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Back to Reality

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, Reviews, TV channels, TV News with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2013 by Tom Steward

Despite the name, reality TV is unflinching in its adherence to the conventions of their rigid formats. It’s tantalising when a reality TV show throws out those conventions but then doubly deflating when they still manage to collapse under the crushing weight of formula after deviating from format. Breaking with convention has also become a branding strategy for many reality shows (especially the long-running ones) so it becomes difficult to separate an experimentation with format from marketing bullshit. I’ve encountered a couple of instances of this recently. Celebrity Wife Swap is the US version of a European reality format in which the long-term partners of male celebrities exchange lives for a week. The latest season began with an episode that changed the rules of the game significantly and almost to the point of abstraction. Instead of men swapping partners it was the women that exchanged their significant other, who were also women. The partners were not romantic peers but live-in blood relatives, and different relations on each side. Comedienne and broadcaster Joan Rivers took in Bristol Palin, reality-star celebrity daughter of Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, while Rivers’ daughter, TV producer Melissa Rivers, went to live with Willow Palin, Bristol’s sister.

You’re my wife/daughter/sister now!

This loose interpretation of the format may have been motivated simply by the draw of the personalities involved and the prospect of an entertaining confrontation between Joan Rivers and Bristol Palin after Rivers’ frequent jokes about the Dancing with the Stars contestant’s weight in the press. But the sister and daughter swap had the potential to undercut the patriarchy of the format and suggest alternative living arrangements or definitions of family (alas none of them gay or friendship-based). It also promised that something different would happen, since the roles of daughter and sister are so incongruous and the impact of exchanging family members unknown territory. Somehow the formula of reality TV resisted these challenges from the reality of family life to reproduce the same outcomes. The couples struggled to understand each other, they seem like they will never overcome their differences, then they do, quickly, saving recriminations for their own spouse and ending with the promise of the couple having a better relationship in the future because of the experience. The peculiar dynamics of the relationships seem to make no difference-be it sibling parents or inter-generational mothers-and are entirely secondary to ticking these boxes every week, more Bruckheimer than Broomfield.

Families are all the same…or they will be by the time we’re done.

This year’s season of The Bachelorette was billed by host Chris Harrison as having the ‘most dramatic finale ever’. Even the studio audience balked at that. By the host’s own admission, all season finales are preceded by puffed-up rhetoric promising shocking and surprising twists and turns in the normal course of the show, with a gap between promise and outcome big enough to make it a standing joke with viewers. Last year the final episode of The Bachelorette was cut in half by the contestant choosing her partner early. This was a departure from format that seemed to suggest that contestants were able to mould the conventions of the programme to their desires rather than being cogs in a media machine. But the disruption also annoyed viewers by eliminating the suspense built into the final stages of the competition. It seems that if reality TV was more like reality, with all its loose ends and uneven surfaces, fans of the genre wouldn’t necessarily want to watch it. This year’s season finale had nothing to live up to and everything to prove. It had to stick to the format to the bitter end while looking like it was a breakthrough moment.

‘Keep crying…we’ve got an hour to fill’

Like last year’s finale, the competitive element was jettisoned when eponymous bachelorette Desiree was dumped by her first choice and forwarded the rejection to her most ardent admirer, leaving only one suitor in the running. The finale was split into two parts making a cliffhanger out of the dumping, which only intensified the feeling that Desiree was going home with nothing (excuse the language of commodity exchange but this is basically a game show with prizes). The suspense of the finale strategically shifted to speculation that Desiree’s first choice would return to make a two-horse race and doubts over whether she would accept a proposal from her Plan B. The proposal happened, she accepted, and the other man in her life didn’t come back to complicate things. It almost seems like the opposite of drama to me, and as conventional an outcome as could be mustered. The viewer was not as cheated by the rhetoric as before but only because the reveal was better paced not because it broke free of the restraints of format. It feels like reality TV shows have become propaganda films for their own formats, defending their orthodoxy against any challenges the outside world might bring.

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All the Single Maybes

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2012 by Tom Steward

Most American TV is so chaste it makes me feels like I hail from a nation of sexual deviants. If Jersey Shore recalls the buffoonish innocence of an end-of-run episode of Saved by the Bell, the UK version Geordie Shore is more like the grim disillusion of Screech’s sex tape. A lot of this is down to repressive censorship practices in US network television, not to mention the deeply conservative corporate owners of some stations. But TV tends not to reflect the openness towards sex in American popular culture. Comparatively there is far more sexual repression in British attitudes, and this comes out in my vehemently prudish reaction to ABC’s The Bachelorette. Like most of the over-50 relatives that feature in the later stages of the programme, I’m uneasy with the way the show’s design promotes promiscuity whilst pushing the dogma of monogamy-as if one leads naturally to the other.

Does he have brown hair?

As The Bachelor/ette is one of the few hit US reality series that doesn’t have a British doppelganger, some introduction is required. Basically, it’s a dating version of Guess Who? Each year, one man or woman (increasingly a contestant from previous years) goes through a seemingly endless 10-week process in which they have multiple dates in various spots across the country and globe with several members of the opposite sex who run the gamut from bland to unhinged. As the series goes on, the eponymous singleton eliminates one or a couple of contestants per week by denying them a rose like some demented flower Nazi. After weeks of simultaneous and group dating-in which the show begins to eerily resemble the scene list from a porn movie-the pool is whittled down to two, until a winner emerges and becomes a fiancé. It’s a perfectly normal road to marriage…if you’re James Bond.

No Rose For You!!!

It’s now a cliché of the white noise surrounding the programme that romantic relationships between the contestants are doomed to failure. The marriages are reality TV versions of shotgun weddings, with a digital video camera with high colour contrast aimed at the grooms’ heads instead of a firearm. No-one involved with the show ever seems to attribute this to the fact that the participant is compelled to split their affections equally across partners or that the series gives the contestant a chance to try out each of the four finalists sexually in turn in the sleazily-named ‘fantasy suite’-another nod to the conventions of the sex industry. The situation flatters the producers immensely, with post-publicity in the tabloid scrutiny of the couple’s troubles and splits keeping the brand visible out-of-season. It also makes a hoard of familiar show faces single again, putting them back in the rotation for future series.

Back for a second time!

The bravado and the carefree playfulness of the contestants in the first few weeks are all well and good. But it’s when the contestants start to declare their love for each other and meet their respective families that the façade of true romance starts to look as false as the Vegas-Roman pillars that replace load-bearing walls in reality shows. As if anyone with an ounce of self-respect would continue to go through the motions of a game show with someone they cared for that deeply. It’s hard to accept that the contestants’ families would be comfortable consenting to their loved one being exposed to so much hurt. The show gets a lot of dramatic mileage out of suggesting in the editing that the parents will object to their child’s pluralistic attitude towards love. With some judicious, Bravo-style shot displacement, however, this all seems to come up dung-smelling roses in the end.

Daughter Ricki-the most talked-about child on TV

This past season of The Bachelorette threw a human-shaped spanner in the works. Competitor Emily, a former show winner whose relationship had ended, was now in the driving seat with her pick of suitors. Those in contention for the fantasy suite decided it was too tawdry, not least because Emily has a young daughter at home. Once Emily recognised compatibility and fatherly qualities in Jeff-albeit not before the final show-she ended the competition and sent other potential fiancé, Ari, home. So has the programme finally gained self-awareness about its detrimental effect on long-term relationships? Not exactly. The finale was roundly ridiculed-even by other network shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live!-for killing the tension of a closing rose ceremony and effectively ending a half-hour early. ABC’s salvage operation centred on promoting Bachelor Pad, a spin-off set seemingly entirely in the fantasy suite with partners for everyone! It’s the Bachelor/ette without piety.

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