Friday, October 07, 2005

Reality television's manufactured villains

My friend Cheryl always insists that reality shows are scripted. She believes the producers very explicitly say, fight with him, make out with her, betray your friend, get drunk and make a scene, whatever. She doesn't watch reality shows though, so she's hardly an expert. 

I have always thought of reality shows as being a result of smart casting and sneaky editing. You get a bunch of combustible people, put them in a strange situation, film it and then edit it for maximum effect (for example, reaction shots in reality shows are fairly meaningless; when someone says something dumb and there's a cut to another character rolling her eyes, she might have actually rolled her eyes half an hour earlier; I saw a documentary about tricks like those).

Still, I don't think producers are micromanaging the action, because I think actually scripting a reality show in great detail would be a monumental task that probably would wind up less interesting than something more natural (and certainly the shows that have tried to hardest to create soap opera scenarios and hype up the drama too much have tended to be flops).

But while producers may not be scripting the contestants, some contestants appear to be scripting themselves. And that brings me to Kill Reality and The Surreal Life.

In a recent Surreal Life, Omarosa, the incredibly annoying woman who was a contestant on The Apprentice, where she gained notoriety as a bitch, stated that she came on the show with the intent to be a bitch for the cameras. She says she's writing a book on reality shows.

Omarosa's main foil was Janice Dickenson, who was prone to tantrums. Throughout the show, her housemates would discuss amongst themselves whether she was really upset or was just trying to get more airtime. Unlike Omarosa, Janice hasn't admitted anything. Her constant referral to herself as the world's first supermodel (a phrase used by her dozens of times on the show) is most probably an attempt to either be outlandish or annoying, but Janice could also just be a little nuts.

On Kill Reality one suspects that Johnny Fairplay is also faking it. It was obvious when he was on Survivor that his real goal was not to win a million dollars but to become the ultimate Survivor villain. In the first episode of Kill Realityb John describes Johnny Fairplay as a character he has
invented, as opposed to the real him.

Johnny Fairplay is an ass, and he seems like a truly horrible person on the show, but one can't help but notice that everyone really likes him. He seems to be friends or lovers with almost everyone on the show, and it's rather hard to believe that the mean spirited, self-centered, drunken idiot on the show could be that well liked. Which suggests that he is also playing a part and that everyone understands that. This doesn't mean he's not an ass, but he is perhaps a different kind of ass.

My problem with the self-made villains is not that they aren't real. We're all acting to some extent, and those on TV can't help wanting to control their appearance. But Johnny Fairplay, Omarosa and Janice are all incredibly annoying. I hated Fairplay on Survivor and I constantly wished he'd be voted off. I was thrilled when Omarosa was fired.

Obviously as a fan of reality television I do take perverse enjoyment from watching conflict and turmoil, but I also enjoy seeing the more intricate examples of interplay between people; the alliances, the friendships, the occasional flashes of nobility, the humor. But a character like Johnny Fairplay can just take over a show and make it all about him, if the producers choose, and the result is rather annoying.

I don't blame Omarosa, who has figured out the rules and is playing the game for her own purposes, but I do blame the producers and editors who let these people take over their shows. They are creating Jerry Springer television, and that is always a bad thing.

1 comment:

  1. The new issue of Radar (plug, plug) has an roundtable with reality TV writers about how they create storylines and characters. Basically there's no need to tell people what to do and say, since they can be made to have done or said virtually anything the producers want in the editing room.