Why We Get So Hung Up On The Realness Of Reality TV

If you’re like me — and I assume some of you are — you find yourself saying, “This can’t be real,” to your television on a somewhat regular basis. I know this has been a complaint of the reality TV genre going way back to the first seasons of The Real World. What’s real about manufacturing this wonderful place, casting a group tailor made to breed conflict, throw them in front of cameras 20 hours a day and seeing what happens, right? Well, that’s not the kind of unreality I’m talking about, but if that’s your quibble, I recommend just avoiding the genre at all costs.

I like reality television because it gives me a window into worlds and onto people I’m not familiar with. Whether those people are a group of 20-somethings living in Seaside Heights, rich ladies of Beverly Hills or people vacuuming for gold in the ocean, I’m curious to see what they’re all about and how the interact. Not every reality show is for me and that’s fine, every thing isn’t for everyone all the time and I’m not offended by things I dislike. If you dig them, rad, if not, don’t watch.

I’m more talking about shows like Discovery’s The Devils Ride, Moonshiners and Amish Mafia which purport to follow groups that supposedly operate outside the law at times and have long-standing reputations as being incredibly secretive, not exactly the kinds of folks who would let cameras in on their daily dealings. In the case of Devils Ride, which claims to follow the exploits of a California-based motorcycle club, we’ve gotten into full-on crime territory in the second season which kicked off a few weeks ago. These guys are stealing motorcycles, destroying stolen property, pulling knives on people and threatening to burn tattoos off with blowtorches. At the same time, Moonshiners is completely built around the illegal production of whiskey in the South and Amish Mafia features gun-toting members of the Amish community who deal with that same community in ways that definitely fall into the extra-legal category.

Now, I can buy that there’s at least one person or group in any organization that can be convinced to let cameras follow them. Lots of people say that’s a huge no no in the MC community, but come on, this is the 20th century, people no longer want their 15 minutes of fame, they want their 15 episodes. You could find just about anyone in any group that would love to have cameras follow them. So, in that regard, while I’m still skeptical, they get something of a pass (though less so with Amish Mafia, which literally goes against everything most people know about that group).

One of my biggest questions when watching these three shows — and I’m sure there are more that fit in this category, but I’m not personally familiar with them — is, “how can it be legal to show these crimes?” And, if it’s not actually illegal to broadcast crimes, how do these people not get in trouble with law enforcement agencies who police such things? On Moonshiners, one of the main guys, Tim, is on his town’s firefighting department. He’s a prominent member of his community and yet he’s not in jail. How does that work? Same for anyone on either of the other two shows who is shown committing a crime.

The answer most of us come up with is that the shows are just fake. Many of them feature quickly-flashed bits of text explaining that some of the events seen in the episode were reenacted, but it’s also completely possible that the Moonshiners guys aren’t really making booze, right? It could just be water in those vats which would make the entire thing legal. On that same note, if every illegal act is being reenacted and not actually presented as what happened, then it’s not really a crime.

“It’s all fake,” is the easiest dismissal of these shows, but I think that’s a little too easy, though it’s not completely beyond the realm of possibility. An episode of Amish Mafia tried to prove that these people are really in the Amish community by showing viewers their names in a kind of Amish directory kept in town. Really? That’s supposed to be proof? Like it’s not impossible to fake the whole book or take an existing book and make up characters based on the names found within?

While watching a recent episode of Devils Ride I looked at all this from a different angle and wondered why any of this really matters. You’re sitting there watching a show and enjoying the drama being presented, does it really matter if the events being portrayed are completely real, based on real events or completely scripted? For some people the answer is no. A story’s a story and if it’s interesting and cool and you’re invested in it, that might be good enough. It doesn’t really matter where the story comes from.

I was okay with that theory for a few minutes until two thoughts popped into my head. First, watching real things heightens the drama because, well, they’re real and the events hold real consequences for actual living people. And second, I don’t like being lied to or misled. That’s the part that just won’t unstick from my craw. Why do the networks feel the need to flash the information about reenactments so quickly? Why not just embrace it, get the show’s stars out there talking about the show and letting the audience in on the secrets? Do they think it will turn too many people away? I guess that’s a possibility, but a little honesty might also wind up bringing in some of the people who scoff at these shows as fake and move on. Would they be so opposed to a story about an established motorcycle club full of interesting characters falling apart? Probably not, but if you have all these hovering questions about realness, then a lot of people are going to tune out.

So, what I’m really saying is that I’d like a little more honesty in my reality TV. I know that sounds silly considering all the insanity that surrounds things like the Real Housewives franchise and its ilk which seems to be built on a general fakeness, but I feel like you have a pretty good idea what you’re getting into when tuning into a show about rich ladies living in huge houses and complaining about each other. That’s as real as they allow it to be. But when a show focuses on a job or group that might not exactly follow the letter of the law, I think being a little more upfront with the audience might get more people in on the joke and enjoy the proceedings without too much internal conflict.

Of course, this is the internet, so even if there was a fair amount of honesty, people would still think it was all made up. But, hey, you can’t please everyone all the time.

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