Reality television personality David Hester has sued Storage Wars for wrongful termination alleging that the A&E program rigs auctions and plants curios in lockers. Will they next tell us that Santa Claus isn’t real?
It’s a sign of the times that a genre so obviously staged, coached, and scripted calls itself “reality” television. Think “Orange Drink.” In the words of that great green-toothed philosopher Johnny Rotten, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Reality television producers eventually discovered what their colleagues behind primetime dramas already knew: most everyday strangers aren’t so terribly interesting as to merit their own shows. But they come cheaper than actors. So producers transform real people into fictional characters while retaining the illusion of reality.
Storage Wars is as real as Star Wars. But it’s hardly the lone deceiver.
TLC’s Breaking Amish depicts the adventures of five Anabaptist yahoos in the big city. But as the past divorces, tattoos, DUIs, and domestic violence arrests of cast members revealed, the stars of the show lost their innocence long before losing their anonymity on the idiot box.
A former participant on the HGTV program House Hunters spilled the beans earlier this year that she had already purchased a home when the program depicted her inspecting several houses, including the one she already owned, before settling on a property. She claimed, and the show’s producers never denied, that they wouldn’t even cast her until she had closed on a house.
“The Hills was pretty fake,” Kristin Cavallari admitted earlier this month on Bravo’s Watch What Happens Live. Quarterback Jay Cutler’s baby momma described the MTV hit as full of “fake relationships” and “fake fights.” At least the faux-reality show fessed up to its fakeness by memorably ending the series by panning back to reveal a set, cleverly saying goodbye with a lingering shot of the “Hollywood” sign.
Americans are too jaded to be scandalized. More than a half century after payola and the quiz-show scandals, we’ve become habituated to being lied to. Judging by the ratings of Storage Wars, we even like it.
Our forebears liked Twenty One, too — until they discovered it a fraud. Congress investigated and uncovered malfeasance. Columbia University and NBC’s Today Show fired Charles Van Doren, the beneficiary of the rigging. Producer Dan Enright, Twenty One‘s chief fixer, and its host Jack Berry endured exile from their profession for many years before staging comebacks. The affair scandalized viewers who had idealized Van Doren as the type of cultured, refined gentleman they had aspired to breed, be, or be with.
The rigged fifties quiz shows prefaced today’s reality television. “The contestants became the forerunners of Andy Warhol’s idea of instant fame,” David Halberstam explained in The Fifties. The late author continued, “After only a few appearances on the show, audiences began to regard the contestants as old and familiar friends. Perhaps, in retrospect, the most important thing illuminated by the show was how easily television conferred fame and established an image. Virtual strangers could become familiar to millions of their fellow citizens.”
Faker than the reality shows are the lives of the people addicted to them. Through their pixilated companions, the couch-bound make new friends, partake in romances, and experience drama. We are never as boring as when we find televised strangers’ lives more exciting than our own.
If we lived in a more ethical time and place, the revelations of cable-TV cons would invite cancellations and perhaps the metamorphosis of conmen into convicts. But we keep watching so they keep lying. Discovery’s Amish Mafia, which premiered Wednesday, is the latest program to elicit widespread skepticism. The show drew 3.4. million viewers, with the male demographic setting several records for the cable channel.
If only reality television had the decency of professional wrestling by admitting what the audience already knows, then decent people could view Omarosa, JWoww, and Honey Boo Boo as they do the Undertaker. Alas, producers don’t aim for the decent demographic, which isn’t as large as it was when Twenty One first appeared.
The Ivy League English instructor who was that program’s hero, and eventual villain, Charles Van Doren, would certainly have recognized that “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves.”