Reality got punk’d

A few years ago, reality TV became an official genre, and a legitimate format for almost any type of scenario: matchmaking, job interviews, talent competitions, home renovations, and even plastic surgery. For a while, it was a staple of summer TV programming when nothing else was on. Not even repeats!

And it was during the summer of 2004 that I caught an episode of For Love or Money, apparently in its third series. At the time, I couldn’t believe that this kind of show existed. I mean, really? A matchmaking show that asks people if they’ll hook up with someone in the end, or take money instead? It’s a fair question, I’ll grant. But what an awful test to put people through. Of course, it seems more awful that people are willing to put themselves through it just to be on TV.

Anyhow, by the time I caught the show, two ladies were fighting over some bloke. One of the ladies was identified as Rachel Veltri, and the other as “Event Planner” Andrea Langi. A couple of weeks later, I rented episodes from Sex and the City’s season 5. During the last episode of the season, I was struck with an actual instance of the uncanny. In the episode, called “I love a charade,” Samantha takes over her ex-lover’s Hamptons villa and discovers he lets random young women stay there as they please. One of them seemed incredibly familiar. Then it struck me: it’s Andrea Langi!

My next stop was IMDB, and sure enough, there she was. Bloody event planner is an actress. (p.s. Most recently, she played the random blond girl who has a bathroom romp with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler……..p.p.s. Rachel Veltri is an actress too.)

This isn’t so unusual. After all, most of us thought it was a brilliant idea for Jerri Manthey to join Survivor in its second season. Best screen test ever, we thought. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a touch of dishonesty in identifying Ms. Langi as an “event planner.” Sure, it’s a vague enough description, and while it could mean “plans her next audition and hopes it’ll be an event,” the term very much implies that she organizes parties.

I didn’t think much of it until I got caught up on season 5 of The Apprentice. I’ll be honest: I used to love this show. I especially used to enjoy how people always screwed up the most basic marketing tasks. That season, Sean Yasbeck earned what I thought was a richly deserved victory. Though I always found it odd that a real estate mogul would actually hire a CEO based on how well they did on the show’s series of rather unfair, if rinky-dink challenges. I never gave it a second thought until I decided to google Sean Yasbeck. Naturally, his first entry was an IMDB page. I checked it out even though I only thought I’d find Apprentice-related info. To my amazement, it seems Mr. Yasbeck is also of the theatre arts. He’s an actor. And not just in b-movies. He had a role in EastEnders!

And another one: Heidi Mueller, one of the kids on Who Wants to Marry My Dad?, ended up in a leading role on Passions.

I can understand why producers would rather work with actors. When they improv, actors turn out better than real people off-the-cuff. Fair enough. Still, the “reality TV” packaging needs a revise.

But then, other clues emerged. It dawned on me when I saw an episode of Gene Simmons Family Jewels. Okay, okay, you’re allowed to judge me. I can take it. In my defense, he’s immortal.

Anyhow, in this episode, Mr. Simmons is on his way to Las Vegas and his car breaks down. He gets out of the vehicle, stands in the middle of the desert, and, in his frustration, lets out a primal scream. From three different angles. You know, like they do for explosions in action flicks?

This added another dimension to the reality realm: direction. Maybe Mr. Simmons didn’t take three cameramen with him on his trip to Vegas, but even if there was just the one, they got a cue from someone to film one moment from three different angles. For effect.

Reality shows have often been criticized for altering the truth through cunning edits. This is a more complex version of the same critique. In documentary movies, we’ve often accepted that once “a” reality is filmed, it’s already slightly altered. Other than the passage of time, editing is another factor that creates a cinematic filter.

But this is entirely different. This is staging a scene so that it’ll end up looking a certain way once it gets on screen. This is making sure a shot is perfect. This is drama. This is fiction.

Then I started to see it everywhere. The Hills. The Osbournes. Hogan Knows Best. Celebrity Rehab.

Truth be told, some of the set-ups always seemed absurd. Meeting the love of your life by a process of elimination, whereby you barely get to know the people in the running. Choosing your best friend based on ridiculous competitions. Following celebrities around as they do mundane things, like buying a toy for their chihuahua. But I guess I was able to accept a certain amount of contrivance, provided that some of it was real. That’s what made it compelling, right?

Well, it turns out that what really makes reality TV interesting is what makes any program work: show business. Writers giving actors their cues. Producers making decisions that will sell the product to a captive audience. Directors creating drama where there is none. Editors turning it all into TV magic.

Do I feel duped? Yes, but mostly by myself. The good news is that I can stop feeling guilty for watching Paris Hilton’s New BFF. When it was reality, it was trash. But now that it’s drama, it’s okay.

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4 thoughts on “Reality got punk’d

  1. I’m afraid my patience for reality TV is too short. Too much dysfunction and psychodrama, and, frankly, if I want that, I just live life.

    On the other hand, brilliantly edited reality can be marvelous. Ever see the late 80’s indy film “Sherman’s March?”

  2. Sure did, but that’s a documentary. Thankfully, it’s filmed very differently from reality TV…

    Great movie. Wasn’t it early ’80s though?

  3. Well, it starts out as an attempt at a documentary about Sherman’s March through the South…and then becomes somewhat different. The only thing being “documented” is the life and romantic struggles of the filmmaker. Which makes it…well…real. The line between the two kinda gets blurred. It is a solid little film, suffused with a wry and genteel Southern existentialism..not quite the festival of carefully choreographed skank-fights that passes for reality on cable.

    It was “mid-to-late” 80s. It came out in ’86. I saw it in early ’87 at the old Biograph theater in Georgetown, where it attained nearly cult status for a while. It played there, as I recall, for over a year. DC is in the South, after all…

  4. We studied it in a documentary film class I took back in Uni. Actually, and I said this in class as well, I think the movie is aptly named. There’s a parallel between the filmmaker and W. T. Sherman. Just as Sherman’s march through the South was marked by a clear path of utter destruction, the director’s journey to the South has a similar effect, at least romantically. He manages to mess up each of his encounters with self-destructive behaviour. He’s either too condescending, too forward, too whatever. And each time, he seems to understands that the behaviour is counter-productive, but he can’t seem to find another way.

    Odd that.

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