overthinking the idiot box

February 27, 2006

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

FREE TRUMAN
Joel's Farewell Address

Beware the realishness of reality
by Joel Bergen

My fellow SMRTies,

Four weeks from now, after nearly a year in the service of our website, I shall lay down the responsibilities of column-writing as, in untraditional and not-so-solemn ceremony, the authorship of the reality beat is vested in my successor. [Someone who will turn in a column more than once a financial quarter. — Liz]

This column, I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell, and to share a few final thoughts with you, my readership.

To quote Kurt Cobain quoting Neil Young, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." And as anybody who's followed my output over the last several episodes (or, to be more precise, lack thereof) can attest, I've already burned out while fading away.
First off, do not take my premature cancellation [Premature? Seriously? When I asked you for a new column for Christmas, you just wrote "Jesus wouldn't watch SURVIVOR" on a cocktail napkin!] with too heavy a heart. History is full of greats who left us before their times — James Dean, John Lennon, Michael Jackson, The Dana Carvey Show. To quote Kurt Cobain quoting Neil Young, "It's better to burn out than to fade away." And as anybody who's followed my output over the last several episodes (or, to be more precise, lack thereof) can attest, I've already burned out while fading away. So don't bother signing petitions, sending tiny bottles of Tabasco sauce to the network or begging Showtime to pick me up. [Sure, play the martyr. But you do realize that Mitch Hurwitz never stopped making episodes for three months at a time, right?]

My cancellation happens to coincide with my growing ambivalence (verging on weariness) towards the genre I've been tasked with covering lo these several months. I've been feeling this reality-fatigue since at least last summer. I predicted then "that by the time Jeff Probst is back from his summer vacation, I'll be rejuvenated and ready for more shaky camerawork, confessionals and backstabbery." Only, I wasn't. There's been little in the world of reality that's held my interest and I've continued watching stalwarts like Survivor, The Apprentice and American Idol as much out of obligation as enjoyment. Not the stuff impassioned columns are made of.


Oprah's truthiness expert.
And so, on the eve of my forced resignation [November, Joel! November!], I offer thee, dear readers (and more importantly, reality TV-makers), with some warnings — for what is a farewell address without admonitions of such things as factions and military industrial complexes? On January 26 of this year, I happened to catch an installment of The Oprah Winfrey Show wherein she held author James Frey's feet to the coals over his fudging of the facts. She brought on Frank Rich from the New York Times "who recently wrote that James Frey reminds us that we live in an age of 'truthiness.'" My ears perked up when I heard Rich say: "We live in this world now, where anyone can sort of put out something that sort of looks true, smells a little bit like truth but, in fact, is in some way fictionalized. Even things we label 'reality' in entertainment like reality television. It's cast. It's somewhat scripted."

I was intrigued by this notion that "we live in an age of truthiness" and that reality is our televised embodiment of this era. I thought he might be on to something, however, the only example he offered on Oprah was that of Newlyweds' Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson, an example I found to be somewhat truthy in its logic. He suggests that the show was a sham because their marriage was a sham because they eventually got divorced. So I checked out his column, "Truthiness 101: From Frey to Alito," hoping he would expound on this theory, as it pertains to reality television. Yet, again, the only evidence he offers of truthiness in reality is Nick & Jessica.

Rich needn't have looked far beyond that week's headlines to find better examples of — with all due respect to The American Dialect Society's Wrd of the Year — the "realishness" of reality. Coincidentally, around the same time, several stories were breaking that suggested reality producers were violating our trust even more than we (or at least me) ever imagined — in ways that corrupted the foundational bases of their respective shows.

Granted, most of us by now have put together that reality isn't entirely real. There's some suspension of disbelief required to simply enjoy what's going on. We know there's creative editing, we know some drama is provoked, we know reality stars act up for the cameras. But these latest revelations indicated major deceptions that actually upset me.
Granted, most of us by now have put together that reality isn't entirely real. There's some suspension of disbelief required to simply enjoy what's going on. We know there's creative editing, we know some drama is provoked, we know reality stars act up for the cameras. But these latest revelations indicated major deceptions that actually upset me (further fueling my disassociation with the genre). The most heartbreaking one emerged in the tax evasion trial of the very first reality show champ, Richard Hatch. I've noted in the past what a monumental event that first season of Survivor was, not just for television, but for me personally. I was captivated. I was obsessed. And apparently, I was deceived. The premise of the show was that these 16 people were left to fend for themselves, eating only what they found, the small rations they were given and anything won in reward challenged. However, these new allegations reveal that Survivors were sneaking food from the crew and that producers were aware of this. It may not seem like a big deal, but it changes how I look back at that wondrous season of television.

That deception may have been a minor lie of omission, but another is a massive misdirection of tricky editing. Just a few days after the Oprah show aired, Time dropped the bomb that Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County isn't as real as its opening disclaimer ("The people, the locations and the drama are all real") would have you believe. You know how there was that love triangle between LC and Stephen and Kristin? Well, there wasn't. Kinda changes the whole show, doesn't it? Certainly changes my analysis of it.

Anybody who watched this season's American Idol Austin auditions probably thought that those auditions took place in Austin. Well, if you thought that, you might be interested to know that the word "gullible" doesn't appear on Dictionary.com.
And then, a few days after Time's expose, came the reveal of more lying through creative editing. This one didn't impact the very nature of the show like the above deceptions, however, it was perhaps the most brazen. Anybody who watched this season's American Idol Austin auditions probably thought that those auditions took place in Austin. Well, if you thought that, you might be interested to know that the word "gullible" doesn't appear on Dictionary.com. And you might be interested to know that the Austin auditions in fact took place in San Francisco. Sure, all the shots of Ryan Seacrest cavorting around the hometown of the college football team that dare not speak its name might've implied that the judges judged deep in the heart of Texas. But if you somehow got that impression, it wasn't Fox's fault.

There are many more minor examples of "realishness" popping up on reality TV, and some of these "realishnesses" run rampant across the genre. To name but a few: The jarring dubbing of lines after the fact — most notably by Donald Trump, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum on their shows (never was this more abysmally done than in The Apprentice's infamous Domino's damage control dub ). There are the many actors who go on reality shows claiming to be something other than actors (skimming the surface: Jase from Big Brother 5 and Joyce from The Amazing Race 7). The talent competitions are no longer (if they ever were) purely about talent. Simon Cowell admits that this season they chose finalists based on whether or not they'd make good TV, not their voices; Trump has found his job applicants lackluster; and how else to explain Santino coasting by this season on Project Runway despite some truly atrocious designs?

These minor nuisances aren't problematic simply because they're deceptive. They're problematic because they're taking the fun out of watching reality TV and making it that much harder to suspend disbelief.

Other annoying trends to be weary of:


The Ashes of Raoul Duke storm the castle.
Casting flavorless eye-candy, career reality "stars" and Type-A personalities. There are other types of personalities out there — some that aren't even "types" — why not diversify (as I pointed out in my very first column, diversity of "characters" is why we tune(d) in. Though as my alter-ego found in my next two columns, their pickings may be slim)?

Also, there's entirely too much filler on reality shows. You know, too lengthy recaps (longer than those of even the most intricate scripted dramas), previews of what's coming up after the commercial break, "memory-refreshing" repeats of footage after every commercial break. I understand why scripted series have to do clip shows (and why daytime soaps use many of the same time-padding tricks on a daily basis). Creating that material out of the ether is expensive and hard work. But with reality, hours upon hours of footage is already in the can. There's no need to pad out the 44 minutes with shots of traffic lights changing.

And finally, reality producers (especially at Fox), take Paula, Randy and Simon's oft-repeated advice and be original. Yes, some of the rip-offs of your competitors' formats have become moderate (or even big-time) successes. But most of the big shows that last are the ones that do something completely different (or at least in a completely different style, like Project Runway, which isn't nearly as similar to The Apprentice or America's Next Top Model as it looks on paper). Give me something I can get excited about, not Ice-Dancing With The Stars or America's Next Top Roadie.

No, I haven't become a realitist. I still think there's great reality TV on the horizon. Keep watching (with a healthy dose of skepticism, of course).

So, in this my last good night to you as your columnist — I thank you for the many opportunities you have given me for ranting in words and pieces. I trust that in that ranting you find some things worthy; as for the rest of it, that's what the back button is for on your browser.

And if it pains you too much to say goodbye, know that even if you can't see it, this column will go on indefinitely in a better place, a place I like to call "Forever Eden."

It's been realish.

Email the author.

Return to Season 2, Episode 11.