Archive for reality tv

Reality TV

Posted in American TV (General), American TV Shows, Reality TV, TV Criticism, Watching TV with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by Tom Steward

‘This is a true story. The events depicted took place in Minnesota in 2006. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.’

These words appear onscreen before the opening credits of every episode of Fargo (so far) in front of the master shot one sentence at a time, with a gradual fade on the first one which leaves the word ‘true’ alone on the screen for a second. They follow a network warning which also tells viewers how real the show is going to be, but here it is not the veracity of the events depicted in question but the adult nature of its content. First-time viewers will most likely accept these words on face value as they are delivered without a trace of irony in the solemn legalese one expects from such prefixes. Those coming to Fargo from the 1996 Coen Brothers movie on which it is based will probably be in on the joke, if only for the sake of not being fooled twice. They will remember that the movie opened with almost the same words, the only difference being the date which was originally ‘1987’. Most of them will have subsequently discovered that this was in fact a lie…in fact. I doubt the producers of Fargo are counting on people falling for the same trick but choosing to begin each show with a hoax is more than mere homage.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing like the truth.

The series would have to have been made anticipating viewers instantly finding out about the movie’s hoax from any number of debunking websites and presuming the same of the TV version, or at least assuming fiction until there is evidence to the contrary. As the programme rewards knowledge of the original film by segueing their storylines into a coherent fictional world, we can deduce that if one is bogus, the other is too. The original prefix was clearly designed to convince audiences of its legitimacy, with formal white text on a serious black screen set aside from the dramatic body of the movie. The adaptation more or less tells us the prefix is phoney, reduced to its basic meaning (‘true’) to show us how flimsy and insubstantial it is without the window-dressing of dates and places. Despite all these mitigations, I still can’t help but feel that the producers are clinging to the hope that somebody somewhere will be duped if only because of the longstanding reputation of television as a truth-telling medium. They may be counting on viewers making distinctions between the way TV witnesses events of the world and how movies provide escape from it to get them to buy into the illusion against their better judgement. This could be why we get the prefix week-upon-week rather than at the beginning of the season. Indeed, I hope it has been included in attempt to pull off a hoax against the odds of a multi-platform age of information plenitude.

White Lies.

White Lies.

After all, TV still cares about distinguishing truth from fiction, or at least it pretends to. After carrying us along with a montage-based fiction for an hour, many reality programmes remind us with a straight face that ‘portions of the programme have been edited’, though as we have not seen a reaction taking place in the same shot as the preceding action for the entirety of the episode, we can guess as much. Simply from the self-evident fabrications of what we see, we are as aware that a reality programme is fiction offered as fact as we are that Fargo isn’t and never was a ‘true story’. But reality TV producers aren’t putting up the disclaimers because they think we’re suspicious about the truth of what we see. They’re doing it so as not to be accused of cheating. The disclaimer usually comes with the condition that it applies to parts of the episode ‘not affecting the outcome of the competition’. It’s not being lied to that is the problem, but what we’re being lied to about. In the hierarchy of reality television, making an artificially conceived competition reasonably fair to contestants is more important than representing people fairly. There isn’t anyone specific being lied about it in the Fargo prefix, but by claiming that the events actually happened in a certain place and time, there is a distinct odour of misrepresentation, at least regionally. Maybe Fargo’s built-in self-denials derive more from fear of offence than disillusion with the masquerade.

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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