Her eminent watchability comes from both her jovial demeanor and ability to face down a massive pore of Winer or dozens of whiteheads or, as in the new special, a bread loaf-sized pocket of clear lemon-lime liquid on a man’s back, which the good doctor must slowly, painstakingly drain. In the end, the mystery fluid fills up dozens of syringes. As she drew out the 30th syringe worth of fluid, all the while calming her understandably nervous patient, I thought to myself, You know what? This woman is a goddamn hero.
Of course, blowing up Dr. Lee's famous YouTube videos to a full hour also offers time to introduce other heroes, especially the friends and loved ones of her patients. While on camera, patient Angelina reveals her large lipoma to her extremely chill boyfriend Tony for the first time. “What if he freaks out? And doesn’t want to be with someone who might possibly look like a freak?,” she wonders, laughing to hide the clearly very real panic in her question. Weepy and nervous, she shows the large mass to Tony, who handles it with the unflappable calm only a man with a neck tattoo can muster. “I told you there’s nothing to be embarrassed about,” Tony reassures her as she wipes away tears. Later he muses, “It actually don’t make me feel any type of way, especially toward her.” This is the reality TV I came for. They could have played Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” at literally any point during the special and it would have rung more true than any other time it's been played on television.
One of the most affecting stories is that of Delano, a young man taken in by a friend and her mom. He was homeless, his job search complicated and superseded by the slowly inflating balloon of skin between his shoulders. It’s hard when finding a home is more pressing than fixing a medical problem, one that is literally increasingly pressing on your spine and left lung. “I guess it’s my security blanket,” Delano jokes about the T-shirt he has learned to casually drape over his shoulder to hide the bulge. In the end, Dr. Lee discovers Delano does not have a lipoma like his previous doctor claimed. Instead, his bulge is a lymphangioma, created by a blockage in his lymphatic system that requires surgery. Dr. Lee breaks the news to an extremely nervous Delano that his condition is benign and that she will help him find a surgeon. “I’ve literally got your back,” she says. It’s a moment that's both silly and earnest, weird and sweet.
As she drew out the 30th syringe worth of fluid, all the while calming her understandably nervous patient, I thought to myself, You know what? This woman is a goddamn hero.
Of course, if you’re just in it for those sweet, sweet pops, don’t worry: There are some whoppers. You can practically hear the smile in Dr. Lee’s voice as she pops out the raw chicken insides of Angelina’s lipoma. “Our cute little friend,” she jokes, holding it aloft while fingering its hard scar tissue knots. Carla has pilar cysts, a more classic, less mysterious ailment (and a Dr. PP staple!) but still gross as hell. “Better put on my splash guard!,” Dr. Lee jokes, donning her actual splash guard mask, which she needs to not get sprayed in the face while popping. Dr. Lee fishes the cysts out of her patient’s scalp and ruminates on the experience. “Imagine skin that’s been sitting, stored in this balloon, for 35 years,” she says of the smell. THE SMELL! This show has everything.
In the end, Dr. Lee cuts through a pilar’s wall and asks Carla if she wants to touch it. “Yes, I do!” she enthuses. Aghast and delighted, Carla gets to squeeze the dirty blonde manicotti out of her own cyst. “Oh Mylanta,” she proclaims. This is what Dr. Pimple Popper lets us do: marvel at our own bodies’ capacity for disgustingness from a safe remove. This is normal, it tells us, this is treatable, and as a result, we can enjoy the fact that this is also... kind of cool? This is exactly the feeling good reality TV inspires: awe, disgust and, most importantly, recognition. Dang, am I like that too? you think, feeling your scalp for your own pilar cysts, peering into your own pores and blemishes. Examining her exposed pilar cysts, Carla marvels, “They look like aliens.” But they aren’t, of course. They’re us. And this is zit.