Noel: Keith, when I wrapped up my weekly blog series about summer reality series a few weeks ago, I tried to sum up why I don't hate reality TV. In slightly truncated form, this is what I wrote:
"By and large, reality TV is phonier than documentaries in its human manipulation and editing tricks, but both forms are inherently phony, and as long as you're hip to the deception going in, there's no reason you can't enjoy the few moments of truth that each genre ekes out. I'll grant that there's something insidious about 'celebreality' and MTV's 'how to be a happy teenager' shows, but the most popular reality shows are essentially game shows, and I don't know many people who'd consider a game show emblematic of the breakdown of civilization. Anyway, at their best, the blatant unreality of reality shows creates situations that otherwise wouldn't exist—or at least would never be caught on camera—and it can be instructive to watch how people react under pressure, or even just in strange-but-still-casual interactions. Even when they're playing to the camera and having their comments taken out of context, contestants on reality shows are revealing something of themselves, and they're giving us at home a chance to imagine how we'd behave under the same circumstances. And while that may be an invitation to smugness on the viewers' part, smugness can sometimes be as cathartic as laughter or tears."
That last part bears a little explanation. The reality series that are easiest to watch without much of a guilty conscience are shows like Top Chef, The Amazing Race, and American Idol, which are about willing participants showing what they can do when the heat is on. My wife likes to say that these shows are all about who "has their shit together" and who doesn't. If life were a reality show, people who talk on their cell phones in traffic and don't see the light change, or counter clerks who take minutes to acknowledge that a customer is waiting, or co-workers who skate by with inferior work… All of them would be exposed. Voted out. Left to bring up the rear of life's big sprint. I'm not a misanthropic guy by nature, but everyone gets a little steamed at humanity sometimes, and reality TV provides an opportunity to vent, just by watching something like justice done, week-in, week-out.
Keith, I know you don't watch any reality TV currently, and haven't watched much ever, and I'm curious to hear your reasons. But first, let me pitch a show to you and see whether it sounds like something you'd watch. And if not, why not?
Forty children, ages 8 to 15, are dropped into a southwestern ghost town without parental supervision, and tasked to create their own society, with rules and tasks and payoffs for success. Is this a chance for viewers to gain insight into the psychology of children and the cliques they create, or is it a ghastly freak show, staged for our morbid entertainment? I ask you: Are you the least bit curious to see how Kid Nation turns out?
Keith: Ghastly freak show! Ghastly freak show! Can we just stop there? I have to deal with enough loud, unpleasant, selfish people on a daily basis that I don't need them as entertainment. (No, I'm not talking about my friends, family, or co-workers, but I am talking about you, Barista Who Always Gives Me Attitude, and you, Guy On The Bus Who Sits On The Aisle And Uses The Other Seat For His Bag While Other Commuters Have To Stand.)
But here's the deal: I find most reality TV to be simultaneously too freak-showish and not freak-showish enough. If you told me there would be a show with 40 children living in a ghost town with no supervision, maybe I'd watch. But with Kid Nation, I know I'm going to be getting the training-wheels-on, safety-scissors version of Lord Of The Flies. There will be 40 children carefully cast to fill out established kid types (look for a Dakota Fanning wannabe) and reality-show staples (although I guess there won't be a budding alcoholic or a slutty blonde). Then they will be tasked with whatever Survivor-esque things the producers can get away with making kids do, all within a lightly Western-themed, corporate-sponsored environment. (Maybe Chef Boyardee and Dodge Durango could team up.)
And that's the main reason I don't watch reality television: I can always see the strings. I don't think that makes me smarter than anyone else. I think most viewers see the strings. But I just keep getting distracted by how the shows are put together. I see the edits and I see the manipulations. And I know that these are meant to be entertainment, and as such aren't tasked with enlightening us the way documentaries are, but it still drives me nuts.
You argue that "contestants on reality shows are revealing something of themselves." I guess. But I generally hate or pity the people on these shows. It's as if the casting department filtered out anyone with any soft edges, leaving only self-conscious "characters" playing to the camera. They're on reality shows because they want to be on reality shows, not because these shows are peeking into their reality.
Look, I'm going to level with you: I haven't watched a reality show with any regularity since the second season of Survivor, and I know that's one of the good ones, and that was the golden age. And I know I'm just harping on the things everyone who doesn't like reality shows harps on. But when my wife briefly took up watching the widely acclaimed Project Runway last season, it didn't do much to change my mind. Sure, I got to learn a little about the fashion industry, of which I knew nothing, and Tim Gunn seemed like an engaging personality. But I still had to watch some loudmouth with a neck tattoo skulk around to cheesy music. No thanks.
Noel: You're talking about Jeffrey Sebelia, one of the more fascinating reality-show contestants. Yes, he was a loudmouth. Yes, he looked strange. But he also designed some strikingly unusual clothes, which made him kind of a test case for what I was saying above. Here's a guy who actually does have his shit together in some ways, and yet he acts like a total jerk. Do I want him to get his comeuppance, or do I want his talent to be rewarded? That's what makes Project Runway—and Top Chef, frequently—such tense, compelling TV.
Like you, I understand the manipulations involved, even in a show as putatively "classy" as Project Runway. There's the self-selection of the contestant pool, which brings out people like Sebelia, who have unhealthy egos. There's the further selection of the casting agents, who are drawn to big personalities. There's the pressure of being constantly filmed, which leads people to behave differently than they might in real life. And then there's the editing process, which removes the innocuous stuff of real life and leaves behind only the sensation. Ultimately, whether I decide to root for or against Sebelia, I know I'm not basing my decision on who this guy actually is, or on what a fashion designer's life is really like. He's a character based on reality, and I'm rooting for or against that character.
The waters get even muddier on VH1 and MTV's quasi-reality programming, much of which is essentially populated by actors. Even on big-network shows like Survivor, the contestants' professions are listed as "short-order cook" or "kindergarten teacher," yet their actual résumés are often littered with small-time acting gigs. They're playing parts. And the ones who aren't actors have been trained by a decade-plus of ubiquitous reality TV to hog the spotlight, and engage in the kind of phony moment-to-moment analytical "confessionals" that wind up making them look angrier and more self-absorbed than they probably are.
I was disappointed that the "documentary" American Cannibal: The Road To Reality earlier this year didn't go further into the mechanics of making a reality show and the psychology of reality-show contestants, because what bothers me more than anything about reality TV is the lack of transparency. Nearly everybody involved signs confidentiality and exclusivity agreements, so we rarely get the full story about what went down between edits. American Cannibal is more about the venality of the reality-TV industry, and at that, it's pretty fascinating, though incomplete. It's also reportedly "staged," although I'm not quite sure what that means when it comes to a documentary about reality TV. Reality TV is staged too, yet the camera records things that actually happened, even if they were manipulated before and after the fact.
Which prompts a question: Keith, you like documentaries, don't you? In documentaries, the presence of a camera affects the proceedings, and careful editing provides the director's interpretation of the events, rather than the literal truth. How is that different from reality TV? Is it just the subjects of the latter that turn you off? What if Kid Nation was a documentary about an actual Outward Bound-style camp, rather than a contest cooked up by a TV producer? Would that make a difference?
Keith: Yes. Absolutely. It's the difference between capturing reality—however much the presence of the camera may change it—and capturing a manufactured "reality." But beyond that, the mission is different. Someone like Errol Morris creates artful assemblages edited and underscored for maximum impact. That's almost as far removed from man-with-a-camera vérité documentaries as Shrek. But what they have in common is—ideally—a desire to shine a light on some corner of our world. Reality TV is a perversion of that, borrowing the language of a documentary to move us toward pre-ordained conclusions while raising the brand awareness of corporate sponsors. (This cranky observation brought to you via a MacBook, now with an Intel processor. Intel: Leap ahead.)
So what does documentary filmmaking even mean in the age of reality TV? I don't know. I don't think it's having a good effect, though. My biggest problem with last year's Jesus Camp was the way it felt the need to juice moments with ominous music. You know what? I think a bunch of kids being told to pray before a cardboard standee of George W. Bush is creepy enough without it.
I could take off on your comment about how a whole generation is coming of age raised on this stuff, and how it might affect their behavior. But I won't, because I think that's nonsense. (The kids are all right. Or at least no worse than the kids before them.) But I don't like the way reality TV has muddied what it means to point a camera at someone and have them say what's true.
Noel: I guess my argument would be that the worst of reality TV and the best of documentary filmmaking stand on opposite ends of a scale—but it's the same scale. There are plenty of reality TV shows that I find appalling, and plenty of documentaries, too. What I don't get is the automatic dismissal of reality TV, as though nothing good can come of it. It's like arguing that comics promote juvenile delinquency, or movies will make you go blind. I mean, it's just a genre, you know?
My two favorite kinds of reality TV are the competition shows, like Top Chef, American Idol, and The Amazing Race, and slices of life like Airline, American Casino, Cheerleader Nation, Cops, and the Barbara Kopple-directed "reality miniseries" The Hamptons. The former are upfront about the fact that they inherently depict unreal situations. (Twenty people didn't just happen to wash up on a tropical island with a film crew; they were selected to play a game.) The latter—which seem to have fallen out of favor—are really more in the documentary tradition, even if the zippy editing and overexplanatory narration would drive Frederick Wiseman mad.
I can't really defend reality TV as a higher form of entertainment. Even the best of the genre is kind of shoddy and formulaic, and if you're looking for evidence of the harm it does, consider the quick demise of many quality scripted series that never get a chance to find an audience, because the networks know they can get higher ratings for less money if they slap together a dating show. At the same time, reality TV is frequently dramatic, funny, and even thrilling—maybe not as deeply so as the best scripted series, but moreso than the average time-killing CBS procedural. Just ask fans of Top Chef, who felt their collective stomachs sink when front-running contestant Tre Wilcox took the lead on—and the fall for—a disastrous string of dishes in the show's recent "Restaurant Wars" competition. Tre was a soft-spoken, creative, and highly professional guy on the show—not your typical reality TV egotist at all—and his sudden downfall was as heartbreaking as any medical crisis on Grey's Anatomy. (I know that's not setting the bar high, but trust me… It was really tough to watch)
I also take some comfort in the fact that audiences seem to be rejecting the worst of reality TV. I stuck it out through every torturous episode of On The Lot this summer, but I was one of the few. And the 10 minutes of Fox's Anchorwoman I watched—before the overstressing of the title character's ditziness and her small-town TV news colleagues' unwarranted arrogance made me realize that there'd be nothing all that real on this reality show—turned out to be about 10 minutes more than the rest of America. When reality TV is especially moronic, it usually fails, just like everything else.
But please Fox, please, stick with Kitchen Nightmares, no matter how low the ratings sink this October. I need to see Gordon Ramsay yell at some incompetents, and I need it on the fly.