Recently I’ve been watching a lot of the Discovery series Survivorman. In the show, an outdoorsman named Les Stroud heads to a scary location — the arctic, a tropical island, the Arizona desert — and films himself for a week. Depending on the locale, he might be allowed to bring along a multitool or an extra jacket, but for the most part he’s out there in the wild alone.
And he truly is alone. He carries a few cameras with him — one has some sort of waist mount so he can talk to it one the move, a few are on tripods. If you’ve seen Grizzly Man you know how creepily intimate this format is. It’s also pretty much transparent. When you’re in the arctic, with no one around for tens of miles, the camera tricks you can pull are pretty much limited to walking ahead, setting up a camera, then turning back and walking past the camera you just set up. So you can get a shot of you walking.
What you see on Survivorman is a man coping with genuinely trying circumstances — and they’re not afraid to point out that documenting the whole thing compounds the situation. Look at that publicity shot above — he’s not killing a bear, he’s carrying a camera.
Most reality television leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable. Part of that is the voyeurism of the format; certainly it’s uncomfortable to see people embarass themselves on screen. That’s much less discomfiting for me, though, than the manufactured quality of the “reality.” I don’t like seeing people make bad choices, but I hate seeing real people turned into fiction.
One of my best pals, Tyler Macniven, won half a million dollars on one of the “classiest” reality shows, The Amazing Race. Even though I suspected he’d won (he wasn’t allowed to say, but he’d bought a car), I couldn’t bring myself to watch beyond the first episode.
I know Tyler as a real person — a full person. He’s a bit outsized, even in real life, but he is every bit his own man. The first episode of the show sliced and shaved him into a man I barely recognized. He and his partner were “the hippies,” and even though the protrayal was flattering, it was sincerely upsetting to me to see my friend portrayed, essentially, as a fictional character, written by others.
Of course, The Amazing Race is as much a game show and travel show as it is a traditional reality show. There’s plenty of local color and silly contests that largely don’t rely on fiction-style narrative. That’s what makes it the “classy” reality show. That’s why it wins the Emmys every year. But even on that show, seeing the differences between my friend on screen and my friend sitting next to me was almost scary.
I’m still working it out in my mind, but I think what bothers me is the having-your-cake-and-eating-it-too quality of reality TV. Without the punch that comes from a “this is real life” setup, most reality shows would be unimaginably dull. (That’s true of, say, sports, too. There’s a reason that The Big Game in a fictional representation of sports is boiled down to a few key plays, while in real life, we’ll gladly watch it for three hours.) At the same time, though, they don’t feel beholden to reality as it happens. They are completely disinterested in verite — even heavily edited verite.
In fact, I think they are cannibalizing the documentary film that went before them. The first hundred years or so of real-life film was held to non-fiction standards. Certainly some documentary films have been accused of say fudging timelines, but I think the very fact that I can use the verb “accused” demonstrates that that sort of behavior wasn’t kosher. Essentially, when we watched non-fiction film, be it on the news or on a nature show or on a documentary special or a documentary feature, we had the expectation that the editing involved was an attempt to best represent the truth of the people and situations depicted. Sometimes they succeeded, and sometimes they failed, but at the heart of the matter was an attempt to accurately and interestingly represent real events.
It’s that expectation, that legacy, hanging out in the back of our mind, that gives reality TV it’s punch. The implied promise that they may be editing, but they’re doing so to give us the most compelling representation of reality.
That’s not how reality TV works, though. Situations are fabricated from whole cloth. Performers are given scenarios and even dialogue. Producers massage storylines into the shows as they shoot. Then producers pull them out of shows as they edit. Even shows that don’t do deceptive things in pre-production spend post-production not looking for the most compelling representation of what occurred, but rather looking for the most compelling TV they can create — whether or not it fairly represents reality.
Ultimately, it’s a failure of transparency, isn’t it? Games have rules, but reality shows don’t. That upsets me enough that I can’t watch reality shows without wondering about the real person behind the story that the producers created. Or what really happened. Or, frankly, why I’m so bored.