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Life is Really Real! ... Except When It's 'Reality'
December 30, 2010  | By Eric Gould

An old TVWW friend, his eyes gone distant for a second, once blurted out, "Life is ... really ... real!" After a few stunned seconds, we hit him with the usual tonnage of mockery. His point being, though (yes, there was one), that real life in general is too odd, surprising and unscripted to ever be considered banal when compared to the literary kind in novels, films and TV. And that your life, however mundane it seemed, was generally pretty entertaining, excluding catastrophes.

Given the continuing appetite for unscripted TV in 2010 -- competitions, talent contests, dating -- these formats showed us why reality is such a tough place to capture.


If we ever wondered the lengths reality show producers will go to get a story, TVWW's Diane Werts posted a piece last fall on some of the surprising items found in a Survivor contract. Once someone makes the cast, they can't sue the show, ever, as a result of what gets aired, and must agree to "fictionalization" and "dramatization" of themselves, if it benefits the storyline.

Jaclyn Santos, a contestant eliminated from Bravo's Work of Art last summer, took things a bit further when she revealed online that members of the cast couldn't use the internet during the whole competition, were miked all day, had limited contact with family, and were consistently prodded by multiple "story editors" or "segment producers" to be quick with comments they might otherwise have prudently held, in the interest of heightened confrontation and dramatic effect.

Not that we should be surprised by that, or by the fireworks on docusoaps such as The Real Housewives of New York. There's an equal amount of maneuvering and editing involved on competition formats like Survivor, and probably to a certain degree on talent shows like American Idol. The documentary-eavesdrop format has become cliched enough to spawn faux documentary or "mockumentary" pieces like This Is Spinal Tap" and, more recently, The Office.


At the bottom, the draw of these shows is watching ordinary folks like us, and wondering whether they are as able (or as smart, of course) to respond as we would in the same situation.

When it comes to drama, the same impulse is in play. Are the characters identifiable enough, believable enough, "real" enough that we want to watch more? Do they respond like we do, say the things we might say?

When writers and directors get this right, it's what TV does best -- get us to believe in stories and characters that make us care, pay attention, and consider the script's deeper themes.

Except that, often, it doesn't make for great ratings.

AMC's message boards this year were filled with the repeated comment that the channel's Rubicon characters -- ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances -- were people so credible that they were worth caring about. (With Rubicon rating only about half the viewership of Mad Men, AMC pulled the plug, perhaps encouraged by better-than-expected numbers from The Walking Dead.)

Same scenario for FX's Terriers, a noir-ish dramedy about a tubby, unshaven, shaggy ex-cop/recovering alcoholic turned unwilling private eye, all the while carrying the torch for his now-married ex-girlfriend. (Hell, I could have starred in that one.) Donal Logue in the lead was more than "real" in his delivery and reactions. He repeatedly screwed up as well as any of us.


Terriers [photo at top] brought in even lower numbers than Rubicon, and Michael Gaston, with regular roles in both series, has the now dubious footnote of starring in two of the smartest, lowest-rated canceled shows of the same season. Both shows slowed their pace closer to everyday life, held the quips and flying bullets to a bare minimum, and relied on stuff like, wow, great writing and acting.

(Terriers did suffer from one of the all-time preposterous story arcs -- a shadowy developer stringing together real estate parcels in a shabby beach area of San Diego, to be bundled into an uber-parcel for a new regional airport. Note to writers: There isn't a shop full of parrots more vocal than a community of real estate insiders. It could never happen.)

Maybe it's just harder to promote shows like Terriers and Rubicon that don't have car wrecks, and do have longer, more complex story arcs and no immediately identifiable heroes. They can't be effectively summarized in a 30-second spot.

Not that we toss them all out. Dramas featuring characters like us -- making mistakes, losing, sometimes winning -- are out there doing just fine, including AMC's Breaking Bad and FX's Louie. We're believing in those, no trouble at all, and they're both renewed for 2011.


On Jan. 4, we'll have an amazing police drama with palpably real characters starting a new season. Southland, cancelled in 2009 by NBC, won a reprieve and got picked up by TNT, and with good reason. It's a real-feeling show, primarily shot in jerky handheld style, with characters on the job suffering the problems of modern life much as we all do. And, at times, not handling it so well.

Catch up to this series if you can; the first season is out on DVD, with both seasons available from Amazon Video on Demand and iTunes. (And hey, TNT, how about a lifeline for Rubicon or Terriers?)

In general, though, American viewers now seem to be so enamored of "reality" that we generally prefer shows starring people we feel are "just like us" -- even though we know they've been primped, directed and edited. We aren't showing as strong an appetite for dramas that look more real, starring actors playing very real-feeling fictional people.

It's a hard fact that TV sets are no longer boxy objects, but thin, glass planes -- making it feel all the more like we're looking through a window into the next room.

So expect to see us get offered more reality of all kinds in 2011. How could we not? It's ... really ... real!




Graham said:

Rubicon was great, so tense and deliberate. Terriers was a good time, as well. All those shots of Southern California, and a great theme. Can't wait for Southland to come back tonight, almost reminds me of a grittier Boomtown.

Comment posted on January 4, 2011 12:21 PM

Judy woodruff said:

I know about 30 people who would jump through hoops if they knew what hoops to jump through to get TNT to pick up Terriers. is this possible? What do you know and what can we do?

Comment posted on January 7, 2011 11:09 PM

EricG said:

I think unless there were already extra episodes of Terriers already in the can, there's not much hope. (This is what saved Southland.) This is a show that attracted maybe 500,000 viewers at time, tops, and that's not enough to sustain a financial interest. (DB can correct my numbers if I've got it wrong...)

Great characters, great actors..but maybe a little light on an innovative plot to keep the audience coming back.

Comment posted on January 12, 2011 10:34 PM
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