Sunday, March 21, 2010

Reality TV Wreckage

A few years ago, both my wife and I started watching what we thought was a more "high-brow" variety of reality-tv - shows on Discovery, TLC, Food Network (you know, the educational channels), that focused on real-life families and their unique jobs or circumstances.  I got hooked on American Choppers both for its how-to look at custom chopper building (something I knew nothing about), and for its fascinating examination of the antics of the Teutul family.  My wife closed in on Jon & Kate Plus 8, a peek into the "wow, thank goodness that isn't us" world of newborn sextuplets and the harried lives of Jon & Kate as they struggled to get through each day.

Let's not kids ourselves, we knew we weren't watching PBS, but at least it seemed a little better than a night with The Bachelor, or Temptation Island.  The shows appeared to be a watered-down version of the premise of the highly acclaimed "Up" series of films (7 Up, 7 Plus Seven, 21 Up, etc.) that followed the lives of 14 typical British youth and examined them every seven years - providing insights into not only their individual lives, but complex societal issues of race, class and the human condition.

However, a strange thing started to happen to both our little "slice-of-life" shows. What began as a peek inside a custom chopper garage soon became a parade of logos, as Paul Sr. and the boys began assembling bike after bike for Intel, Gillette, HP, and other corporate clients. Curiously, that struggling Gosselin family of 10 suddenly got a bigger van and a bigger house and vacations to Disney World and ski trips to Utah.

And then all hell broke loose.  As the people on the shows became more successful, as their lives got easier, their homes bigger and their bank accounts fuller, they began to tear at each other like rats in a cage.  Eventually it became clear that the shows were no longer about ordinary people and their daily lives - what we were watching were extraordinary insights into how media attention itself affects the average person, and the seemingly inevitable downfall that follows.

Although Jon & Kate are the most obvious example, this process has repeated itself over and over across many shows.  It can no longer be seen as an aberration, or merely the unlucky happenstance of families that were predisposed to doom. Let's make this perfectly clear, (although Kate Gosselin may not want to admit this), these shows themselves are the direct cause of the misfortunes that eventually destroy these people, companies and families. 

It's not that there were no problems before the cameras showed up - let's face it, every family or small business have problemsHowever, these shows introduce a combustible combination of success, money, fame and adoration.  This process of insta-psuedo-celebrity magnifies any potential issues that may have already been there and accelerates the pace of doom.

We can look at American Chopper to see the common thread that is revealed for all these shows, and the two major forces at work that drive these families over the cliff to oblivion.

Paul Teutul Sr. has worked hard all his life in the iron fabrication business.  A survivor of alcohol addiction, he has built not only Orange County Ironworks, but also his love for motorcycles into a thriving side business.  His son Paul Jr. displays an aptitude for chopper design and together they grow a small shop until it eventually eclipses the iron fabrication business.  However, as the producers of American Chopper mold the show, they know that a series simply about bike building will not be enough to hold the viewers' attention for very long.  They yearn for conflict - the very stuff of drama.

Unfortunately for the Teutuls, conflict is not hard to find.  Sr. and Jr. are often at each other's throats.  They both have fiery tempers and strong opinions.  Sr. feels like he got this shop where it is by old-fashioned values like hard work and sees his son as a lazy loafer who gets too much credit.  Jr. feels that his dad doesn't value his unique contributions and senses that if he were ever to leave, the shop would crumble.  The producers hone in on this conflict like dogs to a rabbit and begin to devote much screen time to their many outbursts.  To soften this tension, they also focus on another Teutul, the lovable brother Mikey, who they show as the goofy mascot of the shop - a man whose job description seems to be to keep Sr. & Jr. from killing each other.

As the seasons progress, the producers and editors of the show turn the real-life family of the Teutuls into well-established characters.  As the Teutuls watch the show, they see themselves portrayed as these characters and begin to behave more and more like the characters.  This self-reflective loop feeds on itself until what was once a small facet of their personalities becomes their only voice, and any conflicts they may have had become rockets inevitably hurtling towards each other.  The end has already been written.

This is the first of the major forces that does the damage - (get ready for the obligatory quantum physics reference) the Observer Effect at work.

From Wikipedia:
The term Observer Effect (sometimes associated with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle) refers to changes that the act of observing will make on the phenomenon being observed. It has application in many fields of scientific inquiry.  The Observer-expectancy effect of psychology falls within the more general concept of reactivity, how people change their behavior when aware of being watched.

(phew!  See, that wasn't so bad)

In the simplest sense, there is no way that you can put cameras 24/7 on any normal person and not expect them to act differently.  What you get is not a representation of how that person is, but of how that person is when they have cameras trained on them all the time.

After the first couple seasons of American Choppers, the Teutuls are really on a roll. They start doing more and more custom choppers for large corporations and motion pictures, appear on Letterman and the Leno Show, travel the world and move their shop a couple of times, eventually building their own brand-new huge manufacturing facility.

However, Sr. makes a mistake common to a lot of people on these reality shows.  He assumes that all those new corporate jobs for Gillette bikes and Eragon movie bikes are simply the result of their hard work & talents and not the obvious result of the producers hustling for product placements on the tv show.  His hubris gets the better of him.  He looks around at his own son and figures - I don't really need him, I could replace him tomorrow with any talented eager designer that will be here on time, keep his mouth shut and not steal my thunder.

Jr.'s got plans as well.  His head has swelled with the endless magazine covers, tv appearances and countless strokes to his ego.  He's got a nice new house as well.  He's sick of taking shit from his dad and knows his designs are the real reason the shop has done so well.  Eff him, he figures, I'll open my own shop and do Sr. one better by designing not just bikes, but everything - I'll make myself into a top industrial designer!

The show really spins out of control (jumps that ever-present shark) and enters untold levels of absurdity as TLC does a cross-over from hell with Jon & Kate.  There's nothing sadder than seeing two destroyed families pretending to have fun.  At least Jon got a cool chopper out of it.

For the Teutuls, the inevitable break-up and lawsuits ensue, with the real tragedy being Mikey, who enters rehab to deal with his deteriorating alcoholism, compounded by his own dad who no longer speaks with any of his sons.

Oh yeah... and the show is cancelled.

This inevitable consequence of too much (success, money, fame), too soon is the second major force contributing to reality tv wreckage - what I call the Tiger Woods Effect.

It goes something like this (not taken from wikipedia, but simply from my own twisted mind):

With limited resources and opportunities people stick together and make the best of it.
With unlimited resources and opportunities everyone grabs whatever they can get their hands on - money, fame, drugs, sex - regardless of the consequences.

Now, Tiger has lived in this state most of his life - he has had an entire life to prepare himself for the onslaught of fame. Still, even he was unable keep the demons at bay.  With the insta-psuedo-celebrity that comes to reality tv stars, there is no way to prepare - and it all happens under the harsh lights of an ongoing tv show.  It's really no wonder people are dropping like flies.

Let's quickly check in with a few more reality tv shows and see how other folks are faring.

I think everyone in the world knows what happened to Jon & Kate, so we'll brush right by that one.

Ah yes, that adorable Roloff family.  Tensions got pretty heated last year as papa Matt continued his house additions and pumpkin farm attractions unabated to the neglect of his own family.  Is someone's head getting a little inflated with all the attention and huge crowds of Little People, Big World fans, er I mean pumpkin gatherers.  Let's hope Matt comes to his senses soon, gets his family off the show and rebuilds his marriage.

LA Ink - well, Kat's already got the bad-boy rocker boyfriend.  Let's hope she keeps her alcoholism and ego in check by not assuming she's the greatest tattoo artist ever.  I mean, a new book and cosmetic line is one thing, but at least she hasn't got a big head over any of this.

Oh dang - but wait, didn't they cover over that with a new mural?

Oh...  Kat, take it easy baby, I worry about you...

The boys from the Ghost Hunters seem to be holding it together pretty well.  Let's hope there are no lawsuits as to the intellectual property of TAPS or Ghost Hunters in the future.

There is one thing that concerns me however about the recent addition to the show - Kris Williams.  She looks a little... well different this year.  A little more eh... well endowed shall we say.

Kris - keep it together girl.  Please do not become tabloid fodder by hooking up with, oh I don't know, some bad-boy tattooed reality show chopper builder.

No, not that dude...

Yeah, that one...

Ah yes, Ace of Cakes.  If anyone can make it through this mess unscathed, it seems like Duff can do it.  He has the requisite sense of sarcasm and the deep-seated punk ethos of not giving a shit that might just allow him to avoid the cliched pitfalls.  Let's hope he never assumes he is the greatest cake-maker on earth, and that none of his friend-co-workers sue him.  Really, here's hopin'.

The one good thing that may come from all this wreckage is that it will lead away from the ever-so-popular reality tv trend and back to more scripted shows so everyone can get back to work and innocent people's lives can stop being ruined.

I mean obviously, a professional who has trained their whole life to be in front of the camera will be much better prepared for the ordeals of fame and fortune.

Oh wait... have you seen Celebrity Rehab...


  1. You are probably not old enough to recall the first "reality " series. It was on PBS and called "An American Family."

    I didn't watch this when it aired, but many years ago PBS did a rebroadcast with an updated episode and the revelations of how the cameras twisted things was very informative.

    Yeah. So, if the cameras want to come follow you, go grab a gun and chase them the hell away.

  2. i don't know. i still think some people are inherently evil. most importantly that octomom. i'm even ashamed i know she exists. media=evil, but people who use it to extreme evil=even more evil.

  3. Thank you for finding the right words to all this. But then I have to wonder, aren't we, the viewer's just as much to blame for continuously tuning in? I guess that's where that "morbid curiosity" really does the trick, eh?

    Anyway, thanks for a great post!

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