Halfway through the hour-long Christmas special Dr. Pimple Popper: A Pimple Carol, internet-sensation dermatologist Sandra Lee, (more commonly known as Dr. Pimple Popper), sliced open a giant orb on a patient’s forehead that was bursting with spongy fat. “It does look like a snowball under there,” said Sandra in a lighthearted tone as if she was unwrapping a present, not slashing open someone’s face.
This moment more or less encapsulates the general contradictory temperament of A Pimple Carol. The special, which exhibited a succession of pimple-adjacent medical procedures leading up to Christmas, followed the playful, benign format of the TLC medical reality TV show, seen in fan-favorites like My Feet Are Killing Me or My 600 Pound Life. Scenes under the knife were heavily padded with heartwarming backstories that assumed we need the emotional motivation behind why one might want to remove a malignant carcinoma from their face. Quirky side-characters playfully engaged in office hijinx. And, of course, nearly every interview and conversation was careful to aggressively emphasize the importance of Christmas.
And while the whole thing did feel a little contrived (if I have to hear Sandra call past medical procedures “the ghosts of pimples past” one more time I swear to God), A Pimple Carol’s format was actually kind of… dare I say… brilliant? Allow me to explain.
In order to fully comprehend this brilliance, it is important to first dissect one of this millenia’s most confounding internet mega-phenomenons: The pimple popping video. In the past couple years, watching pus be launched out of blemishes has become one of our favorite societal pastimes, creating a generation of so-called popaholics. Tik Tok and Instagram accounts dedicated only to extractions of bulging cysts, blackheads, and whiteheads easily rack up millions of followers.
But… why? As someone who has dedicated hours upon hours of my life to watching these nasty little videos, I feel comfortable stating that it is a very weird trend. But we humans are predictable creatures, and so, of course, there is a psychological reason behind it. In large part, pimple-popping videos tap into our primal draw toward ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). People often characterize these videos as “satisfying,” and, well, that’s the basis of ASMR, baby.
But this—and I can’t stress this enough—is not what Dr. Pimple Popper is. Don’t get me wrong: the show is obviously top-tier, prestige stuff. But it is no longer pimple-popping, which is what the YouTube channel that made Lee a celebrity was dedicated to, nor can we justifiable say that it fits into that “mildly gross, but oddly satisfying” category. No; what we’re watching here are full-blown, anesthetized, dangerous medical procedures. One man in the special had a malignant basal cell carcinoma glued to his cheek. Another had a giant lipoma on his forehead. And then there’s the woman whose earlobes Sandra sliced open to fix (I thought this was a pimple show?) And how could we forget the lady with a shoulder-cyst the size of a grapefruit? In fact, in summation, there were exactly zero pimples popped in all 60 minutes of A Pimple Carol.
And honestly: this speaks to what makes Dr. Pimple Popper such a cleverly conceived show. I’m no scientist, but I’m pretty confident in saying that the psychological bases of enjoying pimple popping videos and enjoying a show about medical gore (which is a thousand percent what Dr. Pimple Popper is), are completely different. As we’ve established, the former is rooted in the rush of dopamine achieved from watching ASMR content. The latter, a fascination with the grotesque; our curiosity concerning our own feelings of repulsion; a morbid sense of voyeurism.
It’s a pretty impressive feat to make a show seem like it’s something completely different than it really is. And, although a lot of Dr. Pimple Popper content engages in this trickery, A Pimple Carol went the extra mile. The special followed an uplifting, festive narrative arc: Sandra was super stressed out about the amount of patients she had to see before Christmas, but then her dad came to visit and sang to her, and her coworker introduced her to her delightful twin babies, and all is well and good. Meanwhile, her patients were finally able to enjoy Christmas again after getting their growths removed; one man even announced that he was going to go fishing with his son so that they can enjoy a Christmas fish!.
But all of these B-stories are just distractions, and they’re very carefully placed ones so that a show about gnarly surgeries is successfully masked as a quirky dermatology show. Our society’s love for satisfying niche videos walked so full-on body horror could run. And that, my friends, is a Christmas miracle.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.
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