A Reckoning with Reality (TV)

Lucas Mann’s love letter to his wife—and to the jacked-up emotions of reality TV.

 

 

When we were first getting into The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the husband of one of the show’s stars, who had seemed to be a real asshole (like potentially abusive) on-screen, hanged himself. The following season, his widow was back, shocked yet resilient, weepy but still game.

At the height of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (your favorite), Teresa went to jail for the mail, wire, and bank fraud that had funded the lifestyle she so proudly flaunted for the cameras. Her special return-home episode airs next month.

In the middle of our Here Comes Honey Boo Boo obsession, Honey Boo Boo’s mother’s boyfriend got arrested for rape, child molestation, aggravated child molestation, and aggravated sexual assault battery against Honey Boo Boo’s sister. The show got canceled, but Honey Boo Boo did appear in a special obesity episode of The Doctors, and now her mother is on Marriage Boot Camp.

After we watched the first three seasons of 19 Kids and Counting, the scandal broke about the oldest of the nineteen molesting his sisters and avoiding prosecution by being sent to some backward-ass Christian labor camp. Jim Bob, the patriarch, vowed they’d be back soon, putting complete confidence in God’s plan.

I’m not really sure what to do with all this; I’m just getting a list going. The obvious question to bring up here is: Are we complicit? “We” meaning you and me but also, in that awful think-piecey way, standing in for the culture. 

Sure. I suppose we are complicit. The attention given to sociopaths, and the public pain that results from the potent mixture of attention and sociopathy, exists only because there are reliable consumers who enjoy the cocktail. And then we wait for more of the same, so more of the same is provided.

The argument goes that the more reality television there is, the more saturated we become with hysterical realness, the less enamored we can be by the small, sincere moments that make up a common life, and so the people who make it onto reality shows are only those psychotic enough to cause a scene. Producers, and by extension viewers, are fueling the psychosis by highlighting it, elevating it, while simultaneously opening every action to scrutiny, trapping the lunatics in a cycle of self-exploitation until the crack is exposed. Or maybe the shows forced a crack in people that wasn’t there before. Either way, the end result is the same. These are not good people, it is pointed out. Some are destructively, irreversibly bad.

I don’t think we watch just for the chance to bask in badness or that we can be entertained only by people who are particularly fucked up, either in a dangerous amount of pain or capable of causing it (though isn’t that most people?). We never actually see the nastiest stuff on-screen, after all; we read about it only in articles that scream, Look what they don’t show you! But I will say this: every time I read aloud from the Internet about one of these scandals or outright horrors, we look at each other unsurprised. Like we saw something simmering underneath what made it to air. Like we’re almost proud of that. And it does, in those brief moments, feel like we should stop looking, if we’ve gotten to the point where the worst revelation is simply a met expectation. Just because they’re still willing to show us doesn’t mean that we must oblige them.

The repentant conversation is always so serious, so predictable, but also so flimsy. It becomes its own pleasure, that gesture of repentance, but it doesn’t make the original pleasure go away—it only reminds us of it. If these people still exist, fodder for us to debate about whether to watch, then the story isn’t over, right? It’s hard not to feel that we deserve some narrative satisfaction.

*

I’ve been thinking about that episode of Intervention we watched, with the homeless meth head who bolts from his intervention group during the climactic confrontation scene. He’s out on the street, eyes feral, looking for someplace dark or at least empty. His sister chases after him, and the camera stalks the scene, closing in as he recoils, then lashes out. “Let me go!” he screams. Then there’s a shove, and the shot seems to wobble, so it feels like he’s shoving all of us. Then he takes off.

The show continues on without him, which is remarkable. It’s a show about intervening on him, yet when he breaks its confines, the focus moves back to the interveners he fled from, discussing what they’ll do if he ever reaches out. He’s gone, but the story is the same. He was never really there. So little of his life was filmed—just a week or so of him serving as a tour guide through his own trauma, flirting with the camera with every illicit detail, every wry, self-effacing addict’s joke. Then he pushed us away, and there we were on the couch, rejected but still leaning in, and it was impossible not to think about how many places he could be that weren’t on camera, how treacherous every little corner of the world can be.

I used to pretend to hate it when you watched Intervention.

“That’s my limit,” I’d say. “I don’t want to watch a snuff film.”

“So fucking high and mighty,” you’d say.

“Why do I need to see somebody dying?” I’d ask.

You’d shrug and say, “You never see them die.

You were right about that, and you were right that I would end up liking the show—the way each subject is asked to explain, and then explanation becomes ecstatic performance until the moment they want the performance to stop, which is the crescendo. The cameras stand closer on Intervention than on most shows. The addicts and their preemptively grieving relatives lean closer, look more directly into the camera, so the claustrophobia feels mutual. It’s like everyone involved wants some kind of record that they tried, that they felt bad about it all, so bad.

But why should we feel the right to watch, and to feel bad for these people we watch, as though we care beyond the pleasure of watching? I still ask you this sometimes, while making no effort to change the channel. It’s an extrapotent question for me because of my own family circumstances—I have loved a person like that, offscreen. That’s part of who I am, how you know me. That should dilute the appeal, right? There’s nothing exotic or exhilarating about seeing a recognizable tragedy play out all over again, with strangers. Then it’s just an unflattering mirror or confirmation of an unavoidable script—the loved ones performing their resilient love, as if to prove that it still exists; the infirm performing their illness because they are so good at that, so willing, then pretending they don’t want to tell the story anymore, growing louder as they realize it’s too late to stop.

I’m dodging the question. I don’t have an answer yet.

In her essay “Sublime, Revised,” Leslie Jamison writes about the endlessness of Intervention. She says: “For the regular viewer, the once-in-a-lifetime intervention happens every Monday night at nine. The unrepeatable is repeated. Every week is a relapse.”

“Relapse.” Yes, maybe that’s what we’re feeling in front of Intervention (and so many other shows too). It’s a word that refuses to allow intrigue to die. A new tragedy is guaranteed, and that makes each individual tragedy a little easier to stomach. We watch to see someone try to change his mind when we know from viewing experience that it’s probably too late. If it’s not too late for that someone, it might be for the next one, and we can be sure that there will always be a next one.

*

Some of MTV’s Teen Moms are beginning to rebel. The original form no longer holds them. For one thing, they’re no longer teen moms, overwhelmed by every bit of their surprise situations. They are public women in their twenties now, capable if scarred, who have been famous for the entirety of their adult lives. They’ve lived through custody battles, car crashes, failed marriages, successful marriages, memoir contracts, memoir flops, magazine stories about their buprenorphine addictions, brief yet lucrative porn careers, a sex-toy line.

They are still going. Some have left the show and returned, but they return new, steeled, openly tired and irritated, unwilling to relinquish control. They’re used to the camera now and, as a result, sometimes rivetingly annoyed with it. The scope of the show has expanded to incorporate these new savvy selves. The producers sometimes appear on-screen, a part of the narrative, pleading with the moms, coaxing them, reasoning with them.

Farrah has returned for the new season. Rumors were that she’d been cut because of the sex tape that she’d tried to sell as something candid-then-leaked, even though the production value is crystalline and her partner is a porn star. She’s back because she needs to be and the show needs her to be—a teen mom is still the role she performs best, so she has returned to it.

Her reluctance is vivid. She prizes her celebrity and attempts to achieve divadom, despite the fact that she’s back where she always was, in a nondescript, middle-American suburban home, with her mother still nagging at her and her daughter still playing in the background, so native to being filmed that she can, for long stretches of time, seem oblivious.

In her return episode, after a couple of minutes of negotiation, two producers stand outside complaining about her to each other, then enter the home and bring the viewers with them:

“Farrah,” one says, “I hear you’re having some issues with this.”

There she is, waiting: so bored, so disdainful, eating pizza at the kitchen counter, the family Christmas tree lit up behind her: “Why do we have to do an entrance?” she snaps. “Why can’t we just be real?”

When a producer condescendingly explains the need to have some continuity for her fans, she interrupts: “Whatever, we all agree, it’s weird that I wasn’t a part of it; now I’m a part of it. The end.” She’s insulting the producers for their formula, which gives them pause, then more exasperation. She’s unrelenting. They try to butter her up, and the dripping effort of their words about her importance to the show (“It just didn’t feel right not having you”) coats the shot. Farrah eyes the camera and then, almost instantly, contorts her face into crying.

“You guys just, like, make me more fucking mad,” she says.

She storms out of the shot, leaving her daughter to focus on in the absence, a sweet, at-ease child who has been decorating cookies but stops and tells the producers matter-of-factly, “I’m just gonna go see my mom and make sure she’s all right.”

Another camera picks Farrah up after she storms away, and she chooses not to rebel against or acknowledge this camera. She is maybe still crying, though rather impassively at this point, in an empty room. Her daughter finds her and hugs her knees. She reaches down to hug her daughter back, and her hair falls, obscuring her face. She says, “I needed a hug. I love you. I’m sorry Mommy got upset.” She hoists her daughter up, that familiar pose, and she’s ready to get on with the show.

I can feel the restraint—or at least I imagine it—of the person behind the camera because there is no more pushing forward. There is no longer a need to goad Farrah into her entrance. Instead, Farrah has found the entrance she wants, and everyone—Farrah, her daughter, the cameraperson, the editors and producers who settled on this footage—has agreed that it’s the right image to hold.

It felt right to us as viewers too. It was quiet in a way that implies sincerity, and the child felt uncoached, and the love between mother and daughter, the show’s appreciation of that capacity for authentic love amid turmoil, felt important, near-inspirational.

Jesus, it happened fast. There we were on the couch, dutifully smiling and nodding and buying it. Fifteen seconds before, maybe less, we’d been gawking at Farrah’s plastic surgery and the icy apathy that seemed to have taken her over. We were sneering at the producers cramming into her kitchen to poke the bear. The show had to reveal a set of collaborators working diligently to find something substantive within what had become painful and stale. But then, at the right time, when it needed to happen, everything turned genuine. We were so ready to accept the turn, as they knew we would be.

Are we saps, my love? Maybe the better question is: What are we looking for? Why, at the right times, of course, are we so willing to believe? Especially when we see the stars saying that they hate their own show, that it’s all bullshit, before they turn to more appealing emotions. What got me was the way Farrah leaned down to hug her daughter and the unfudgeable fact that children are just very small people who ape their parents’ gestures in miniature. No matter how forced the action is, and even when it’s under protest, no matter how furious the players in the drama are, no matter how exhausted the conceit, bodies will always behave that way.

I’ll tell you what I thought when Farrah cried and reached down to hug her daughter, in her staged home, once again invaded by producers demanding her to be likable or at least amenable when she didn’t want to be. I thought of the fact that you want a child, and I do too. And that we’ve worked up to that desire together, and now it’s still tenuous and terrifying but increasingly potent. And that I hope it’s a girl. And that I can see you—crying, since you’re a crier—reaching down to hold a small version of yourself, who is reaching up and wondering what’s wrong. I want to see you that way.

Like Farrah from Teen Mom. Well, not exactly, but you know what I mean.

 

 

Bill Nichols, the legendary documentary critic, had this to say when asked about the value of reality television:

The very intensity of feelings, emotion, sensation, involvement that reality TV produces is also discharged harmlessly within its dramatic envelope of banality. The historic referent, the magnitudes that exceed the text, the narratives that speak of conduct in the world, of face-to-face encounters, bodily risk and ethical engagement ground themselves harmlessly in circuits devoted to an endless flux of the very sensations they run to ground.

Basically, fluff. But worse than fluff; it’s taking what could actually be substantive and channeling it into this echo chamber of only emotion, with no context and no progress. That can be a stupidly harmless process, or that can be dangerous.

Though I find Nichols both cranky and melodramatic, I do kind of enjoy the way he refers to emotion like it’s a precious commodity, like it’s a fucking truffle. It is only valuable because it’s rare and hard-earned, that tiny, beautiful thing exhumed from miles of otherwise unimportant dirt. Serious emotion, captured in earnest—that’s valuable to a narrative. But if everyone’s just emoting all the time, if every bit of captured footage is a tantrum or accusation or tearful reconciliation, then the value is gone.

Beverley Skeggs and Helen Wood call bullshit on this being the one way to see valuable reality, a deeply gendered definition embodied by the swashbuckling war reporter, risking life and limb for an exclusive shot of another man’s blood and anguish. To Skeggs and Wood, if people are going to refer to reality shows as soap operas, then the shows should be examined according to the appeals of that form. They look to soap-opera scholarship and borrow the term emotional realism—when every interpersonal drama is heightened and broadcast, the sheer volume of that drama is what strikes recognition in the viewer as something akin to what they feel as they live, and in that recognition the viewer can find tension, maybe even a critique of the culture that makes them feel that way.

If there is a kind of realism to be found in the swell of interpersonal emotional crescendo, then that relationship is heightened when all the emotion comes unscripted(ish), when melodrama is smashed together with “a tension over the unknowable: How will people react in a certain situation? What will happen when X meets Y?” That’s how Skeggs and Wood put it.

What will she possibly do next? What is he capable of?

The viewer watches knowing that the emotion will be heightened but not knowing how each real person will behave within these confines—formula and spontaneity combine and maybe combust, and then there’s an inevitable rush as each takes their turn displaying the broadest, brightest strokes of what it means to lust, to envy, to rejoice, to aspire.

Skeggs and Wood reference the term compulsory individuality—the need to make then remake yourself, to display that self and constantly perform or defend its worth. The need to linger and swirl in your own distinct emotion until it reinforces that all you’ve got is you, the spectacle.

On the night of the 2016 Iowa caucuses, I was on assignment, trying to self style as a serious reality-TV journalist. I went bar- hopping with a group of producers while covering the industry’s largest annual convention—some wannabe, some established; lifestyle-focused, travel-focused, personality-focused. Any bar we went to, on every screen there was Donald Trump in a dead heat for the lead, and though the TVs were mostly muted, even the closed captioning managed to express breathlessness, incredulousness, fear, glee.

We stopped and watched every time.

Can you believe it? I asked every time. The guy from The Apprentice?

Every time, the answer was like this: Can I believe it? Of course I can believe it. This is what they want.

“They” meaning everyone, I guess. The ultimate audience.

These producers were not happy or gloating, not really sad either, certainly not afraid. They spoke the way I imagine soldiers speak to one another, or bail bondsmen or sex workers; they spoke as though there was a world of civilians out there—rubes, naïfs—and then there was them, the ones who had seen the thing up close.

The most successful producer in the group had this tic where he responded to every reach for commiseration from his counterparts with “My heart would go out to you if I had a heart.” Every time he said this phrase, it was met with laughter and a rush to join in his sentiment, a performed jadedness toward the human capacity for the trashy or the grotesque.

The cool guy, the heartless one, pointed at Trump on the screen and began to explain him, and then the others rushed in with their own explanations. They all sounded like every other explanation that people were beginning to offer, said with that same desire to show that if you can point to how the trick is performed, then you are not one of the ones who is caught up in the feeling:

We’ve jacked up emotion so high that regular talking is boring.

People don’t want to think, so all you have to do is offer something easier and louder.

People watch rich people because they want to be rich. People watch arrogant people because they would love to be that way. People watch stupid people because it makes them feel less stupid.

And then: Remember old Scorsese flicks, back when you could make something with a message? (What message? Never addressed.)

And then: Remember Edward R. Murrow? (No one was old enough to remember, but most claimed to like that preachy George Clooney movie about him.)

The way these producers framed it, intellect and emotion were rendered entirely divergent—intellect was what a person should aspire to; emotion was the thing that the lazy settle for to avoid thinking. Every one of these emotion purveyors said they wished for a world that was better than the shit they professionally put into it, but you know what, the world is the fucking world. They discussed their own projects, the lives they wanted to commodify, with a strange mixture of pride, exhaustion, and scorn.

Cool guy, heartless guy told me I should write a book about reality stars of yore, the ones who knew nothing and were discarded by culture, husks of what they had once presented themselves to be. It would be grotesque, but it would be captivating; he would’ve pitched it as a show if licensing wouldn’t have been such a hassle. We imagined these discarded stars as a group: just as willing as ever, maybe more so. People don’t think about the damage; they just want to hear the shouts and see the squirming—everyone agreed upon that.

There was an undercurrent to the conversation, of course, that was about complicity, particularly as reminder clips ran across the screen, little teaser morsels of everything Trump said or tweeted, whom he had mocked, how he had lied. It all looked familiar— a closed-circuit loop of mania. As we watched, there were whistles and sharp inhalations. There were rueful headshakes, the mixing timbres of semiforced laughter. What a shit show, it was marveled. What a pageant. What a sham. What a spectacle.

In my hotel room, I watched CNN for a while, and it was still loud and panicked and gleeful. I changed the channel, and it was the same. I felt tired and sad and anxious and guilty. I tried to identify each emotion as it came, as though that knowledge might dull how it felt.

*

I want to be a smart writer, but I don’t know that I am. My thoughts don’t clarify themselves on the page, not at all; in fact, they fade and distort. Sometimes I think I can feel them leaking, though I’m not sure out of where or into what. On the page, the I conjures only emotion, the loud kind. I’m not a great feeler away from the page; you know that. But here I am on a laptop in a vegan café just emoting all over the place, until it feels like the only thing worth doing is emoting. Everything that is supposed to feel private, or even hard to voice, feels the opposite, and I return again to the hysterical well.

The mechanism is turning numb into noisy. The mechanism is saying the worst thing, the grossest, the thing that makes me feel bared, even though I’m not bared because I’m not really there, which is why it feels so good to feel in the first place.

When I watch you watching, I think you assume the best in these people. Not that you believe they’re all great and deserving of our love and absolution, and I don’t mean to say you’re not a critical thinker, but you choose to take them pretty much at their word—that’s part of the pleasure. When I watch, I’m thinking: Way to get angry! Way to be sad! Way to scream! Way to menace!

There’s plenty of male arrogance to that, for sure—as though every action is acted for the opportunity to receive my appraisal. But I think it also has to do with the different ways that the shows allow us to find emotional pleasure. I have my own assumptions I choose to believe. It’s important to me to believe there is value in self-exaggeration once the red light turns on. Like every off moment has been muted and unremarkable for a reason because there is an immutable self, waiting to be unleashed. I imagine it like a howl. They’re howling. I howl. Howl like our dog in the yard, when the neighbor’s pit bulls are out on the other side of the fence and she wants them to hear because she knows they can’t get at her.

We sit on the deck together and watch the dog howling and laugh at her until the sound gets really high-pitched and annoying. Then, sometimes, I scream at her, and you tell me to relax. Or you ask me what I’m feeling because I probably wouldn’t be screaming at a very small dog causing no harm if I weren’t caught up in feelings about something else. And I can’t think of anything to say that makes sense or sounds real, as though I’ve sapped myself of the resource of emotion and also coherence.

“Nothing,” I say, and you don’t believe me.

 

Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island. His book Captive Audience will be published in May.

Published by arrangement with Vintage, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.

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