Maury’s struggling to stay in character. Normally he’s the picture of paternal stability: amused but not belittling, hortatory but not pedantic, firm but not overbearing. This is why they seek him out in their most difficult moments, this parade of wounded people from cash-poor neighborhoods across the country. They flock to his sound stage in Stamford, Connecticut hoping to find the sort of judge, the sort of social worker, the sort of counselor—and yes, the sort of father—that they haven’t encountered elsewhere. Maury Povich gives a fair hearing. But even Maury is occasionally worn thin by the monotony of human weakness, and today is one such day.
“If Liam is your son, are you going to step up and be a father to him?” It’s the question Maury always asks before opening the envelope, this time with a confrontational edge to his voice. The putative father in question, a middle-aged man named Chris, remains obstinate. “No I’m not, Maury. I’m sick of her stalking me”—here he points at his one-time mistress, the boy’s mother—“and I want both of them out of my life.” Maury grimaces and repositions himself in a comfy, authoritative chair. For a moment he appears to consider delivering an off-script lecture. He reconsiders and lets the DNA test do the talking: “Chris, you are the father!”
The audience erupts. Liam’s mother leaps up and down in vindictive fury. Chris’s wife of fifteen years wails and runs off-stage, her suspicions confirmed. Amid the din, Maury pulls Chris aside, leans into his ear, and issues a series of inaudible admonitions. The camera then cuts to producer Paul Faulhaber, who’s chasing Chris’s wife down the backstage hallway, seeking a possible reconciliation in the final thirty seconds of airtime. She tearfully refuses, says she’s finished with Chris, and disappears into a dressing room. “But you’re married!” Faulhaber bays after her imploringly.
If you’ve watched this episode from start to finish—if you’ve survived commercial breaks full of predatory sloganeering from title-loan sharks and technical colleges and injury lawyers—you’ve witnessed something extraordinary. Maury not only caught a man in adultery and exposed a secret child, satisfying the emotional bloodlust of his studio audience and millions of viewers worldwide. He also managed to communicate, in a few moments of syndicated television, the unique responsibilities of fatherhood and the indissolubility of marriage. This combination of crude entertainment and surprising moral gravitas characterizes almost every episode of The Maury Show.
In the 1990s Maury and his ilk were branded as enemies of public decency. Back then, the fetishes and infidelities filling daytime airwaves seemed to threaten “family values.” A cloud of disapproval still taints this niche of the television industry. Though far tamer than, say, Jerry Springer’s exhibitionist circus, The Maury Show continues to market itself as a guilty pleasure. The show’s current slogan— “You Know You Watch”—suggests that Maury’s fans tend to keep their viewing habits to themselves. But times have changed, and defenders of a traditional social fabric now have less to fear from Maury than they do from most prime-time shows. Unlikely as it sounds, Maury may in fact be popular culture’s most persistent champion of family values.
Day after day, The Maury Show dispels the neo-gnostic myths of arbitrary parenthood and inconsequential sex. Most episodes revolve around the basic premise—now all but taboo in less plebeian modes of broadcasting—that biological fatherhood matters. Paternity tests provide the show with its signature moment of dramatic tension, but they also reinforce a consistent moral lesson. Though an occasional Chris will play the heel and dissent, most of Maury’s guests presume that a positive test bears permanent financial and emotional commitments. One recent episode confirmed the paternity of a young man whose girlfriend had grabbed their baby and eloped with an older woman. Maury offered no commentary on same-sex relationships, but he did convince all parties that the biological father should be present in the child’s life. In Maury’s world, “You are the father!” is still a coherent and consequential proposition.
Maury’s guests are not the sort of folks generally allowed to talk about sex on television. As a group, they represent the defiant nightmares of modern social engineering: poor, overweight, under-educated, incredibly fecund. They clearly find latex a laughable intervention in the mechanics of male-female intimacy (Maury, perhaps for his own job security but perhaps for deeper reasons, never counsels contraception). They have likely ignored strong incentives to terminate their pregnancies. For all this, they are hardly heroes. They lead dissolute lives, shaped by social codes so senseless that a daytime TV host seems their most reasonable hope for decency. The Maury Show reveals the havoc that trickle-down sexual liberation has wreaked in the working classes, but it also provides glimpses of the sound moral instinct that can linger on in spite of—or rather because of—a lack of academic and professional conditioning. Though he too is guilty of exploiting his guests’ misfortunes—his hefty salary is paid, after all, by those predatory lawyers and loan sharks—Maury devotes an hour each day to reminding us that sex is a fact of life for unimpressive people, rather than a mystery cult for celebrities, pornographers, and lifestyle enthusiasts.
Christian morality often finds its most reliable supports not in the orderly ambitions of the bourgeoisie but in the crude intuitions of the unsophisticated. Like the raunchy but life-affirming comedies of Judd Apatow, Maury makes it clear that traditional sexual mores ring truer than the aseptic pieties of therapeutic relationships. They also create more human interest. If you’d rather hear about celebrity catering from wedding “experts” on Good Morning America than watch Maury lay to rest an older wife’s suspicions about her cement-trucker husband, then your sense of entertainment and your moral compass may both require recalibration. The Maury Show is indeed a guilty pleasure. But perhaps the compunction that attends our viewing has less to do with the show’s discredited genre than with the sense of guilt now imposed on anyone sympathetic to sexual realism. Maury is, above all else, a shrewd businessman, and he knows you’re out there—millions and millions of you, who in the privacy of your own homes find it refreshing to see the dynamics of procreation and family life demystified on mainstream television. You know who you are.
Drew Denton is a doctoral candidate in church history at Emory University.