unreal lives

There are a lot of reality shows on television these days, and I watch a number of them. I have a criteria, for instance I don’t watch Big Brother or any of the Survivor/I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here type affairs.

I’m more interested in shows in which the ordinary people involved attempt to change their lives. Project Runway for instance, Masterchef, or even America’s Next Top Model (ANTM).

Yet, I’m becoming weary of the obvious scripting of these shows. Once you know a smidgen about editing, direction, and the difficulties of shooting a simple scene, you quickly realise that nothing on television is accidental. As a taxi driver in Dublin once said to me: “Once it’s on television it’s no longer real.”

A good example I see often is when a person arrives “unannounced” at the victim’s house, but the camera crew is already inside the house and shooting this piece of spontaneous surprise. “Wow, I didn’t realise you were coming,” says the victim, who tries not to pay attention to the camera and mic that crowd in for the close-up.

Now, I find it harder and harder to watch these programmes and not notice the puppet master behind the flickering images, pulling the strings, and directing the narratives.

I notice how certain people’s actions are edited to make them seem like the baddie (difficult, whinger, bitchy, etc.) and others are shown to be the protagonists (helpful, affectionate, a team player). This is particularly obvious in the American shows. People are slotted into obvious stereotypes and edited to play true to form.

Yet, even in a British show like Masterchef, I can spot how the judges debate the contestants in a recognisable pattern: weed out the weak ones first, and leave the audience in suspense between two contenders (and coincidently the judges are often split in their opinions – giving the illusion of there being a true conflict). Then, it’s cue the tense music, the line-up of sweating and nervous faces, and the final release as the winner is announced and the music goes all cheery to celebrate.

At this point we’ve had nearly a decade of reality television shows and people have absorbed the dynamics. Many of them unconsciously play along with what the format demands. The young women appearing in ANTM, for instance, have been watching that show throughout their teenaged years and understand that there are a number of ways to get attention on the show, and sure enough, they fall into those roles easily enough. Plus, they are selected not just because of their looks, but because their psychological profiles mesh in a way that indicates maximum drama.

What I dislike most is when you spot the obvious manufactured crises. Drama is conflict after all. The producers of these shows want viewers, and that means plenty of on-screen histrionics. Everyone and everything on these shows is calculated and contrived.

In the early days of the reality television craze there were still glimpses of unvarnished emotion, and true struggle. Now, we’ve all seen hundreds of these shows and we know how they are supposed to play out. The contestants and participants allow their lives to be cut up out of sequences, narrated over, and edited to produce a storyline that follows a predictable three-act structure.

One of the worst forgeries I stumbled across recently was MTV UK’s Bedroom Diaries, which says: “A group of teenagers agreed to let MTV inside their secret worlds. These are their stories…” The one I watched, “Beccy” was so staged that I thought for a while that it was a complete fabrication and the girl was an actress. That’s because the story of relationship trauma was played out in a fashion that was thoroughly predictable. The problem for me is that the editing is so slick, so processed, and the snippets of participants’ narration that have been added in post-production are so contrived, that nothing appears genuine. The events occur over a six-week period, and yet we are presented with a problem, which is resolved (rather handily) within the shooting period. Everyone learns a lesson. Watching another one, called “Katty”, you can see the teens acting up to the camera and the attention. There are real issues and interesting people being portrayed in these stories, but the artificial way in which they are presented means that everything appears false and stilted. MTV has always touted style over substance, so that should come as no surprise.

I prefer fictional programmes at this point. They tell a lie honestly. I know it’s made-up.

Reality television shows, on the other hand, purport to be the truth, while distorting and twisting that truth until it becomes a funhouse reflection of its original.

I’m seeing some of these huge-head-tiny-body warping in programmes that are purporting to be documentaries now. They craft a narrative about historical events, pepper it with cut-away recreated scenes to jazz up the story, and patter out the storyline they expect their viewers to want: set-up, conflict, and resolution. I’m surprised at the sloppiness of these programmes at times. There is less interest in exegesis, and more emphasis on exploitation.

Of course, I could get into a philosophical discussion about the nature of reality and illusion, and point out that we are all creatures chained to our filters of perception, but that’s a topic best expounded over a couple of glasses of good wine – so I can bend my perceptions a little more.

I’m glad the screenwriters’ strike in the USA is over. I can relax into fictional worlds that are upfront about their unreality.

One Comment

  • liam griffin

    Couldnt agree more with what your saying. Whats worse is when the techniques of “reality” TV are used in “warfare journalism” to give the impression that what we are watching is a real and fair fight. Jean Baudrillard wrote a lot about fake realities replacing whats really happening. but i forget most of it… but cool post anyway, i think i saw that sickening MTV show too. God, how could you invite those media vampires into your house….?

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