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'The Houstons: On Our Own'/Lifetime

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.

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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.

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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?

"The Real World" (MTV)

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.

Believability: 6

"Jersey Shore" (MTV)

"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.

Believability: 7

"Mob Wives" (VH1)

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.

Believability: 7

"Cops" (FOX)

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.

Believability: 10

"Undercover Boss" (CBS)

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.

Believability: 9

"Hoarding: Buried Alive" (TLC)

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.

Believability: 10

"Teen Mom" (MTV)

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.

Believability: 8

"Keeping Up With the Kardashians" (E!)

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.

Believability: 2

"The Houstons: On Our Own" (Lifetime)

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 see.

Believability: Not yet sure

"Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" (TLC)

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, "Toddlers & 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.

Believability: 8.5

"The Bachelor" (ABC)

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 Hills," "Laguna Beach"), fans were satisfied with a juicy plot and passive-bitter competition. In reality TV, hunky dudes and beautiful women trump truth any day.

Believability: 1

"America's Next Top Model" (The CW)

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.

Believability: 9

"Hotel Hell" (FOX)

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.

Believability: 8

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"The Houstons: On Our Own" airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.

Robert Isenberg is a freelance writer and stage performer. He is the author of "The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage."

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