Reality By Appointment

Nov 15

Hulking under huge instruments, the cameramen moved like awkward aliens with no social boundaries. They shifted their focus rapidly without regard to personal space, blinding their subjects with large lights. Every time they approached, I attempted to shrink my 5’2” frame into something even smaller. I tried to be as uninteresting as possible. But most of the party guests were speaking loudly, exaggerating their reactions and even seemed to laugh harder – an odd sound to hear at a small charity benefit.

Earlier, when my boyfriend and I arrived, it quickly became clear that the evening was centered around a new Bravo reality show, not the charity. I can’t reveal the name of the show or what it’s about, but it was at a beach house in Malibu where the majority of the women sported the latest trend in heels and boobs and I felt horribly out of place.

After being accosted with release forms and cameras at the front door, we escaped to the outside bar. The irony of our attendance wasn’t lost on me. In the bloody media afterbirth of Kim Kardshian’s 72-hour marriage, I had been throwing my hands up in the air repeatedly, wondering who was watching that dang show and others like it. Reality TV isn’t really real, right? Or…I don’t know…is it?

As I watched the electronic aliens circulate studiously among the guests, I recalled a conversation I had just the day before. In my frustration, I had contacted a friend who has been producing reality shows for over 20 years.

Early on, my friend told me, reality TV was shot documentary-style, 24 hours a day, and participants were rarely told what to do. But now, most shows shoot by appointment. By appointment. That means the producers give them a topic, but don’t tell them what to say. Which is basically how all of Christopher Guest’s movies (Spinal Tap, Best In Show) are shot. But we call that acting.

My friend also said that each show is different. Yes, stilted performing gives away the scripted shows. But on the flip side, sometimes the cast does what they want, against the producer’s wishes, and the footage often ends up on the cutting room floor. And, my friend explains, there are shows where the producers are just as surprised by the outrageous behavior as the audience is.

But, I thought, as a cameraman caught B roll of the host’s dog, would that craziness happen if they weren’t surrounded by glass eyes? The host’s dog was impervious to the lens, but human behavior is always altered in front of a camera, regardless of circumstance. So, maybe it should be called Altered Reality TV.

We were ushered back inside to listen to the host introduce the charity. One guy clapped his hands high above his head as if he was at a Metallica concert instead of benefit with just 50 guests.

Since the evening was set up as a fancy tasting, Barbie-sized food was served in Barbie-sized spoons to human-sized Barbies. Instead of a sit-down dinner, tastings were served over the kitchen counter, with a huge camera parked at the corner to catch reactions. Hungry guests – hungry for food and airtime – competed for coveted counter spots and spoons like wild animals in the jungle. Reality TV’s survival of the fittest. My man and I sat in an unlit corner praying for tray service.

According to my friend, fakery is definitely possible in a show’s process, but it’s also true that “crazy affects all cast, celebrity or not.” Fair enough, I figured. But regardless of whether the show is scripted, directed and edited meticulously or a free-for-all, the cast members are still most likely behaving differently than they would without the cameras. Either way, Altered Reality TV.

Proof was right in front of us. Charity guests downed tapas for the cameras with the same momentary enthusiasm as a deep-throating porn star. They seemed to know their role.

At least participants on talent shows and contests don’t hide their desire for prizes and fame. And the interior designers and stylists aren’t hiding their desire for publicity. But what drives the ones who invite conspicuous cameras into their homes and families? Or live in a house with strangers? My friend tells me the money isn’t much and, not surprisingly, thinks they do it mostly because they really crave attention.

I was craving dinner. My stomach rumbled and my boyfriend’s answered in agreement. Why do the Snookies and Kims and bachelorettes crave so much attention? They remind me of the 15 year old girl who only thinks she’s beautiful when a cute 15 year old boy throws spitballs in her hair. Or the overweight boy who swallows a hot dog whole because the cool kids high-five him when he does. Maybe these reality stars can only feel important when people talk shit about them.

And people are talking shit about them. And, yes, writing blogs about them. Which means we’re throwing the spit balls. And our spit balls make their shows stick.

But why are people watching? It’s Altered Reality TV! Are they truly compelling stories? Or is it the train wreck fascination? A gossipy self-esteem booster? Do viewers feel like they’re spying on their neighbors without getting caught? I wish I knew.

I moved my foot to avoid a spearing from an eager high-heeled participant. I wished all the Kardashians would do a photo spread with no make up.  I wished Snookie would detox and then work with kids in South Central. If they filmed that, then maybe I’d watch.

Everybody loves a good story. I just prefer to be told the truth. Either it’s real or it’s not.

I had stopped paying attention and suddenly, a drunk woman twice my size tripped and stabbed my toe with her stiletto. That was it; I couldn’t take it anymore. I jumped up, called her a bitch and pushed her right into a cameraman who went down like a machine out of Star Wars. Another camera whipped around to catch my horrified reaction and my bleeding foot. The woman screamed, gourmet food spewing from her mouth. And I was thrown out on my natural breasts.

Okay, that last part didn’t happen. Would it have been a better story than the truth? Here’s what really went down:

Just as we considered battling the throng for a dollop of fish, we saw a young man with an earpiece instruct a guest on not only what to say for the camera but how to say it. Judging from the sentence, “The [blank] is SO [blank]!” it appeared to be a quote for the show’s promo. After several line readings and at least five takes, the guest joked, “Am I famous now?”

We left early on two empty stomachs.

In a nearby family-owned restaurant with a more private setting and no cameras, we ate tough filet mignon in a watery sauce. Three different gracious hosts asked us how we were enjoying our meals. Chewing heartily with smiles on our faces, we lied every single time.


4 Responses to “Reality By Appointment”

  1. Deb Ross says:

    "So, maybe it should be called Altered Reality TV." Perfect, dead-on observation, Robin! Applause, applause!!

  2. CTW says:

    Ah, the complicated and entrancing cycle of narcissism and co-dependency – can't escape the giant sucking sound of either.

  3. Alfi says:

    I know one person who watches that "dang show". At times.
    No, not I. That particular show is SURrealistic.

  4. Donaco says:

    Sometimes I think nobody over thirty years old pays any attention to reality tv and the Kardashians and bachelorettes because that stuff is just on there for 20 year old idiots. And then I realize I'm wrong. So I'm probably an idiot, too. So now I'm sad. Thanks, Robin.

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