Friday, March 28, 2014

Do “Real Life” Reality Shows Tell Good Stories?

My first experience with reality shows was probably on the Disney Channel in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  I distinctly remember watching two shows: Totally Circus and Bug Juice.  Totally Circus focused on the experiences of children who were traveling circus performers.  Bug Juice focused on a group of kids going to a summer camp.  These shows were not high drama like we think of reality shows today.  Not the extremes that parents push their kids on Toddlers and Tiaras, for example.  Totally Circus and Bug Juice probably had been edited to tell an effective story, just like any “real life” type show that purports not to impose any outside element on the situation.  What I mean by that is this: Whether or not a reality crew came along, the circus would still be performing, the kids would still go to the summer camp, and the parents would still be sending their little girls to beauty pageants. This discussion is not about a "reality competition show" like Amazing Race, which deliberately does impose outside elements (obstacles to complete with a prize of money, for example) for the sake of drama.   But does this "real life" type of reality show tell good stories?  We know that every reality show manipulates the situation in some way. Leaving aside whether or not the editing misrepresents the person, does the manipulation tell the story in a good and compelling way?

It can be done effectively. I’ll give Bug Juice as an example.  Bug Juice presented the kids as well kids.  They wanted to have fun at camp and make friends, but sometimes their own flaws caused them to have trouble with other kids.  There was a kid named Asa, who was younger than the other campers.  He was immature at times and annoyed the other kids in his cabin.  In the hands of another reality show, he might have been painted as a villain, never to be given a chance to show his side.  But what happened was, the counselors found an outlet for his energy: he was given a camera and started taking pictures.  While most of the boys in his cabin did not befriend him, one of the other boys did and did treat him with kindness.  He could still be annoying at times, but he became better at being around other people.  That is a good example of real life reality, which presented the kids as they are, not as super exaggerated versions of themselves.  They change and grow given the situation. 

However, reality shows can exaggerate their characters and heighten the drama to such lengths that it can’t be taken seriously anymore.  They subjects become caricatures of themselves instead of who they really are.  I had such an experience watching a couple episodes of Dance Moms.  It focuses on Abby Lee Miller, the coach of a girl’s dance group, and the moms who bring their kids to the group.  The episode focused some on the girls training and Miller being abrasive and yelling at them, but mostly it focused on the fights between Miller and the moms.  There were multiple side interviews with Miller and each of the moms, but only one with one of the young dancers.  In the episode I watched, a mother wanted her daughter more front and center, and fought with Miller for that.  Miller wouldn’t budge, and the mother left with the daughter at the end of the episode.  Then in the next episode, the first thing that happens is the mother coming back with her daughter.  It felt to me, with the moms constantly there all the time, and the way focus was on Miller and them and not on the dancers themselves, for the show to feel manipulative.  I could feel that it was done for drama and exaggeration.  I felt like it was the most fake reality show I had ever seen.  As if to prove my point, when I searched the show for the name of the coach, a new news story had just popped up: one of the moms is suing Miller for her abusive behavior ( and she alleges, the producers encouraged Miller’s bad behavior.  I’m not saying her story is completely correct, or even Miller’s is correct.  But considering the behavior of Miller and the moms on the show, should we be surprised?

Real life people are complicated.  They have both good sides and bad sides.  They are not completely evil or completely benevolent.  Telling a good story with reality shows, involves presenting people realistically instead of just exaggerated stereotypes.  That is hard because conflict sells.  Drama sells.  And nothing is more exciting than reality show conflict, because it supposedly happened to real people. But is the manipulation for the sake of ratings worth it?  Is the exaggeration of these real people worth it?  

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