This past weekend marked one of the world's most prestigious documentary film festivals, True/False. For four days, attendees in Columbia, Missouri, were pushed by experimental documentaries like Rat Film, Strong Island, Safari, and Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? to think about the deeper meaning of "truth" and how a medium as frequently artificial as cinema can both represent and distort the facts.
Yet if those same folks wanted to be befuddled about reality and fakery in a different way, they could have just stayed home and watched Chrisley Knows Best.
Don't misunderstand: There's infinitely more artistry in the typical True/False film than there is to most reality TV. But given that the genre has been frequently criticized (for decades now) as disingenuous and phony, it's remarkable how increasingly brazen reality TV has become about its contrived situations and staged conflicts… to the extent that the lines between scripted drama and reality programming aren't just being blurred, they're being obliterated. In an era where phrases like "fake news" and "alternative facts" are bandied about by our political leaders almost daily, it's time to start casting more of a critical eye toward the shows that have swallowed up cable television.
Here's a case-in-point: The other day while channel-surfing I landed on an episode of The Grill of Victory, a quasi-competition series which pits teams of BBQ experts against each other. I say "quasi," because unlike purer reality competitions like Chopped or Cutthroat Kitchen (which have their own issues, no doubt), The Grill of Victory is more like Top Chef, blending documentary-style dramatics with what is essentially a game show. But where Top Chef creates the illusion of cameras unobtrusively watching a group of talented professional cooks, the Grill of Victory episode I watched was more awkwardly stagey. At one point, one team realized it didn't have enough of the right kind of ribs and would have to sub in spareribs; and both the revelation and the confessional interviews around it sounded so obviously scripted (and so poorly delivered) that any reasonable person would assume this "screw-up" was planned in advance.
If so, The Grill of Victory would be in good company.
The producers of House Hunters have admitted that in order to make sure that each episode has an ending, they find people who've already bought houses, and then have them essentially recreate a "search" that was completed well before the cameras arrived. Back in 2012, one of the regulars on A&E's Storage Wars filed a lawsuit claiming that the abandoned lockers that he and his cast-mates bid on are pre-selected — and possibly pre-loaded with choice antiques — by the producers, and that the outcome of the auctions are massaged. (A&E has denied stocking the lockers, but has also denied violating any federal laws against fixing game shows, because with Storage Wars there's no "chance" or "intellectual skill" involved. Make of that statement what you will.)
Then there are the survival series, like the still-popular Survivor (returning to CBS for a new season this Wednesday) and the upstart Naked and Afraid. Both have been plagued with claims from former participants that tricky editing creates a false impression of just what happens out in the wilderness. Some contestants complain not just that they were made out to be more villainous — and others more heroic — but that sometimes they and their colleagues received medical attention and nourishment that wasn't included in the final cut, thus making it look like they had it a lot harder.
It's no great revelation to say that reality TV isn't real. But it's the pervasiveness of the fakery that's become more curiously obvious.
The kind of blatant contrivance evident in The Grill of Victory or House Hunters used to be the province of shows like The Hills or The Real Housewives or Keeping Up with the Kardashians, where the voyeuristic thrill of peeping in at the lives of rich people is filtered through a framework of episodic stories. In a recent Chrisley Knows Best, for example, part of the half-hour is about star Todd Chrisley becoming a spoiled diva and getting an ironic comeuppance when he takes a stab at becoming a professional musician, and the rest is about the younger Chrisleys competing to see who can host a better dinner party. In other words: The show takes the form of an old-fashioned family sitcom, except with worse actors, worse production values, and worse writing.
That's all fine, as far as it goes. Phoniness is part of the appeal for some viewers. For others, it's a trade-off that allows them to spend time around personalities and locations they find fascinating. There are appealing elements to many reality shows, unrelated to how corny they so often are, such as the actual survivalist tips in Naked and Afraid, the history lessons about antique Americana in Storage Wars, and even the refreshingly ordinary looking women who bare their bodies and souls on Showtime's Gigolos. Still, when a concept as simple as "let's watch a group of people cook separate meals and see which ones the judges like best" can't make it to air without manufactured drama and trumped-up "characters," it does raise the question of what the point of reality TV has become.
As an experiment, I spent an evening bouncing between a handful of new and older shows I'd never seen before, all of which happened to be on basic cable during the same three-hour period: on Discovery (Rusted Development), Animal Planet (North Woods Law: New Hampshire), TLC (Long Island Medium), Travel (Big Time RV), and HGTV (Caribbean Life). My goal was to get a better sense of what the baseline is today for the reality genre.
If nothing else, it's always remarkable how tightly constructed so many of these series are. They're designed to keep people watching through the commercial breaks — and then into the next episode, since so many channels schedule reality programs in blocks of repeats. Big Time RV (a kind of Tiny House Hunters for mobile homes) cuts to commercials after potential RV-buyers see something amazing that the audience isn't privy to yet. The other shows above do something similar, teasing a drama or conflict in such vague but compelling ways that it's hard not to keep watching to see what's next.
Even at their lamest, all five of these have some value, whether it's the opportunity to empathize with real people's pain and loss on Long Island Medium, or learning how to chase away a bear on North Woods Law, or gawking at beachfront property in Caribbean Life.
But with the exception of North Woods Law (which is mostly in the "keep taping until something happens" mode, like its obvious inspiration, COPS), all of these shows feature multiple instances of manipulation. Sometimes the fakery is fairly benign, such as when the customers on Big Time RV and Caribbean Life weigh their purchasing decisions in ways that sound very stilted and prepared. Other moments are more egregious. The A-story in the Long Island Medium I watched has the title character officiating at a client's wedding, which is framed as something that just happened as the show was shooting, and not something that was cooked up behind the scenes. Rusted Development is even stranger, following two auto-restorers (one an ex-wrestler) who try to help out car-hoarders, but keep facing difficulties that feel either purposefully plotted-out or re-staged for the cameras.
I don't want to overstate the dangers of this trend, or even to suggest that the popularity of faux-reality has led to America's current made-for-TV presidency. That's too much of a burden to place on mere entertainment. Still, I do wonder when and why we decided as a culture that we'd rather see real people on television instead of actors — but only provided that everything they do and say has been scripted. Why are we afraid to let reality be reality?
Lately I find myself thinking a lot about the documentary Finders Keepers, which I saw at True/False in 2015 (and which is currently available to stream on Netflix). The film is about two men: John Wood, a drug addict who lost his leg in an airplane crash, and Shannon Whisnant, who found the mummified remains of that appendage in an old barbecue grill. Whisnant tried to capitalize on a brief moment of local celebrity, angling to exploit his discovery to get on TV whenever possible. He died of a heart attack late last year, but in the movie his end is more ironic than tragic: He appears on a Storage Wars-like auction program, and is dismayed to find that the producers have only brought him on to make fun of him. They've paid him to pretend to be someone he's not, rather than showcasing off his actual personality and humor.
I'm by no means opposed to reality shows. I watch several regularly, and while I prefer the ones that seem more "fair" about what's true and what's not (such as Top Chef, Alone, Survivor, and Project Runway), I have no illusions that any of these are documentaries, per se. Nevertheless, regardless of whether a series is well-made or embarrassingly cheesy, these days I find myself thinking more and more about Shannon Whisnant. I remember how his face fell when he realized that the attention he craved was only going to happen if he allowed himself to be misrepresented. His story obliges me to look more closely whenever "real" people let me into their world… or into whatever TV writers have decided that world should be.