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In The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx famously prophesized the inevitable collapse of capitalism. One hundred and sixty three years later, TLC’s new reality show Extreme Couponing may yet have located the fatal weakness in the enduring economic system’s armor: newspaper circulars.
Giving new meaning to the term conspicuous consumption, executive producer Matt Sharp (whose previous adventures with superlative titles include the shows Extreme, Extreme Christmas and Extreme Halloween) has created a fascinating chronicle of American bargain fetishists that is nothing if not extreme. Attacking local supermarkets with the zeal of Ché Guevara-led insurgents, the show’s protagonists use an arsenal of, yes, coupons to lay waste to the cathedrals of consumerism.
“I have donated 100 percent of what I do — my time, my talent — to couponing,” J’aime Kirlew, married mother of three, declares in the show’s highly entertaining premiere. A paralegal when not out shopping or preparing to shop, Kirlew’s assault on a Maryland Safeway is the stuff of consumer legend. Using a system in which she maximizes store discounts by further applying a cache of meticulously cataloged coupons, Kirlew manages to walk away with four carts brimming product that normally retail for just over $1900 for a mere $103 out-of-pocket.
Unlike the mentally ill who are depicted on the show Hoarders, or the drug-addicts seen on Intervention, the heroines on Extreme Couponing are not the least bit ashamed of the obsessive compulsion that has taken control of their lives. As a result, there’s less of voyeuristic queasiness here than in those other shows. Anyway, who doesn’t love rooting for the little gal (yes, the couponers are all female in the show’s first two episodes) in a quest to outwit the corporate food industry?
“We coupon just because we don’t want our kids to have to pay for college and take out student loans,” says Tiffany Ivanovsky, a Texas housewife extraordinaire and the mother of seven children who became addicted to the clipping lifestyle two years ago. “Since we’ve been extreme couponing we’ve saved close to $40,000.”
That’s serious cash, but when you a glimpse into the Ivanovsky’s home, where a massive stockpile of paper towels, cereal boxes, dish soaps and deodorants large enough to last her family two years makes bedrooms feel more like a Costco aisle, you have to wonder whether the savings are worth turning your house into a survivalist bunker.
Moreover, the hunt for bargains tends to lead these shoppers straight to a rogues list of corporate America’s most highly processed foods. From Fruity Pebbles, to cans of Campbell’s soup, to Del Monte vegetables, these discount-tailored shopping lists would not, it is safe to say, align all that much with those of Michael Pollan or Alice Waters.
The show’s natural climax comes at the cash register, where a hapless check-out worker must spend hours scanning a single extreme couponer’s staggering amount of groceries and sorting through the corresponding discounts and coupons as bemused shoppers and store managers look on with the a mixture awe and repulsion. Aided by her family, Ivanovsky, manages to score over $1,000 worth of goods for just $43.92. In that triumphant moment you ask yourself once again: am I for the extreme couponers or am I against them?
With the effects of the recession still stinging, some viewers will no doubt be inspired to start checking their neighbors’ recycling bins for discarded circulars. The rest of us will marvel at how much time these people actually devote to knocking down their monthly grocery bills. Wouldn’t finding a decent-paying job so that you could to purchase healthier and non-intrusive quantities of food be easier than all this hassle? Maybe, maybe not.
Yes, if everyone in America cut up circulars with the same fervor as the women on Extreme Couponing, Marx’s prediction might actually come true. Then again, food manufacturers might simply stop issuing coupons.
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