Reality television is so deliciously pervasive, but even though I’m an avid watcher, it still confounds me. Why? Because it’s bullhonky, and damn near everyone who watches it is fully aware of that fact. It’s about as genuine as the “Powerpuff Girls,” and in some cases, less so. The simple fact that shows purporting to be an unadulterated perspective of whatever corner of the human existence they’re focusing on often house a full staff of writers is a contradiction in terms. The producers of any reality show still control what you see to the same degree as they do on any scripted show. Most viewers are well aware of this fact, but I have to wonder if people know the degree to which they’re being snowed?
There’s all manner of bulls*** that runs amok in “reality,” and here are some of my favorites:
The Power of the Panel: In reality contest shows like “Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” and “America’s Next Top Model,” a panel of expert judges is supposedly empowered to decide the worth and subsequent fate of each competitor. However, if you read the fine print in the credits of all three of these shows, and most like them, you’ll find that producer “input” is taken into account every time there is an elimination. There’s a reason hated reality villains that are not only annoying but somehow seemingly terrible at their craft stick around. Anyone remember “Project Runway”‘s Kenley Collins and her Alexander McQueen “reminiscent” designs? She was obnoxious, combative, defensive, unfriendly, and most of all, mediocre. She made it to the final three, and her downfall was predictably spectacular. I couldn’t tell you who won that season. No one’s tuning in solely for the competition, and the producers know that.
Editor SLASH!: “American Idol” is a slightly (slightly) more credible contest than the three I’ve mentioned above, and the American public does indeed decide the fate of the semifinalists by voting. But the show’s not immune to its own smoke and mirrors. In the initial audition process that travels all over the country, amazing talent and amazing lack of talent is showcased.
However, these episodes, denoted by city are neat and tidy packages created by producers and editors work hard to create a seamless illusion. What’s that illusion? Well one is that Simon, Paula and Randy, or JLo, Steven Tyler and Randy sit around for hundreds of singers, all of whom have shown up that very morning to try their hand at getting a Golden Ticket. That perception is far from the truth. In reality, thousands of contestants show up days in advance, and are seen by multiple teams of lesser producers, who either pass the singers through or immediately send them home.
Those producers are looking for the perfect mix of amazing, mediocre and terrible, so they can send their judges a nice diverse sample of about 100 people. Phenomenal people are sent home, crazy people are sent through, and vice versa. Those that make it through the first few untelevised rounds are the only people who get to see the judges. Also, by the time you watch, you might not even be seeing that contestant’s “judge” performance. On votefortheworst.com, there are several testimonials of former contestants who tuned in to watch themselves, only to find an earlier performance for producers that had been recorded played as though it were the performance for the judges. I had no idea “American Idol”had to create their own reality, but I’ve found that the more money a show makes, the more tightly the producers grip the reins on what they’ll show the audience.
Who Cares, Let’s Get Drunk and Fight!: Then there are reality shows that are full of it because they have no credibility and are cutting straight to the trashy, trashy drama. These are sort of my favorites… They’re the ones that have titles and premises that make them sound like they might be promoting something positive or at least genuine, and then they shamelessly grab about nine different kinds of extreme and disturbed personalities, put them in a jar shaped like a mansion, add booze, and shake! “Bad Girls Club,” anyone? The show was apparently supposed to have some kind of rehabilitation aspect to it, to help girls who had serious anger/substance abuse problems. But if you watch enough seasons, you’ll see it progress to a weeks long cagematch that usually gets someone kicked out of the house for physical violence.
In a much simpler example, a co-worker of mine was approached to be on Logo’s “The A-List New York,” (kind of a “Real Housewives of NYC,” but with gay guys). This show was promoted to be specifically about gay socialites specifically in and from New York. I live and work in Los Angeles, and so does my friend. The production team was willing to throw out the entire premise of the show, because he fit a look, a personality or something they thought would make a good mix. Premise, plot and title be damned!
The Rom-Con: I have to say, the biggest offender in terms of pulling the wool over the eyes of its audience has to be the Romantic Contest. Or as I refer to them now: the Rom-Con. Not only are most of these shows mere excuses to showcase human beings at their worst, drunkest and most violent moments (I’ve seen shit on “I Love New York” that’d make the Bad Girls do the sign of the cross and implore the heavens), almost every single one is totally and completely staged. MTV and VH1 are probably the worst offenders – surprise, surprise. In “A Double Shot at Love with the Ikki Twins,” my friend Matt was a contestant. He openly had a girlfriend, but the producers couldn’t have cared less. He was eliminated in Episode 3, “Sticky and Sweet,” and was directed to make a giant stink on his way out. If you watch it, he does and he looks like a total psycho. Check it out here. Minute 35:01. But Matt’s a pretty good actor, and he certainly gave a winning performance.
Then there’s the Rom-Con Music Genre, including “Flavor of Love,” “For the Love of Ray J,” and my personal favorite, “Rock of Love.” God knows I adore the man, but Brett Michaels has had a steady girlfriend throughout all seasons of “Rock of Love,” which totally sucks, because I was seriously rooting for Amber in Season 1. I can forgive these shows a little because of that pesky issue of credibility again. MTV and VH1 are cable – basic cable at that, and when I flip to either, it’s not because I want to think.
But cable’s not alone in its obsession with Rom-Cons, the Big 4 have certainly had their goes at slightly more tasteful Rom-Cons. They’ve generally failed, in my opinion, with shows like “Joe Millionaire,” “Average Joe,” and “Temptation Island.” But there’s one show that stands up for all of them, holding up the tentpole of pseudo-credible Rom-Cons – it’s “The Bachelor” and it’s the worst. Why the worst, you ask? There’s a minimum of drunk fighting, boob baring, secret hookups and other things you might expect to find on “Love Games: Even Bad Girls Deserve Love.” And aren’t the relationships real? Aren’t girls kicked off and shunned for having secret boyfriends or hooking up with crew members? Why yes, Gentle Reader, they are. The staff of “The Bachelor” takes itself very, very seriously. And that’s why it’s so frigging offensive.
This show purports to be one of the few in its genre to be taken seriously, when in fact out of the 13 seasons of “The Bachelor,” and six seasons of “The Bachelorette,” only four couples have made it past a year, and out of those four, only two are together today. Out of those two, one has been together just over a year, so I’m not holding my breath, and the other is Trista and Ryan, breaking the curve since 2003. So, given that there’s no real hanky panky, to the tune of, “Bitch tore out my WEAVE!” and that the success rate is roughly 10%, why the hell are people watching? Why the hell are people watching any of it?
I don’t know, to be honest with you. I could tell you why I’ve occasionally tuned in to a “Bachelor Breakup Special” – it’s partly because since I’m a diehard romantic, and “The Bachelor” is the closest thing to real people attempting to create a real relationship (be it for money, fame, a lame royal title). That’s kind of tantalizing, and it goes back to the reason people watch reality television in the first place. As much as it’s fake, as much as it’s staged, as much as it’s full of s***, it’s still not scripted (totally), and I think the temptation of watching real people love or fight or make total asses of themselves is pretty hard to ignore. Especially when in real reality, we’re harshly judged for such behavior. Ever stop an stare at a messy car accident? You won’t get a lot of positive support, believe me.
I don’t want to do most of what I see on reality television, but I sure as hell want to see it. I want to examine and study it the way an archeologist would study a mummy with two heads. At the end of the day, people doing jackass things on national television makes me feel really, really good even though I’m still living paycheck to paycheck and I’m not famous. So staged or not, I tune in largely to add entries to my ever growing list of “Things That Make Me Feel Better About Being Myself.”