TV’s new sport: Exploiting extreme reality


The New York Times

“Our big dilemma going into the end of the season is whether we may actually be pushing the envelope too far,” says the protagonist of The King of Pain, one of 2012’s most enjoyable novels for anyone who is a fan of reality television or simply enjoys monitoring the continuing train wreck that its more tawdry regions have become.

The character, Rick Salter, is talking about a wildly successful reality competition show he created in which contestants undergo various kinds of torture — they’re deprived of food one week, branded the next week, and so on. The show becomes a national phenomenon, finding the perverse side of the public taste, until things spin out of control.

Rick, incidentally, is undergoing torture of his own. He spends most of the novel trapped under a gigantic entertainment system in his house, which has toppled, pinning him. We learn about The King of Pain as he looks back on the show’s epic rise and fall while waiting for someone to come along and free him from his metaphorically apt prison.

The novel is by Seth Kaufman, whose resume includes time at and as a reporter for Page Six at The New York Post. And it seemed particularly appropriate for 2012, a year in which the reality genre offered up some stunning fare.

There were shows and one-shot specials whose mere titles were jolting: I Was Impaled on Discovery Fit & Health, Wives With Knives on Investigation Discovery, My Giant Face Tumor on TLC. There were series that insulted an entire ethnic or other group, like American Gypsies on the National Geographic Channel and My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding on TLC; Breaking Amish on TLC and Amish Mafia on Discovery. There was — again on TLC, easily the leader in this type of sludge — Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

Which should lead us all to do some soul searching. Was 2012 a nadir for reality TV? Can the offerings possibly get any worse in 2013? Is The King of Pain, amusing as it is, the last satire that will ever be written about reality television because the genre has become too ludicrous to parody?

Kaufman, at least, isn’t worried that reality-TV reality is going to make reality-TV fiction unwritable.

“At first glance you might think so, but parody and satire are proving quite flexible these days,” he said in an email interview. “ The Daily Show and The Onion make us laugh when we should be furious or heartbroken. So I think reality shows — from the petty, freak-show verite soap-docs like Real Housewives to weirdo-docs of Extreme Couponing and I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant to `enter-pain-ment’ shows like Survivor and Killer Karaoke — will continue to provide a lot to laugh and wince at.”

And talk about.

“As long as channels can market these shows so they remain in the national conversation at work, on Facebook and in the news, reality TV will continue to be fertile subject matter for anyone interested in modern culture,” Kaufman said. “And that’s because the questions posed by reality TV are endless. Are we what we watch? Are these shows abusive? Does that make us voyeurs for watching them? Or is it OK because, hey, the contestants are exhibitionists?”

And, he noted, “There are many world events that make you think it is reality that is un-parody-able, not just reality TV.”

A scan of the most appalling reality shows of the past year may be cause for dismay, but people who work in the genre note another side to the spectrum.

“I think there’s a lot of redeeming reality television out there,” said Jason Carbone, founder of the production company Good Clean Fun and executive producer of shows like Tia & Tamera on the Style Network. “I think that it’s probably not as loud as some of the shows.”

Carbone suggested that, like every type of television, reality TV has cycles, with current trends perhaps influenced by viewers’ need to forget the economy. “They like to feel better about their own lives,” he said, “and reality TV offers up a lot of people whose lives are far worse than our own.”

So we may be at a particularly deplorable point in the pendulum-swing at the moment. Also driving the seeming epidemic of drivel is the ever-expanding maw of airtime that has to be filled and the need to hook an audience with a quick, easily grasped gimmick lest it move on to another channel.

“We don’t have the luxury of a long sell,” Marc Juris, executive vice president and chief operating officer of truTV, said in a telephone interview. “Everything’s a headline sell. That has pushed a lot of people into the headline without the story.”

A good reality show, he said, is made up of the same elements as a good scripted show: strong characters, compelling story lines. Some producers forget that in the rush to fill the schedule, which is why he tends to demand multiple episodes of a prospective show.

“Anyone can make a good pilot; I want to see two, three, four,” he said. “Just to say, `I have a transgender pawnbroker,’ that might be interesting, but do we like this character?”

A lot of lousy shows will end up on the air nonetheless, just as there are plenty of lousy paintings, pop songs or any other kind of creative work.

“There is always more bad than good,” Juris said. “You need a lot of volume to get anything good.”

Carbone lamented that shows these days are shaped largely by the profit motive rather than by some individual’s vision; every network wants to have a better quarter than the one before. “I am being continually asked, `I want bigger, louder, crazier characters,’ ” he said. “I’m not sure how much bigger, louder, crazier we can get.”

Which leads to the ultimate reality-TV question, the one raised by Kaufman’s novel and by the extremes of 2012’s programs: Are there places this genre will never go?

“I hope so,” Carbone said. “I don’t ever want to see a stoning or a hanging or anything involving death. But if you had told me when I was a little boy that someone could go on a television show and two hours later marry a millionaire, I would have told you you were nuts.”

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