Content May 2007

The Case for Reality TV

What the snobs don’t understand

In Real Housewives, businessman Lou Knickerbocker stages a photo shoot to promote his new “highly oxygenated” water, variously called “Aqua Air” and “O.C. Energy Drink” (“We have patented technology that produces water from air”). The models are attractive-ish teen and 20-something girls: Lou’s daughter Lindsey, by ex-wife Tammy; a few other daughters of O.C. housewives; and a newcomer whom Lou apparently found waitressing at a local restaurant.

Lou and Tammy made piles of money—it’s not clear how—but their finances seem to have fractured along with their marriage. The photo shoot, therefore, is throwing off more than the normal amount of flop sweat. Lou apparently has personally selected the girls, which means he has declined to showcase his other daughter, Megan, because of her tattoos and lack of physical fitness. Lou believes the “Aqua Air Angels” should embody the Aqua Air ideal, which is why they can’t drink or smoke and must have grade-point averages higher than 3.5. “This is a photo shoot,” he barks after a fight breaks out between one of the girls and the waitress, “not a gang bang, for chrissakes.”

The detail is what puts the scene over: Lou’s lip-smacking focus on the girls, the girls’ bland acquiescence. “That’s it, baby, smile,” Lou urges his daughter. “Show those teeth,” says Tammy. A similar scenario on Desperate Housewives could never have been quite this preposterous, quite this blandly amoral. The characters would have been scripted with softening, redeeming qualities, or been rendered comically evil. Lou would’ve gotten his comeuppance, like Wallace Shawn’s money-siphoning literary agent in that series. Here, the apparent willingness of the young women and at least some of the parents to indulge Lou’s bottom-of-the-barrel scheming outlines, in a few short brushstrokes, a community’s shared value system.

Value systems are smashed into each other, like atoms in an accelerator, on ABC’s Wife Swap, where the producers find the most extreme pairings possible: lesbian mommies with bigots, godless cosmopolites with Bible thumpers. On one February show, a Pentacostal family, the Hoovers, was paired with the family of a former pastor, Tony Meeks, who has turned from God to follow his rock-and-roll dreams (mom Tish rocks out as well). “I feel by being there,” Kristin Hoover said, “I was able to remind Tony that God still loves him and is not finished with him.” The episode took seriously the Hoovers’ commitment to homeschooling and their rejection of contemporary culture (a rejection not taken to the extreme of declining an invitation to appear on reality TV). Compare this with the tokenism of “born-again Christian” Harriet Hayes on NBC’s dramedy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Harriet’s but a cipher, a rhetorical backboard against which ex-boyfriend Matt Albie can thwack his heathen wisecracks.

The competitions and elimination shows are latter-day Milgram experiments that place real people in artificial situations to see what happens. The Apprentice is Darwinism set loose inside an entrepreneurial Habitrail. Post-9/11, Survivor became less a fantasy and more a metaphor for an imagined post­apocalyptic future. What happens on these shows might be a Technicolor version of how we behave in real life, but so is most fiction. Creative endeavors—written, scripted, or produced—should be measured not by how literally they replicate actual life but by how effectively they render emotional truths. The best moments found on reality TV are unscriptable, or beyond the grasp of most scriptwriters. It’s no coincidence that 2006’s best scripted dramas—The Wire, HBO’s multi-season epic of inner-city Baltimore; and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s futuristic thriller—were studies in meticulously crafted “realness,” deploying naturalistic dialogue, decentered and chaotic action, stutter-step pacing, and a reporter’s eye for the telling detail. The Wire’s season and Cuarón’s movie both ended on semi-resolved novelistic notes, scorning the tendency in current television and cinema toward easy narrative closure. Watching them only threw into higher relief the inability of so much other scripted product to get beyond stock characterizations and pat narrative.

For all the snobbism in the doc community, reality TV has actually contributed to the recent boom in documentary filmmaking. The most successful docs of recent vintage have broken through in part by drawing heavily from reality television’s bag of tricks, dropping the form’s canonical insistence on pure observation. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore brings an Army recruiter with him to confront legislators and urge them to enlist their children in the Iraq War effort. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore takes children who were shot at Columbine to a Kmart, where they ask for a refund on the bullets that are still lodged in their bodies. Of course, Moore’s never been a doc purist. TV Nation, his short-lived 1994 television series, prefigured a long line of gonzo reality, from Joe Millionaire to Punk’d. Having the Serbian ambassador sing along to the Barney theme song (“I love you, you love me”) while statistics about the number of Bosnians killed during the breakup of Yugoslavia appeared on the screen was not only ur-reality; it was ur-Borat. And speaking of talking animals, March of the Penguins turned stunning footage of mating and migrating penguins into an utterly contrived Antarctic version of Love Story.

The resistance to reality TV ultimate­ly comes down to snobbery, usually of the generational variety. People under 30, in my experience, tend to embrace this programming; they’re happy to be entertained, never mind the purity of conception. As an unapologetic producer of reality shows, I’m obviously biased, but I also know that any genre that provokes such howls of protest is doing something interesting. Try the crab.

Michael Hirschorn last wrote about the Web 2.0 bubble.
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Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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