overthinking the idiot box

May 31, 2005

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

Real Love:
How do you know it's love if there's not a camera around?

by Joel Bergen

What is love?

For centuries, poets have attempted to answer that question. "Love is patient." "Love is kind." "Love is never having to say you're sorry." "Love is all around." "Love is like oxygen." "Love is a many-splendored thing." "Love lifts us up where we belong." "All you need is love." "Love is...love."

That last bon mot comes courtesy of the man who recently emerged as one of the foremost philosophers on the subject: Kevin Federline. He uttered these insightful words on the premiere installment of his new reality series, Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, which is the latest (and so far, greatest) opportunity for America to watch love blossom before our very eyes.

It's certainly why viewers have become more attached to the couples that sprout up "organically" on non-dating reality series (as organically as anything can happen within the Bio-Dome that is reality television).
And I'm not talking about courtship shows like The Bachelor/The Bachelorette or Joe Millionaire. If romantic comedies have taught me anything about love (who am I kidding — they've taught me everything I know about love), it's that love strikes when you aren't looking for it. Perhaps that's why none of the mating shows' couples have lasted (with the notable exception of Trista and Ryan). It's certainly why viewers have become more attached to the couples that sprout up "organically" on non-dating reality series (as organically as anything can happen within the Bio-Dome that is reality television).

While there've been countless couplings on The Real World over the years (though none so much driven by "love" as "lust" or "unhealthy obsession" or "something to do to kill time between body shots") and shows ranging from The Apprentice to Big Brother to Amish in the City have fostered their shares of hookups, no reality couple has made quite the impression on audiences' collective hearts that Rob and Amber have.

It used to be that scripted series would provide us with couples to root for: Sam and Diane, Scully and Mulder, Ross and Rachel. But ever since Friends went off the air, there's been a void — does anybody care if Jack and Kate get together (on Lost, not 24 Season 2), let alone want them to? That's where Rob and Amber come in.

They're like a real live romantic comedy unfolding before our very eyes. First we got to see each of them individually — her on Survivor: The Australian Outback, him on Survivor: Marquesas — to learn about their characters. They were polar opposites: Rob was an obnoxious, scheming brute from Boston while Amber was a pleasant, if unmemorable, sweetheart from Beaver, PA. We witnessed them "meet cute" on Survivor: All-Stars ("cute" may be stretching it, but they were placed in the same tribe by the knowing hand of Fate (a.k.a. Mark Burnett)). Though falling in love was the last thing either of them wanted to do while playing a cutthroat game for a million bucks, that's exactly what happened. And when the two budding lovebirds were torn asunder by forces beyond their control (a random tribe reassignment for Amber), the ugly frog stepped up and became a chivalrous prince, doing everything in his Machiavellian power to save his damsel in distress (a recurring theme throughout their "Realationship"). In the end, Boston Rob didn't get the prize, but he did get the girl, proposing to her — where else — on live TV. But their story (and exposure) was far from over.

Several months later, we caught up with the still-engaged fiancŽes as they embarked on a pre-wedding honeymoon. In classic screwball fashion, they crossed the globe together on The Amazing Race — an It Happened One Night for the new millennium. Stronger couples than them have crumbled under the extreme pressure of The Race (Ron survived a stint in an Iraqi POW camp, but his relationship with a beauty queen couldn't survive a trip around the world). Yet Romber (as they've come to be known in a true testament to their status as America's sweethearts, taking their rightful place alongside Bennifer, Bennifer II, Brangelina and TomKat) persevered, with Rob figuratively, and sometimes literally, carrying Amber on his back.

Finally, we were all invited to share in the sanctity of their wedding — in a two-hour May sweeps spectacle on CBS. There had been televised reality weddings before — Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?, Temptation Island: The Wedding , Married By America, and of course Trista & Ryan's Wedding — but none featuring a couple we had gotten to know as well as Rob and Amber.

On Rob and Amber Get Married, the journey was complete for all of us who were there when they met and fell in love — it was as though we had experienced the joys of falling in love through them. In a satisfying conclusion to our fairytale obsession, after watching Amber be utterly useless for two series, it was nice to see her take charge (if Trump was looking for a more sexist job to offer Kendra and Tana, perhaps he should've considered the position of planning his next wedding). And Boston Rob, perpetual reality bridesmaid, was at last a reality bridegroom.

Part of what made the story of Rob and Amber so captivating for viewers was that, unlike most scripted romantic comedies, we didn't know how it was going to end. At every step of the way, the cynics among us assumed it would fall apart, so the fact that they actually got hitched came as something of a surprise ending (even if the news that their wedding would be televised was not so shocking). With Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, however, we already knew how the story ended before it even began. Yet now, we get to see how their improbable marriage came to be — it's sort of like the Revenge of the Sith of Reality romances.

Although the camera (there's just one) wasn't there for their cute meet on the dance floor, the same ingredients were in place for Britney and Kevin as were there for Rob and Amber. They were an unlikely pair: She's one of the biggest stars on the planet, he can be seen if you freeze frame You Got Served. Neither of them were looking for love when love came looking for them: Fresh off her first annulment, Britney was resigned to being a "Bitter Betty", and though it hasn't been mentioned on the show yet, Kevin was living with his very pregnant baby mama (love triangles and infidelity, another hilarious staple of the romantic comedy). And it just so happened that Britney's decision to pick up a video camera and document her life coincided with the start of their courtship.

In fact, according to our resident philosopher Mr. Federline, that camera may have been the flobotnum that cemented their magical union: "I think at the time we were shooting, it was kinda like we both kinda hid behind the camera a little bit to get to know each other a little bit more." Ms. Spears backs up this theory: "I'm not really good with just really being intimate one-on-one and I think it helped me to have a camera there instead of it just being me and him." This makes the audience an unwitting third participant in their post-modern mŽnage a trois (and given their propensity for nightvision and lack of shame, that's likely not a metaphor).

If Britney and Kevin got a Realationship out of the arrangement, what do we, the viewers, take from it? We can't seem to get enough of tabloid romances and celebrity sex tapes, yet scripted romances featuring couples who fell in love on the set notoriously flop at the box office (D.O.A., Proof of Life, The Marrying Man, Gigli, Two Much, Mr. and Mrs. Smith?). It could be sheer voyeurism, or maybe it's that artificial representations of love (even when being spouted by two actors in love) don't give us the vicarious romantic thrill that watching real love unfold can. And in this day and age, the only way to know if anything's real is if there's a camera running 24 hours a day.

Which is good news for Whitney Houston. Now that her husband has his own reality show in the works, she can finally answer her age-old question: "How will I know if he really loves me?"

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