Just How Real Are Reality Shows?

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A scene from 'UnREAL.' Someone always gains at your expense.Credit: Courtesy

We wake up every morning and try to separate the mess that is going on within our minds and souls – those of us who are able to tell at any given moment which is which – from what we hope exists out there, and is tangible, solid (sort of) and “real,” whatever this last adjective means.

We grope in bed, and find the remote between the covers. Good, it is solid, and has buttons, and when you press the right one (it never happens on first try, but don’t get discouraged just yet) the screen in front of you lights up. Aha, the morning newscast, good. Now we will finally know what happened in the “real” (ha, that “r” word again) world while we were temporarily absent.

So, weather – hot and humid – feels real; we are in sync with the world. What else? Iran debacle, OK, nothing we can do or say about it that will matter in the least, and the natural gas resources debate, ditto, guys, get real, please, not theories and words. What was that again? Lethal stabbings at a Gay Parade in Jerusalem, perpetrated by the “usual suspect” par excellence (he had done it before and said he would do it again), a disaster waiting to happen that should have been prevented? A Palestinian baby and his mother, father and brother burnt alive when their house in Judea and Samaria was set on fire in the middle of the night? And both incidents laced heavily with twisted Jewish religious-political rhetoric?
Hello there, can we get a little less 
reality here?

But of course. That is what TV is for: to provide us with the heaven of escapist bits of fiction – not on the newscasts – where “reality” is under control. Life happens in segments of 50 minutes, and within this span of time the “normal” course of events is disrupted because there is a corpse, and it corrects itself with the good guys and gals of law and order catching the villain when the credits roll. And our mind is appeased because we know that it all looked “real” (bar the fact that it always ends well, contrary to our experience), and yet it was not really “real”: the character died, but the actor or actress lived on.

Tricky thing and word: “reality.” The etymology leads us to coins (“real”), royalty (a ruler of the realm who puts his visage on a coin), and a piece of land (“realty”) which can be fought over, bought or ruled.

And it gets trickier when we encounter the most addictive of TV viewing 
offerings, and the one most popular all over the world, for almost 35 years as of this writing: reality TV. For the very few of you who don’t know what I’m writing about, here is the definition, according to the venerable Wikipedia: “a genre of television programming that documents unscripted real-life situations, and often features an otherwise unknown cast… the genre has various standard tropes, including ‘confessionals’ used by cast members.”

It is worthwhile following the path of the very notion of reality TV to the dictionary (i.e., the OED). It was seen for the first time in The Washington Post on August 20, 1980: “There are fresh episodes of its ‘reality’ TV series... to whet viewers’ appetites while everybody waits for the actors’ strike to end.” Yes, there was a strike of TV actors and no one could provided a faux reality, so TV went for the “real” thing.

But was it real, and really unscripted? Very soon the truth was out: it was only made to look unscripted, spontaneous, and unprompted. In reality, behind the scenes it was anything but. It was heavily and unscrupulously manipulated by ruthless producers, for the sake of 
ratings. On May 16, 1988, Time Magazine ran a story with the heading “Fact vs. Fiction on ‘Reality TV’: New shows blur the line, raising ethics and aesthetic questions.” It took a mere 12 years longer to get the sad truth about the grim reality of TV reality, this time via New Scientist (on October 7, 2000): “Viewers get jaded very quickly and want to see reality TV that degrades and demeans participants – for their entertainment, like a modern-day Roman circus.”

So now, fanfare please, as befits a modern day circus: I’m finally going to divulge which TV show I’m steering your remote control to, and please hold on to something tangible and solid, since it is going to be mind-boggling.

It is called “UnREAL” and the last episode of its first season aired in the U.S. on August 3. It will have a second season, and here in Israel we have the first season on Yes VOD already, and it will figure on the schedule of Yes Drama, from August 28 at 22.00.

No, this is not another TV reality show, like, say, “Big Brother” or “The Bachelorette.” It is a series – contrived, scripted, cast, written, edited – about the “behind the scenes” of a TV reality show: exposing the ugly, manipulative, unfair, bordering on the unlawful and obscene way these “pieces of ‘real’ life” are masterminded by little people who have lost control of their own lives, and try to regain it by playing God with the lives (pains, phobias, complexes, emotions) of unsuspecting others.

It all happens on a set of a TV reality
 show called “Everlasting”: a British-born hotelier is supposed to choose a prospective bride from a horde of young hopeful females (yes; it is not too politically correct, but neither is life, on or off screen). A young female producer, Rachel Goldberg (you can guess her ethnic origin, I assume; she is played by Shiri Appleby) “lost it” spectacularly on the set in the previous season, almost ruining the show and her own life. Now she is rehired by the bitch-chief-produceress (Constance Zimmer, whose character has more axes to grind than most) and has to deliver the drama, tears, sex at the highest pitch, making the “real” characters write and rewrite their lives and lines, plots and knots, as they go (and run, and scream, and go over the top), improvising all the way.

It is all very confusing, because everything on screen happens for a reason, but usually it is the wrong reason, or the wrong person, and anyway one always finds out a moment too late that he or she was just duped to be a pawn on someone else’s agenda. And it is always about someone gaining something at your expense. And you can cut your losses or your wrists. Your choice.

But it also serves as a much needed reminder that “reality” is a very fluid notion. It may look real, natural, unscripted, something that just happened, like on the newscast. But there is always, behind the screen, an unseen hand that rocks the cradle, while we lull ourselves to sleep in order to find respite from the confusing disorder of the “real” reality.

So, are we all for real, or unreal? Who can tell? Oh, really?