The Cultural Gutter

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Maybe Reality Isn’t the Point

alex macfadyen
Posted August 25, 2011

Define reality.

I’m not a big follower of reality tv shows, although I find myself sucked in to an episode if I start watching. Sometimes I appreciate the talent and sometimes I’m just rubbernecking at the train-wreck drama or the otherness of other people’s lives, but when my favorite contender on The Glee Project was eliminated and I was still sad the next day, I realized that I was actually emotionally invested. I kept talking about the show to my friends, even though they hadn’t seen it. I felt like it was different somehow, and that made me think about reality tv as a genre.

The Glee Project is a 10 episode competition show in the vein of Project Runway, with the contestants competing for a 7 episode story arc on Glee. It’s been billed as “a groundbreaking and authentic ten episode documentary reality series,” and although the overall format is familiar, I think the description fits.

TGP is structurally unusual in that it’s run by people who work on Glee. Choreographer Zach Woodlee, vocal producer Nikki Anders, and casting director Robert Ulrich produce the weekly music videos, act as coaches and mentors for the contenders, and choose who will give “last chance performances” for Glee co-creator Ryan Murphy each week. The fact that they will actually have to work with the winner makes the outcome personally relevant to them, and means that choosing the right person is a higher priority than getting ratings for the reality show.

Authenticity is one of the central themes of Glee. The show is all about being true to yourself even if what you get for it is a freezing cold slushie in the face every day. But as Andrew Potter explores in The Authenticity Hoax, authenticity and ethics are not necessarily related. You can be a total jerk and still be more authentic than someone who acts like a decent human being. I think what I found most interesting about TGP was how the idea of authenticity played out in the reality series.

Working hard and being supportive of one another are requirements for Glee cast members, and that is reflected in TGP. The contenders seem to care about one another, the mentors seem genuinely invested in helping them develop and perform their best, and most of the criticism is actually constructive. I think the difference is encapsulated in Zach’s and Robert’s encouraging expressions during the last chance performances and how thrilled they look when anyone does well. They remind me of dads at a school play.

Throughout the competition there’s a tremendous focus on “authenticity” or “fakeness.” TGP contenders are judged most harshly for not coming across as genuine. One contestant, Lindsay, is repeatedly described by other people as seeming “fake” and is accused of faking a breakdown by one of the coaches. But what does “fake” mean in the context of reality tv?

Everyone knows in their gut if something seems real or fake to them. But, to quote Gob from Arrested Development, “My gut is telling me no… but my gut is also very hungry.” As Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book, Blink, we subconsciously notice things that we aren’t consciously aware of, so sometimes what seems like a random hunch is actually based on observations we don’t know we’ve made. Or not. When we’re picking up on something in a real life interaction that mechanism works, but when someone else has selected and edited together the significant pieces to show us, it gets muddled.

Viewers are always presented with the question, are the editors reliable narrators? They have their own motivations and goals in choosing which threads of the story to weave together for us – truthful portrayals, perhaps, but also dramatic tension, audience engagement, and ratings – so even though we’re lead to believe it’s real, we also know enough about the process to be suspicious.

In the case of TGP, we’re told repeatedly that Ryan Murphy wants to be inspired by the contenders’ experiences and personalities to write a character for them, so in theory the goal is to show the audience what they are really like as people. I felt like I had gotten a sense of all of the contenders as three dimensional, sympathetic people, even the ones who didn’t appeal to me, but reading the fan sites I realized two things: one, not everyone had that experience, and two, some of the contenders did not sound in person like they came across in the footage.

Some contenders commented that things they said or did were distorted for effect but they know that’s to be expected on a reality show. Lots of viewers have commented on their dislike for Lindsay’s perceived fakeness, but the contenders generally seem to like her. She has said that after watching, her friends and family were appalled and said “That’s not you! What’s going on?” When the contenders have to choose a word that exposes their deepest insecurity and wear it for a public video shoot, her word is ‘fake.’

So what registers with an audience as “real” or “fake,” and in the end does it matter? As a kid, I used to watch WWE wrestling on saturday mornings, and what hooked me was watching The Undertaker fight Jake “The Snake” Roberts with his hand stuck in what appeared to be a real coffin, dragging it laboriously behind him. If the coffin didn’t weigh “at least 200 pounds”, what did that mean about the wrestling itself? I wanted to know, I wanted to believe, but I also didn’t care ‘cause it was just plain fun to watch.

Fake isn’t necessarily bad. All stories are simultaneously real and not real, even the ones we tell ourselves about our lives. Accuracy isn’t necessary to a sense of emotional reality. Isn’t that part of why we read and watch tv and immerse ourselves in different worlds? We know fiction isn’t real, but it feels real. Maybe reality just isn’t the point.

~~~

alex MacFadyen is still trying to figure out who he wants to be when he grows up. It’s not the reality he was expecting, but it has it’s finer points.

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