Let’s face it, when word comes down the pike that a cable network — even TLC (The Learning Channel) — is about to launch a reality series about, in the preferred nomenclature, “little people,” a whole slew of adjectives are likely to pop into one’s head before synapses fire towards “tasteful.”
Yet, while Little People, Big World has been set adrift in a veritable unending sea of reality shows gaudily exploring the lives of models, spoiled rich kids, sadomasochists and drunken sex addicts, it is nonetheless a quintessentially American show, buoyed by a can-do optimism and rugged individualism that is probably more shocking in its pure virility than the usual fare is in its now-commonplace apathetic depravity.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that despite its tacky name, Little People, Big World is about as far removed from exploitation as reality television can get — in other words, not completely, but a fairly good distance anyhow. Matt and Amy Roloff, at approximately four feet tall each, are “living in a world that wasn’t made for them,” as the show’s opening montage announces, to which Matt retorts, “So we’re making our own life on our 34 acre farm here in Oregon.” And so they are.
Matt and Amy’s parents are average-sized (as are most parents of little people) and the couple’s four children — 15-year-old twins Jeremy and Zach, 12-year-old Molly and 8-year-old Jacob — are mixed. The size differences somehow paint all the normal trials and tribulations of family life in starker relief. It can be poignant, as when Zach, a little person, has to watch from the sidelines as his average-sized brother joins the high school soccer team.
“I don’t think any stranger is ever going to think I’m normal,” Zach ruminates, as he prepares to become the only little person at his new high school. “When people see me and see I’m a little person they’re probably thinking how was he made like that? Why was he made like that? What a freak. It sucks. I know there must be a reason why I was made to be a little person, but I just don’t know what it is yet.”
On the other end of the spectrum, the show explores the guilt and stress that comes with enhanced abilities. How do you enjoy being on the soccer team when you know your twin wants to be so badly but cannot? How do you deal with towering over your parents?
“Being taller than my mom or dad is a little weird, because whenever I’m fighting with my mom or something, I’m looking down at her,” Jeremy admits in the first episode. “That’s probably, like, the one time I wish she was taller than me.”
These are not problems all that far removed from any-sized life. Nor is this a plastic family constantly commiserating with one another over the state of their affairs. During one episode, Matt and his father-in-law head into the wilderness with a gaggle of teenage boys both average and small. Matt drives a special vehicle through the brush-cluttered woodland he lovingly describes as his “golf cart on steroids.” When Matt and Zach begin bickering too much for Grandfather, he announces without fanfare to the cameras, “I’m fed up just about to here with these dwarves!”
THIS IS NOT A SHOW ABOUT victims. Which is all the more ironic since on other reality fare such as MTV’s The Real World you will watch the most privileged, boring twenty-somethings stretch as far as they can to prove some disadvantage. Would that one season should go by without a young woman afflicted with an eating disorder or a minority cast member mired in prejudice — the apocalypse would surely be upon us. Contrast that with Little People, Big World wherein at no point do Matt and Amy encourage pity. “We can pretty much do what everyone else does, but just in a different way,” Amy declares as footage of her scaling a series of store shelves to grab a specific box of cereal plays in the background. Indeed, the couple revels in the challenges of how they relate to a world not built with them in mind.
“I’ve always enjoyed not taking the easy way,” Matt explains, driving his steroid-addled golf cart over a particularly rough bit of terrain. “I like to take the hard way sometimes.”
It’s an attitude that clearly goes beyond a single camping trip, the best proof of which being that he and Amy’s children seem so fully imbued with a similar joie de vivre.
When fellow travelers — parents and children alike — at an office superstore stare at Amy as she and the two youngest children shop for school supplies, Jacob relays the message he’d like to send to gawkers, “She won’t get bigger, so just get used to it.” Later his sister adds, “I don’t really care when people point out my mother is little because she just is.” It’s an attitude we could use more of these days from people of all sizes.
It’s moments like that on Little People, Big World where the world of the average-sized seems more handicapped than one could ever reasonably describe the Roloffs. If viewers watch the show for anything beyond the curiosity factor, that’s a lesson they’ll be hard-pressed to walk away without picking up on.