The first time I watched reality television – cinéma vérité – that wasn't a reality competition, I had to go through the mental process of understanding that what I was watching was not scripted. That first time, it was an episode of Jersey Shore. The fact that I was not watching an actress pretending to be Snooki, but rather watching Snooki fulfill the role usually reserved for actors, was fascinating. The Situation was sharing actual thoughts that went through his actual mind. These characters were like people I knew, only sassier and less original. I was sitting through the spoken thoughts of people who actually existed.
Of course, I now know that the seasons of reality TV are scripted by producers. That the "talking heads" portions of the episode are filmed after the fact and can't represent true in-the-moment feelings. That the work done on video and sound in the editing room is appallingly all-consuming. Nonetheless, I've embraced reality shows on the regular, especially during the tundra that is summer television. I watched Total Divas, a show about female wrestlers in the WWE, for the parts of the show that go meta when they involve "kayfabe". The Glee Project, in which young actors competed for a role on the now-canceled Glee, because it was the first time that someone realized they could just tell drama kids there's a camera on them and then let it roll. Bring It, about a teenage majorette dance team in Mississippi and their creative coach, because the moms on that show teach me not to be afraid to get up in somebody's face. Throughout the viewings of these shows I settled into the role of spectator and came to understand how someone could become a national celebrity just for being him/herself.
I had a different reaction when I tried watching Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, a show about the spawn of billionaires. (That's the entire plot.) Maybe because for the first time, I watching people who didn't need to make money. Or maybe because the show, aired on the E! Network, is designed and packaged for the viewer to desire what is on the screen. To desire the private jets, international vacations and Birkin bags. To desire the exclusivity. To desire the consumption. The characters – sorry, personalities – are presented as having flaws, but they're hardly a tragic-hero-level of flaw. The drama is mostly from within the group, incidentally highlighting the same issues most people have in a large group of friends: fear of someone gossiping behind your back or fear of your friends deciding to leave you out in the cold.
For me, the worst sin that reality TV commits is filler episodes. I hate when I'm watching a season and the whole thing feels like it could have been five episodes shorter. Watching Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, I got the sense that this was going to be one of those shows. (Full disclosure: I did watch the entire first season.) But the first time I watched it, I thought that Morgan, one of the main duo of friends, looked a lot like the actress Rosemarie DeWitt. And I had a flash of inspiration. What if this reality TV show was really a scripted show featuring Rosemarie DeWitt? What if there was an entire season of action waiting, something that would be absolutely clear if the writers put that much thought into the pilot episode? At least then I would know that this show wasn't going to be a colossal waste of time.
Which is when it occurred to me: If I wanted to watch Rosemarie DeWitt act, I should turn on the first season of Mad Men, or pop Rachel Getting Married into the DVD player. Because clearly, reality TV is not where I'm going to get a satisfying session of television.
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Thoughts with Alisa
Current writing on pop culture. Also known as my post-graduate school writing motivation.