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Reality television has technically been around for decades—think Candid Camera or America’s Funniest Home Videos or Cops—but it became a dominant force in viewing around the turn of the millennium, with the trifecta of Survivor, Big Brother, and American Idol. (With the election of Donald Trump, reality television has arguably proven itself one of the most influential forces on the face of the planet.) There have been book-length studies on why this genre is so popular; I will hazard a guess that a predominant reason, in addition to the business incentive of the low cost of not having to pay actors, is our fascination with “real” people, as opposed to mere portrayals of them. Of course, at this point most of us are aware that the majority of “real” people portrayed on reality television shows are, in fact, acting, or at the least, being manipulated or portrayed in a skewed manner via editing. As Rebecca Makkai, describing a current (fake) reality show’s contestants in her fictional piece “The November Story,” puts it:
But now they’re savvier. They like to think they’re in on the production aspect.
And, as per an article on the golden age of reality tv,
Reality television, for lazy media critics and beltway pundits alike, is shorthand pejorative for tawdry and cheap.
I’ll admit to sharing this opinion. The blatant un-realness of reality tv was for a long time the reason I personally couldn’t stand it. But my perspective changed when I came across Sherman Alexie’s flash fiction piece “Idolatry,” in which a young Native American girl is called, after a long wait, to audition before some judges, and, once she does, “the British man” tells her to never sing again. When she protests that many people, including her mother, have told her she’s great, the British man replies simply, “‘They lied.’” The girl rushes back into the green room, into the arms of her mother, and cries. The piece concludes with the line:
In this world, we must love the liars or go unloved.
Of course, most readers will recognize that the girl is auditioning for American Idol and that “the British man” is the notoriously cruel judge Simon Cowell. (How many dream-balloons has this man popped over the years? How many sugary insubstantial pop careers launched?) Alexie’s piece is as pithy and powerful as one of Cowell’s judgments. First, there’s the title, “Idolatry,” addressing at the macro level what we’ve come to worship as a culture: fame, fortune, our face on a screen. At the micro level, we might worship our personal dreams, for many a false idol in the sense of not being realistically achievable. Then there’s the pun on the title of American Idol itself, a seeming nod to how the show established the entrenched reality-tv sub-genre of competing contestants being judged. But what really pulls the narrative together, what makes it a story rather than a mere set piece, is that final line—the lesson the main character derives from the experience. The girl is put in the difficult position of having no one to appeal to for comfort in this painful moment except someone who helped contribute to the pain of that moment in the first place—her mother. The character has learned multiple lessons at once—not just that she is in fact not a good singer, but that you can’t necessarily take what people say—even—especially—your mother—at face value. This story, then, follows a fairly typical narrative model of building toward the climax of an epiphany (or, in this case, epiphanies). The official definition of “epiphany”: “an experience of sudden and striking realisation.” Another way to put it: it’s a change in your reality. At the beginning of the story, this girl’s reality is that she is a good singer and that her mother is trustworthy and honest with her. By the end of the story, her reality has changed entirely.
Considering your characters’ relationship to their own personal realities—for really, to get philosophical here, there is no all-encompassing objective reality that exists without human brains to filter it—can be helpful in constructing a meaningful narrative arc for your character. Characters undergo changes based on their experiences; by the end of a story, their reality should have somehow, to some degree, shifted. Their reality at the beginning of the story would constitute the chronic tension; the event(s) that will change it is the acute tension.
The audition Alexie describes actually might not have been one ideal for ratings, as viewers might have felt too sorry for the obviously crushed girl. This American Idol audition clip, fairly typical of the bad auditions that viewers seemed to eat up, shares in common with Alexie’s character’s experience that other people told him he was good and that he should audition. But the clip diverges in a major way from Alexie’s when this guy does not, on camera at least, have the epiphany that the girl does. While Randy has been very blunt that “singing ain’t your thing, dawg,” this contestant emerges from his audition thinking—or claiming to think—that he failed not because of his voice, but because of his choice of song. While this maintained delusion ought to theoretically make viewers even sorrier for this contestant, the opposite seems true. He may be delusional, but he hasn’t been crushed, and we find that easier to watch. It doesn’t make as interesting of a story, though, unless we were to follow him to the moment where his delusion is finally popped, and/or explore the possible source of his delusion in the first place. (The life of a Revolutionary-War era tour guide seems rife with dramatic possibility. One also has the feeling that his coworkers’ encouragement to audition might not have originated out of love, as it does in the Alexie.) To an extent, we understand and sympathize with his impulse to shield himself from reality, and by preferring such narratives to Alexie’s, we too are shielding ourselves. But if it’s reality tv’s job to make us feel good about ourselves by looking down on others, it’s (good) fiction’s job to rip away that shield holding reality at bay.
Reality TV shows themselves cling fiercely to their own version of story when it comes to showcasing their contestants and participants. As the aforementioned golden-age article puts it,
Reality TV has learned to resolve its innate flaws with dedicated character development and well-crafted storytelling.
Having an interesting “background story” is what determines the selection of many contestants. What constitutes an interesting story, by reality TV standards? Typically, obstacles and hardship. The bigger the better. If viewers believe you’ve overcome some immense difficulty—or better yet, will overcome that difficulty by competing and ideally winning on the show—then viewers will sympathize and be hooked right in, continuing to watch. The golden-age article provides a typical example of such a story, along with what constitutes a supposed subversion of it:
Survivor winner Adam Klein had the most pat background story. Early in the season, the show revealed that his mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The Mortally Sick Family Member is a morbid but familiar story arc of competitive reality television, so Survivor viewers had beats to expect. At some point, to draw sympathy and trust, Klein would tell his allies of his hardship, and provide producers with a dramatic, episode-long throughline. But that moment never came. Instead, Klein revealed his personal battle to one other contestant: his biggest adversary, Jay Starrett.
What’s interesting to probe for the purposes of fiction is digging deeper than these typical trite cliches with their shallow mass appeal. What’s the story behind the story? How might some contestant or participant, knowing what we know so far into reality TV’s heyday about what the audience wants, exaggerate or fabricate parts of his or her own story? Or, conversely, how might producers make them do so? How might the contestant feel about exploiting themselves and letting some tragedy/obstacle define them? What kind of blowback might such an action incur in the outside world when the cameras aren’t rolling? What are the real conflicts surrounding the production of conflict for the camera? What is the camera not showing us?
As Rebecca Makkai’s aforementioned “The November Story” shows, reality tv offers more than just the contestants’ perspectives to explore. Makkai’s piece, which she read an edited-down version of for NPR’s This American Life, is told from the point of view of a producer (for the made-up reality show Starving Artist) whose boss wants her to manipulate two contestants into falling in love (the acute tension) while, in the meantime, her own relationship is falling apart (the chronic tension). While the characterization of the producer-character’s personal relationship is, perhaps intentionally, somewhat lacking, the details about how producers manipulate contestants are intriguing and feel, ironically enough, very real:
Kenneth is a genius. He lines the five remaining artists up in front of the book shelves where they’ll be judged and then tells them we won’t tape for a few more minutes, when really the cameras are already rolling.
He tells them to stand still for the light guys and then says, “We’re having more digital issues. We’re going to be here pretty late tonight folks.”
And the sleep deprived artists, dehydrated and trying to hold still and awaiting judgment, give the most beautiful looks of disgust and despair. The cameras are getting it all. The editors will splice it in with shots of their work being critiqued or a competitor winning. They always fall for it.
Once Kenneth had one of the camera guys give all the contestants some incomprehensible direction in a thick accent while the other camera guys captured the grimaces of confusion. At the third judgment, he directed Inez to have a loud phone argument with a boyfriend in the corner of the room. That time we had enough snickering and eye rolling to manufacture an entire rivalry between Leo and Gordy. It became one of our best plotlines.
Makkai’s producer’s acute-tension situation of having to manipulate what people will see on the show (filming contestants describing their thoughts about an elimination round as though it’s about to happen when really it’s already happened) causes her to have an epiphany about the chronic-tension situation of her own relationship:
“I’m so excited for the judges to see my work!” cry the artists who’ve just been mocked and upbraided and grilled for two hours. As if, by trying hard enough, they can convince us to love them again.
They remind me of someone.
The character sees that in her relationship, she is behaving like these contestants, trying to earn love that it’s a foregone and definitive conclusion they can’t get.
It’s important to keep in mind that we the viewers are being manipulated every bit as much as the contestants. Really, there are multiple perspectives reality TV can offer a springboard to explore: the contestants’ (as Alexie does), the producers’ (as Makkai does), the judges’, and the viewers’. The episode “Litchfield’s Got Talent” from season 5 of Orange is the New Black nicely characterizes the reality-TV-judge prototypes that one might work to subvert:
– Do you wanna be one of the judges?
– Finally. Someone appreciates me for my biting wit and of course, impeccable taste.
-Oh, see, the thing is, we need one of those, like, just-edging-outta-cool, needs-to-pay-the-mortgage types who can say useful things, but with a tinge of sadness.
-I’m the tell-it-like-it-is judge.
-But I thought I was tell-it-like-it-is and you were gonna be, like, comforting and supportive.
I met a guy on a plane once who said his brother was a producer for one of Bravo’s Real Housewives shows. He told a story about how at one point his brother was ordered to go out and buy a certain kind of cake one of the housewives specifically hated for a party she was throwing. That story might have ended with her flipping a table; I can’t remember (though I could make it up). The point is, it turns out the drama doesn’t come from the contestants as much as the producers. But what kind of conflict does this create for the producers off-screen, as Makkai explores in her story? What’s the conflict behind the manufactured conflict? Being forced to piss someone off is a great acute-tension situation to force a producer’s ongoing chronic-tension issues to a head. Consider the potential for dramatic expansion of this anecdote:
Playwright Annie Baker reveals that she worked as a handler on The Bachelor during some unidentified season when the women were staying at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. She told Vulture she quit because producers “told me to tell all the girls that they could sleep in, and then the cameras came into the room at five in the morning,” and “they were so upset that I had lied to them inadvertently. So I left. I loved them. … I felt very protective of them.”
This scenario is rife with dramatic and thematic possibilities. Is there something Baker, as a fictionalized character, might need to “wake up” and realize? Does it have to do with another situation in this playwright-producer’s life in which she might have inadvertently lied?
So, a reality-TV-inspired writing exercise could explore a) a potential behind-the-scenes conflict on an established show, or b) a new reality-show concept altogether, or c) a story about someone who’s appeared on a show without referring to their appearance on the show at all, instead showing some other aspect of their life, the underside of the iceberg we only saw the tip of on TV. How about this lady who appeared on Shark Tank peddling “Fat Ass Fudge,” named for the seemingly less-than-affectionate nickname her brother had for her growing up with seven siblings, six of whose names started with D? What about this alleged Hell’s Kitchen elimination round in which one teammate throws another under the bus but then he doesn’t end up being eliminated?
“I didn’t come here to make friends” is an oft-repeated phrase on shows from The Bachelor to Survivor to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. What this phrase essentially means is that contestants on such shows disregard one another’s humanity for the sake of competition. Fiction is about exploring and showcasing humanity. What happens when that humanity is suppressed? What could happen to make such characters have the epiphany that they and their fellow contestants are, in fact, human?