We as Americans (or perhaps just as humans) are obsessed with dramatized reality. The reality tv industry has grown, from Survivor, to American Idol, to the Real Housewives series and Kardashians. We obsessively follow real-life trials: and, speaking as a baby lawyer, a criminal trial is one of the best examples of dramatized reality. It’s real life, and real people, only blown up to soap opera proportions.
CBS and NBC, capitalizing on this fascination, have debuted two new summer shows: one, an overly scripted but still-traditional form of the reality show, complete with individual interviews, and the other a clever twist on the old conceit.
CBS, ever a fan of the criminal procedure, has managed to combine its tried-and-true dramatized series into a reality show — to debateable success. The conceit is pure genius: take 16 strangers, put them in a house, and then each week have them solve a “murder.” The people who solve it correctly are safe: the person with the worst solution is the next to die. Supposedly, the “murderer” is one of them in the house — my question is — how many people are left at the end?
The problem with the show seems to be two-fold: firstly is the casting. Half of the characters are interesting, and the other half just don’t seem smart enough. The audience is, of course playing around, trying to put together all of the clues to reconstruct the crime. Meanwhile, half of the people on the show seem unable to every connect any dots, and many of the clues are stumbled upon by accident, as opposed to actually solving a riddle.
The second issue is the line the show walks between reality and unreality. Everybody knows that people aren’t dying on the show. Everybody knows that the murders are staged. The producers, then, were given two options: to either allow the contestants to actual the fiction of the show, or to have them treat it as wholly serious. The producers seemed to go with the second approach — which was a mistake, as the contestants range between overracting, spouting platitudes without any conviction, or actually that it’s just a silly game. It’s incredibly incongruous to go from the woman announcing to the camera that she’s in “fear of her life” to the man who says “if this ever happened in real life I would be embarrassed by myself.”
It’s a show with massive amounts of unrealized potential. I, for my part, will tune in at least one more week, if only for the laughably characterized butler, who speaks with a British accent, wears a tuxedo with tails, and is named Giles.
On the other end of the spectrum is NBC’s offering: Siberia.
The conceit for this show initially seems much less ingenious: take sixteen people, dump them in the middle of Siberia, and then tell them to survive. At the end of six months, $500,000 will be split among whoever remains. Other than that, there are no rules.
The show runs like a reality show: there’s a host, a competition at the very beginning that eliminates two contestants, and then the expected squabbling over beds, finding food, and starting a fire. There’s the angry, loner contestant who is “only in it for the money,” the expectedly bitchy model, and a refreshingly kind and genuine treehugger who befriends the resident nerd.
It runs like a reality show, but it’s not. I’ll be honest, I didn’t realize it wasn’t scripted until I finished the first episode and did a little internet research. I knew that there were plants among the contestants — one contestant mysteriously arriving at the campsite early, another meeting with a fatal end — but I didn’t realize that the whole thing was staged. The production quality, the dialogue, and the mannerisms of those on the show perfectly mirror any run-of-the-mill reality show.
Upon discovering that it was, in fact, dramatized, I almost decided to stop watching. But then I had to take a step back and think for myself. The show was engaging. The contestant-characters were interesting (if slightly archetypical) and the premise was similar to Lost, a show that I loved when it used to air. My experience of television is identical, regardless of whether a single scene is staged, an interview, or the entire thing. The only reason I considered stopping was because the contestants experience was different.
In short, I was disappointed that real live people weren’t getting their minds messed with for the sake of my entertainment. I was disappointed that, at some point, there wasn’t going to be a big reveal of how the producers had tricked the contestants, how five of them were really actors, how the “monsters” were nothing more than movie magic. I was literally upset that real people weren’t being harmed in the making of the show.
It made me wonder if that’s the real draw of reality tv — not the stories, or the compelling life stories, but the simple fact that someone, somewhere, really lived this. That somehow watching a person mess up in real life is better than merely watching it via a biography later, or hearing a story over coffee. The reason that people watch Jodi Arias trial, and now the Trayvon Martin trial isn’t because we care about justice, or seeing socio-political change: we just want to watch a real person really suffer.
I hope that isn’t all that there is to it. Because if that’s it, then I’ll probably end up watching a subpar summer of tv with Whodunnit? rather than enjoying the thus-far rather ingenious acting and production of Siberia. Which I suppose would be my own, very trivial, form of human suffering.