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Thursday, March 28, 2013

When Reality TV Gets Too Real

I do not attempt to hide the fact that I'm a reality TV junkie. It's just part of who I am. I watch the competition shows like Project Runway and Top Chef (and please, can someone bring back Rock Star???), the adventure shows like The Amazing Race, and even the back-stabbing, conniving shows like Big Brother and Survivor.

In fact, it's that last grouping of shows that I am really drawn to. Why? They take real people (though there could be an argument made that many of them are real characters portraying real people) and place them into unreal circumstances, and then just sit and wait for the drama to take place. These kinds of shows give me great inspiration for characters to write, because they're over the top and they spark a reaction in the audience. It isn't always a good reaction...but they always get a reaction. For me, it's a great escape because it is all so very unreal that I can't help but forget about the troubles of my own life, at least for a bit.

One summer on Big Brother, a man came on named Dick Donato, aka Evel Dick. He looks like a tattooed biker, but underneath it all, he was trying to repair his relationship with his daughter. He had a soft side, and if you were watching the show at home you could see it, and feel for him...but if you were in the Big Brother house with him? All you knew was he was the crazy guy who was waking the whole house up by banging on pots and pans as loud as he could, trying to get all the attention on him so his daughter could slip under the radar. It worked. He and his daughter somehow got all the way to the final two, and he won the half million dollars at the end because his strategy of making everyone hate him was brilliant. I don't know that he made much headway with his daughter through it all though...

A few years ago, Survivor brought on one of the greatest characters ever to grace the island. Not great in a heroic sense. Great in an OMG-he-really-didn't-just-do-that-but-wait-no-he-really-did sense. Russell Hantz didn't care who he lied to, who he stabbed in the back, whose socks he burned, whose water he dumped out--despite the fact that he was just-this-side of certifiable, none of that mattered. All that mattered was getting to the end of the game, because he was sure that if he managed to get to the end after doing all those things, no one would be able to deny him the million dollar prize.

He was wrong.

Twice, in fact. He was so much fun to watch, waiting to see what devious trick would come to his mind next, that the show's producers brought him back for the very next season, where he did the same exact thing. His third time back, the other contestants had seen his antics, and they decided not to be fooled. They got rid of him early.

Those two guys make these shows fun to watch. No, they wouldn't be much fun to live with. But that's what is brilliant about reality TV. You live with them for an hour on your TV screen each week, and then they go away.

But sometimes, those people go a little too far.

The aforementioned sock-burning, water-dumping Russell Hantz had a brother named Willie who was cast on Big Brother. The producers, no doubt, were hoping to capitalize on the Hantz name. They surely hoped that Willie would also reside just-this-side of certifiably crazy, so he could wreak havoc in the Big Brother house like Evel Dick had done. Well, it turned out that Willie was on the other side of that line, and he assaulted another house guest, and he was forced to leave the show.

The reality TV folks didn't stop there, though. Russell and Willie have a nephew named Brandon Hantz. Brandon went on Survivor, and was determined to change the image of the Hantz family. He didn't. He only proved that most of the Hantzes belong on the other side of that line with his Uncle Willie. One minute, he was on top of the world. The next he was crying. Then he was fighting down his lust/anger/whatever strong emotion he was experiencing, barely holding on to reality. He had no business being put in that situation.

Brandon was so emotionally unstable while he was out on the island, I was shocked when I heard he was coming back for another season. How could the producers allow him to return? Was he psychologically capable of handling the pressure of the game? I didn't believe it.

But he supposedly passed their tests, and he was brought back to the show for the current season, and he seemed as emotionally imbalanced as he had been before. Maybe even more so.

Then on the episode that aired two weeks ago, I knew that he should never have been allowed back. He got upset, which wasn't unexpected. Because he was upset, he dumped out all the rice and beans that his entire tribe had to eat, throwing the containers viciously away from him. It was like he was trying to channel his uncle Russell, but when Russell dumped the water or burned the socks, it wasn't in anger or frustration--it was a planned, strategic move.

It didn't end there, though. When they went to their next challenge, there was a huge confrontation between him and his tribe. Thank goodness the show's host separated Brandon from the others, because the look in Brandon's eyes, the rapid breathing, the inability to hold still...I've seen all of things before. The host kept Brandon away and calmed him down before he became physically violent. But he was right on the edge. I know. I've been on the receiving end of that sort of anger--not from Brandon Hantz, but from people I care deeply about.

That moment on a silly little reality TV show left me shaking, my pulse sky high, for hours after watching it. It got too real, delving away from the delightful unreality that they normally provide and taking me (and I'm sure others) back to unpleasant moments from my past. It's made me think hard about whether I want to continue watching, because the show that was supposed to provide me with my escape did anything but. Not only that, but it felt exploitative of Brandon Hantz. If he was so unstable the first time, why would they ever ask him to return?

Just writing about it makes me feel like I need to go watch a happy Disney movie again.

Are there certain TV shows or types of shows you avoid because of how close they come to the real world? Do you avoid certain movies/books/etc. for the same reason? Any suggestions on a new reality TV show I can watch that won't send my heart into palpitations?

18 comments:

  1. First--Yes! to Rock Star. Loved that show. Also the one about movie directors. Not Project Greenlight, but the one with Carrie Fisher and Garry Marshall as judges. I can't remember the name now, but I loved that one.

    Second--we used to be huge Survivor fans, but you just made me so glad I stopped watching. That whole situation sounds so unfortunate and exploitative. Not the sort of bad taste in the mouth that you'd think they'd be going for...

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    1. I never saw the one with Carrie Fisher and Garry Marshall. I never even heard about it. They're both so wonderful, I bet it was great. I *did* like Project Greenlight, though. :)

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    2. Woo hoo! Another vote for Rock Star! (Actually, I think the biggest problem with bringing it back was lack of an established band needing a new singer that was willing to do the show. But still.)

      I never have tried Project Greenlight or any other movie director reality show. If you hear about another one, let me know. It might fill the hole left by Survivor, if I quit watching.

      The sort of drama that this guy brings to reality TV, I'm sure gets people watching and talking. But I know I'd rather watch levelheaded, sane people working strategically than anything like that again. So sad.

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  2. Catherine - I used to be a huge Survivor fan. Like you, I loved watching "real" people interact, and watching the social aspect of the game was great for my creative process. But you've actually stumbled upon the reason I haven't watched in several seasons. I didn't love to hate Russell. I just hated him. I found him reprehensible. I didn't even finish the 2nd season he was on because watching him was like inviting an ickiness into my house.

    The last season of the show I watched was Brandon's first. I didn't even know he was back. I turned it off after his first season and haven't turned it back on. He was certifiable that first season - I didn't HATE him like I did/do his Uncle Russell - but watching him left me feeling slimy and uncomfortable. If showcasing people like this was their new strategy, then mine was not watching it and inviting reprehensible/certifiable people into my house. (Why do you think I won't let my ex-husaband cross my threshold? LOL)

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    1. I absolutely agree that Russell is reprehensible, and not someone I would like to be around in real life. That's why I found him so fascinating to watch on TV...I knew he wasn't ever going to stumble into my real life, so I could study him from afar and see what makes him tick. :) But I can certainly understand your reaction to him. Many people had the same reaction to Evel Dick on Big Brother.

      Slimy and uncomfortable is a perfect description of watching Brandon's first season...and then magnify that by about ten, and you might be in the ballpark of how watching his meltdown this season felt.

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  3. I haven't watched Survivor in a few seasons until this one and Brandon was completely off his rocker. Holy cow. I do love watching Hell's Kitchen and Chopped. Love the Amazing Race (which kinda gets on my nerves because they are real people with drama) but they are great character studies. And yes again, when you can invoke a deep reaction in your writing with characters--good or bad--that is an awesome day. That makes it for me :-)

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    1. I turn on Hell's Kitchen and Chopped every now and then, too. With HK, it's more for Gordon Ramsey than the contestants though. LOL. He's quite a character all by himself.

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  4. I'm a softie, so I can't watch any reality shows with a lot of drama and back-stabbing. Which considerably narrows the genre for me, LOL! I'm more "man against the elements" or "teamwork" so I like Dirty Jobs, Man vs. Wild, and Junkyard Wars (back when it was on).

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    1. That does considerably narrow the genre, Lily! LOL. Have you watched Undercover Boss? That one sounds like it might be a good fit for you. Every now and then the boss discovers something awful going on within their company, but far more often they find amazing people doing amazing things, and then they reward them for it. It's a pretty heart-warming show, and really emphasizes the teamwork aspect of a company. I have to admit, I've never tried any of the ones you mentioned!

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  5. Catherine,
    I'm with you 100% on Rock Star! That was a fun show. I like any reality shows that are about people pursuing their dreams, but I do cry sometimes when someone has to leave. I want to try out The Voice, because I like the idea of having coaches. There was a dance show I enjoyed where two of the judges from DWTS - Bruno and Carrie - coached a team of performers. That was fun to watch, and it was the first time I ever heard of Taylor Swift who performed for the contestants on one of the episodes.

    I can't watch shows where people get hurt, such as America's Funniest Video. It's not funny to me. Oh! And I hate The Biggest Loser, because I feel like they exploit people. If people want to lose weight and are willing to tell their stories and show their bodies on national television, why can't they stay on the show? I don't think that promotes health.

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    1. Woo hoo! Another vote for Rock Star. :) I've watched a little of The Voice, but it never seems to hold my attention past the auditions for some reason. They definitely attract some great talent though. I'm all about having coaches or mentors in pursuit of a dream though. It helps in so many areas of our lives.

      I used to watch The Biggest Loser, but I stopped after I learned how few of them manage to keep the weight off after they leave the show. The process they put those people through is so completely unrealistic for the real world (who has time to exercise at high intensity for 4-6 hours a day unless you're getting PAID to do that?) that it just feels wrong to watch such a struggle when you know it might fall apart again as soon as they're home.

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    2. That's a good point. It would be more realistic to come to their homes and help them make small changes over time. Have them follow the people in their days to help with real life choices. Do I order a huge bowl of fatting pasta at lunch with co-workers, or do I eat carrots sticks and resent my lunch buddy? LOL

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  6. Three words Catherine: Duck Dynasty, Jack! No worries of idiots beating down on each other, no bleeps for language (which normally I don't care but after a while if all you hear is bleeps, I get tired of trying to translate) and so much fun to watch.
    Also dancing with the Stars, The Shark Tank (entrepenuers (know I'm spelling this wrong) asking for $) and I can't think of what else.

    I hate that you had that reaction to the show, C. ((HUGS))

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    1. Duck Dynasty. LOL. Okay, I guess I'm going to have to check it out, Marquita. It keeps coming up. :) Thanks!

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  7. I do like reality TV, but we don't watch much of it anymore...there just isn't time for these 2-hour/night, 2x/week shows!! We spent years of our lives watching American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. lol.

    I love the Bachelor/Bachelorette, but if it's someone I didn't love from a past season, I skip it.

    Mostly, we're into the HGTV or Food Network reality shows. And sometimes Long Island Medium, though that one usually makes us cry. lol.

    We DO avoid any medical/crime type shows, like the CSIs and others of their ilk. There's enough of that in the real world...when I watch TV, I want it to be light and fun, with maybe a little petty drama thrown in.

    Ooh, which reminds me of Beverly Hills Nannies! Fingers crossed they're coming back for season 2!! :) Probably my all-time favorite reality show!

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    1. I've never been able to get myself to watch The Bachelor, Jerrica. I've turned it on a couple of times, including when the season's Bachelor happened to be a guy I'd gone to high school with...but I just can't get interested in it.

      I tend to stay away from the CSI type shows, too, but I allow myself to watch Grey's Anatomy. It's more of a soap opera than a gritty drama, so I feel like it's fluff. :)

      I haven't even heard of Beverly Hills Nannies. For some reason, the name of it gives me the sense of the Real Housewives type of shows, which hold no appeal to me at all. But if they come back for another season, let me know. I'll check it out.

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  8. I'm a Biggest Loser junkie, but luckily its never gone that south. There have been a few contentious seasons which I hated, but lately they got themselves back on track, and it's become the feel good show that I love so much.

    Sorry your show has taken a wrong turn :(

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    1. So am I! LOL. Here's hoping yours doesn't have too many of those contentious seasons. With a show like TBL, you'd think most of them would be supportive of one another...

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