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How Real Is Reality TV?
The laughably far-fetched, the totally sincere and
everything in between
By Robert Isenberg Special to MSN TV
We call it reality TV, but do we really believe what we see? Life can be
weird, but no one's life is as weird as Hulk Hogan's. Few people will ever live next door
to Playboy bunnies. And sometimes the things these people say and do seem a
little off. It's easy to forget that even a reality show requires an
entire film crew to document, and sharp editing can make a dull moment riveting.
The latest reality series is Lifetime's "The
Houstons: On Our Own," which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.
Critics are already praising "The Houstons" for its natural humor and
interesting setup. But like every reality show, we have to wonder how honest a
family can be when their house is crawling with producers.
Are you excited for "The Houstons"? Connect and sound off on
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So we looked at some other reality shows and rated them for credibility. If 0
is laughably far-fetched and 10 is totally sincere, how much faith do we put in
this season's lineup? How real is reality TV?
It all started with a crazy idea: What if you put a bunch of young people in
a big house and watched what happened to them? Thus, "The Real World" was born,
along with the entire genre of reality TV. Since the beginning, critics have
wondered how authentic these random people are -- and, really, how many real
20-somethings live in immaculate palaces? Every character is carefully selected.
True, jealousy, bigotry and domestic chores always get folks fired up, but
skillful editing makes it look even more dramatic. We wouldn't be surprised if
savvy producers shook these people up, sort of like bugs in a jar.
"Jersey Shore" carries on the "Real World" tradition, albeit with more
bravado, tattoos and hair gel. The one nice thing about "Jersey Shore" is that
the cast has stayed relatively intact. They may pander to the cameras, but these
guys seem pretty straightforward, and their personalities have developed (sort
of) over time. The show's big illusion is their daily regimen: Every haircut and
clubbing session is clearly arranged long in advance. But what about the
hookups? The bar fights? Hard to say.
In the exploding "real wife" genre, "Mob Wives" has pretty much offed the
competition. Real drama follows these women everywhere, and organized crime is
legitimately a part of their lives. But as with a lot of reality series, critics
are skeptical about the "angry lunches." Would they really explode in a public
place, with cameramen and key grips rushing to capture every venomous word? The
emotions may be truly felt, but the environments often seem staged.
Long before reality TV even existed as a genre, "Cops" had already hit the
streets. And "Cops" is by far the most documentarian of the bunch: There's no
soundtrack, no cutaways, no revealing private interviews. Many of the "Cops"
scenes are shot in a single take. After a solid decade of reality saturation,
"Cops" has a naked, frightening aesthetic. These officers really do their jobs,
and the suspects are really trying to flee the scene. The only thing
that's hard to believe is that felons would actually sign consent forms.
Question: How do film crews explain themselves on set? Especially when
they're trying to hide the identity of their protagonist? Answer: Say you're
filming a documentary, of course! "Undercover Boss" has done a remarkable job of
keeping its integrity, and some big-britches managers have learned a lot about
their everyday staff members. Sure, we expect the boss to have an epiphany at
the end of every episode, but the boss's final monologue always sounds
heartfelt. "I just never realized," they say, over and over. Most of the time,
we'd believe it.
The bottom line is this: These people have serious issues, and if anybody in
this show is mugging to the camera, it is impossible to tell. There's not much
difference between "Hoarding" (TLC) and "Hoarders" (A&E), except some stylistic choices. In most
episodes, the hoarder in question is too overwrought to pay much attention to
the camera crew, and therapists are actually trying to treat their disorders.
Like "Intervention," these shows are remarkably sincere.
Back in the day, "16 and
Pregnant" was pretty simple: These girls were pregnant and their lives were
tough. As they advanced into motherhood, things got a little muddier: Farrah is
a brat, Maci has ex-boyfriend issues, Catelynn has a depressing family and Amber
is ... a mess. It's hard to believe that some conversations unfold
naturally (Farrah's scenes with her mother seem particularly forced), but you
can't make up their circumstances. And some arguments (Amber in particular) are
upsettingly credible. These film crews must work overtime.
When it comes to the Kardashians, it's not so much what isn't
believable so much as what is. The most popular giant-crazy-family show
looks fake from beginning to end. Khloé and Scott get ridiculous ideas and go on excursions
that feel more fabricated than Kim Kardashian's entire career. The
show behaves like an improvisational sitcom, where the characters just happen to
use their real names. But how deep does the fiction cut? Some say Kim's wedding
(and divorce) were a big publicity stunt. Nobody can say for sure, but
that we'd almost believe.
One thing is tragically true: Whitney Houston is gone. Who knows how "The
Houstons" will come across to audiences, but this family seems to have
personality to spare. Unlike the Kardashians, the Houstons have some serious
issues to deal with. Unlike "Teen Mom," they'll probably have more fun working
them out. Can the family get crazy without Lifetime meddling? We'll just have to
Say what you like about the Thompson-Shannon family, but one thing about
Honey Boo Boo can't be denied: These people are pretty straight shooting. When
Mike Thompson runs himself over with an ATV, well, you just can't make that up.
For a lot of people, this spin-off is easier to swallow than its parent show,
& Tiaras," because these people seem to hide nothing. Alana Thompson may horrify a lot of viewers (and
just plain amuse a lot of others), but she's one self-confident kid, and she
says the darnedest things. Looks pretty natural to us.
First of all, it's hard to believe in a reality show when creators have
basically admitted to scripting it. But we weren't really buying it anyway: The
drama is too complex, the motivations and reactions too smoothly documented, to
lend much credibility. Like a lot of shows ("The
Beach"), fans were satisfied with a juicy plot and passive-bitter
competition. In reality TV, hunky dudes and beautiful women trump truth any day.
Whatever the contest, whether it be for best drag queen or to impress Donald Trump, these shows are largely
choreographed, and we all know it. But the hopefuls themselves seem pretty
genuine. They really want to win, and producers don't have to work that
hard to make, for example, supermodels harp on each other. No matter how
hackneyed each premise is, "American
Idol," "Survivor" and "Project
Runway" all thrive on real emotions. Skeptics may find models fake, but
"America's Next Top Model" is probably the real deal.
Gordon Ramsay has become his own
genre of television. The man is everywhere: judging contestants, shaping up real
kitchens, and now he's even reforming hotels, all the while vomiting rage and
invective on everyone he sees. The thing is, Ramsay only seems like a monster
when he's working. The guy would probably make decent company at a dinner party,
as long as he stayed in the dining room. Cruel and psychotic as he seems, Ramsay
seems like a simple perfectionist with a potty mouth -- which is like pretty
much every chef ever.