Room with a view: reality tv shows
Only a few years ago, they were a novelty. MTV’s “Real World” captured almost every moment of a group of lucky 20-somethings aimlessly living their lives in whatever paradise was selected for them. Billed as “slice of life,” (never mind whose), they allowed viewers to be voyeurs, to live vicariously through the people on the screen.
For a few months, it was the job of these people to act and react with each other. And they became celebrities, albeit briefly. Part of the draw was the feeling that it could so easily be us up there, just a trick of fate.
It was only a matter of time before reality shows glutted the airwaves.
“I used to watch them more when they first came out,” said Lisa Evon. “In the beginning, it was stupid, trivial stuff that what would be happening next door to you, but not over-the-top, like soap opera stuff. I thought it was interesting to figure out why they’d pick the characters. Like, “This person’s obviously got a lot of bigotry problems,’ so they put them on.”
The reality-show format morphed into a game show, where people battled with each other for some grand prize, allowing the viewing public to see the pettier sides of their competitive natures.
The on-screen antics of the competitors would make Abigail Van Buren cringe; bad manners prevail.
“We’re all voyeurs – you can’t help but want to capture humans,” said Jenni Pulos, “Survivor” fan.
Jim Wedlake, a local cameraman, agrees.
“We have voyeuristic natures,” he said. “We want to watch other people.”
Wedlake was the cameraman for a Malaysian television show, “Benson and Hedges Golden Dreams,” 1997-1999. The premise for the program was to have people write in with their adventurous dreams, and the show would make them a reality. People did write in, but they weren’t always extroverted enough to warrant 15 minutes of fame. If they were outgoing enough, they didn’t always have TV-friendly dreams.
“If (the dreams) weren’t good for TV, they’d change them,” said Wedlake. “One couple wanted to go to South America and interact with the native Indians there. But there has to be a goal, a struggle. So they changed it into hiking to Kaeiteur Falls, the largest waterfall in the world.”
Naturally, they didn’t get to interact with any native populations, and the trek to the falls was more difficult than anyone expected. But it made for good TV. It wasn’t unusual for the crew to spend two weeks shooting for a 10 to 20-minute spot.
The primary director was one of three assistant directors on the English “Survivor.” For that show, they went to the same island the American version was shot on.
“It was a complete disaster,” said Wedlake. “The whole English stiff-upper-lip mentality prohibited them from bitching about things during the show, so there wasn’t any conflict. Though they did have couples shagging within three days.”
As a side note, the romance element on the American version was fabricated by the producer, who knew the public wanted to see it.
As with anything, the viewing public gets used to something and wants more. The conflict gets bigger, and the stakes get higher. It was an analyses of what types of conflict the viewing public wants to see that spawned “Temptation Island,” a show that dares couples to try and stay together in a lust-friendly paradise.
“I’m bored with them now, to tell you the truth,” said Daisy Bolle. “Really, reality shows are more entertaining for the people doing them than those watching.”
As true as that statement might be, there’s no denying the market. Even PBS, that paragon of programming, jumped on the bandwagon. They aired, and re-aired, WNET’s “Frontier House,” and received the highest ratings they’ve had in years. It’s reality television, but it’s a step back from the precipice of bare all/tell all. Cloaked in a history lesson, it’s a study of how modern families react when thrown into the 1880s. For five months, they lived within the structures of life in 1883: hauling their own water, depending on cows for milk, preparing for winter all summer long.
“I think it’s probably the new format, a new kind of television,” said the show’s director, Nicolas Brown. “The new ways of seeing programming excites people. It’s different, and the characters are real. It’s not scripted, there’s no fakeness with the documentary style.”
A Vail native, Brown has extensive documentary experience on his resume. He brought to “Frontier House” a less sensationalized vision of the families and their struggles than a prime-time programmer would have. He and his crew didn’t stir the pot, perhaps only because they didn’t have to.
“I will acknowledge the fact that there’s a TV camera there, and that changes things, and that people will behave differently if it weren’t there,” he said. “Think about it, would you do a television series, expose your family to that? It takes a certain kind of personality.”
Despite the fact that it wasn’t a contest – nobody was going to leave with a million dollars – the families still felt as though they were competing against each other. Whether for the affection of the American audience or to simply “win” is not clear.
“I had thought it would be three different families having three different experiences,” said Brown. “We never ever anticipated that there would be that much dynamic between the families. We didn’t understand, or expect, the level to which they’d interrelate and compare themselves with each other. It strikes me that community is something we should explore more.”
The Brooks, the Clunes and the Glenns were chosen out of thousands of applicants based on the strength of their characters, their outdoor experience and the reasons they wanted to participate.
Despite the intense screening process, the crew wasn’t able to detect the fracture in the Glenn’s marriage – they had put their divorce proceedings on hold because they wanted to be on the program. They were not at all guarded when they spoke about each other after the show began, though. They didn’t often have warm words for each other, but they did grow and change based on their time on the frontier.
Gordon Clune was convincing as the successful businessman wanting to spend more time with his kids; his son was very articulate about how much better it was on the frontier, being with his dad all the time. (He was the same child caught on film saying, “We’re walking in our ancestors shoes, and their shoes suck.”) But Clune probably had another use for being on “Frontier House.”
“His primary motivation was to become closer to his kids, but in a conversation he asked me, “Do you think that I’ll still be able to run for office after this show airs?’ He belongs to the Young Presidents Club. He’s the only member of the families right now that I haven’t been in touch with since the show. I don’t know at the moment how he feels about things. I personally think Gordon had the best sense of humor about things, and if he does have a sense of humor about how his summer went… But he did get exposed for some of his foibles.”
Those foibles included following rules only so long as they suited him. If they didn’t, he’d chuck them right out. He and his wife, Adrienne, found an abandoned bed spring and smuggled it into their cabin under the cover of night. His rational was the bedspring was patented in Germany in 1870, but they wouldn’t have been available for a Montana frontier family. Never mind, Clune just speaks about the pioneer’s eye for opportunity.
“Initially I felt betrayed and mad,” said Brown. “I thought the Clunes didn’t need to do that, it seemed attention-seeking. I wasn’t sure what the motive was.”
The Brooks family wasn’t given much air time, as they were careful about what they said on camera. For that reason, whatever conflict there might have been between them was never seen – a refreshing change. Nathan and his bride, Kate, were married on the show. An interracial couple, the narrator of “Frontier House” explained how their relationship would not have been tolerated on the East Coast during that time period. Traveling west was their only option.
Despite the fact that the crew logged 450 hours on the main camera, and another 200 hours or so on the others, a lot of scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, as the show had a six-hour run time.
“We captured the essence of the drama. There are tons of great details about aspects of the drama or 1883 that were missed out, but just details.”
Because Brown wants to further explore the community dynamic, he’s thinking bigger for the future – Colonial America circa 1680.
“There are some real bug bears to deal with: slavery, war, Native Americans,” he said. “This sort of format is not good at portraying those conflicts. Ethically you can’t put people into slavery or war or situations where really bad things happen, and those things did happen in the Colonial period.”
As Brown mulls over his next project, PBS will be airing two more documentary-meets-reality-show – “docuality” – programs. The “Edwardian Country House” explores the upstairs/downstairs phenomenon in that time period. Brown likens it to “Gosford Park,” with the different tensions going on between the various jobs and positions. Though everyone would rather live the life of a privileged upstairs person, most of the drama goes on downstairs.
“And the other one, one of my personal favorites, is a series called “The 1940s House,'” he said. “It shows a family in Britain during the war, and London is being bombed regularly. They have Anderson shelters, and crawl into them whenever the sirens go off.”
“Frontier House” captured some of the bored “Survivor” audience. It has also attracted history buffs and anthropology aficionados. Whereas at one time the television censors wouldn’t allow Desi and Lucy to share a bed, there is now a channel for virtually every taste and scenario. Witness babies being born, wars being waged, animals bloodily taking down their prey, people graphically exploring their sexuality.
The bounds of what we’re used to seeing continually stretches. The mini-serializing of news – America Under Attack, Church in Crisis, America’s New War – helps in the desensitization of the American viewing public. Unless it’s happening right next door, it doesn’t even seem real.
Programs lean toward uncovering, displaying and moving on. Despite the fact that the new run of PBS docuality shows accommodates ratings in the editing style, it’s a refreshing step away from displaying all the goods. Hopefully, the viewing public will follow their lead. They don’t call it the drug of the nation for nothing.
Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.