In “Reality Publishing,” a 2009 essay published in n+1 and featured in the new anthology MFA Vs. NYC, Daryl Lorenzo Wellington drops this pithy observation about the contests that the American public subjects itself to:
Reality shows depend upon feelings of worthlessness. A public that felt empowered would demand more from its contests; a disenfranchised public will easily slip into the role of the buffoon, even arrogantly demanding their privilege to play the buffoon. Reality show success is all about childish self-promotion. To mature, or to begin to speak maturely, will usually get you voted off.
Wellington is making an argument about a contest online that turned into something from a reality show; but it’s significant that the baseline for all that’s corrupt and degenerate in our culture boils down to the worst kind of reality television. It’s an arena that allows the viewer to live vicariously and smugly feel superior, while the participant often engages in a contest that is rigged to their disadvantage to make someone else money.
Which is why it’s interesting that two of TNT’s new unscripted shows—part of a push to raise the reality profile of the network—are so directly about financial success. Inside Job and Save Our Business are debuting back-to-back on Friday, which is hardly a vote of confidence. But TNT’s logic, perhaps, is that the same audiences that admire the middle-class, entrepreneurial tone of ABC’s popular Shark Tank will fall for the pairing of these two shows. (Both feature producing staff that previously worked on The Apprentice, which is another obvious forerunner.)
Neither show is particularly attractive, though, and on closer examination they both make the skin crawl. Ostensibly, a show about struggling businesses and job applicants offers a voice to the disenfranchised. Instead, both turn into depressing parables about the state of the American economy and the reality television that attempts to profit from it.
Save Our Business should have the most populist appeal—it’s a more generalized Bar Rescue, crossed with the astonishment factor of Hoarders. Each week, the show focuses on a business that is failing or in debt and promises to rehabilitate it. Along the way, of course, families are reconciled, marriages are healed, and employees and managers learn to appreciate each other. It’s the type of convenient reality-TV mythmaking that tries to package a whole life story around one pivotal moment.
But Save Our Business has a problem—its host, Peter Jones. Jones is a British tycoon and entrepreneur who made the bulk of his fortune from mobile phones and has since shifted his attention to entrepreneurial education initiatives and television programs about business successes. No doubt his intentions are spotless, and you have to admire his enthusiasm. But on the show, Jones becomes not just a tall, swaggering bully with a foreign accent, but further, a patronizing kind of savior-figure.
In the pilot, for example, Jones strides into a down-on-its-luck daycare and diagnoses its problems with merciless precision: It’s dirty, it’s not safe, and it’s unappealing. These are all valid concerns, of course. He interviews customers and employees; he scouts out new talent and he comes up with a new theme for the play area. But he does almost all of it without asking the owner of the store if she’s interested in the ideas; by the end, he is just springing more and more at her that she has to go along with. Jones maneuvers to fire an employee, rename the store, rearrange the interior, hire a trainer, arrange a publicity event, and interviews her customers without her consent. The intentions are good—but the effect is that Peter Jones, hero, came to the business and fixed it up for her. It lacks the collaboration of TLC’s Trading Spaces or even the dialogue that takes place in What Not To Wear. The story might be one of a business becoming successful, but the disenfranchisement of its owners remains the same. It’s the type of so-called “philanthropy” that has strings attached; in this case, it’s your own agency that you’ll have to forfeit.
Inside Job takes on the other side of business—human resources—in a devious twist worthy of George Orwell. Each episode features a business that is hiring for a position; the applicants are invited to live at a house for a week with each other, while being filmed, as they go through more steps of the application process. But unbeknownst to them, one of their temporary roommates is actually someone from the company they’re trying to work for. At the end of the episode, all is revealed, and someone gets the position. Along the way, there are a lot of sinister shots of everyone texting, as the camera speculates on who is the mole.
It proceeds about as expected: An applicant steals another’s idea; that other applicant turns out to be the plant. She gets the opportunity to fire the thief herself, which is supposed to be a kind of poetic justice. Instead, it’s just depressing. Is this how much power corporations have now? Is this how little agency the average job seeker has—even the thieving applicant was only doing what the producers of such a show had put her up to? Walking into an interview, it’s easy to feel that the suits on the other side of the desk have all the power. Inside Job merely assures us of the obvious—of course they do.
The last of TNT’s offerings this week is Private Lives Of Nashville Women, built on an entirely different model than either of the above. Unlike a Shark Tank killer, TNT hopes that Private Lives will be able to compete with the behemoth that is Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise—TNT even hired former Real Housewives producers for their new show. Private Lives is purportedly more “trashy” and wealth-obsessed than either of the other two shows—the promotional material plays up the women’s pretty faces and model-like physiques, while dressing them in shades of gold and silver. It’s odd, then, that this program is also the one that feels the least insulting to anyone struggling financially. Even though the women in the show are unabashedly wealthy, they’re not preening. Private Lives is hoping to make much of the women’s interpersonal drama, but in the first few episodes, it’s had to settle for one woman worrying that she’s lost her identity as a stay-at-home mom and another struggling with the process of an open adoption of her newborn daughter. But perhaps that too is the side effect of who’s participating: In Inside Job and Save Our Business, the people involved are all too eager to be buffoons; in Private Lives, the women demonstrate a bit more self-worth.
Produced by: Eli Holzman, Stephen Lambert
Debuts: Friday at 9 p.m. Eastern on TNT
Pilot watched for review
Save Our Business
Produced by: James Bruce, Arthur Smith, Kent Weed, Frank Sinton
Starring: Peter Jones
Debuts: Friday at 10 p.m. Eastern on TNT
Two episodes watched for review