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.

Anyone Else Watch Moonshiners?

I’m not sure about you guys, but I was pretty fascinated by Discovery Channel’s six episode series Moonshiners. First off, being a fan of whiskey, I’m very curious about moonshine, especially because I’ve never had it. Does that mean I’m looking to head into the woods of West Virginia and buy a milk jug filled with mysterious clear liquid? No effing way. Say what you will about government regulation, but I have zero problem buying booze that has a 99 percent less chance of being laced with arsenic. Call me paranoid, but that’s because I am.

Anyway, the series followed three men whose lives revolve around the illegal practice of making high proof whiskey. On one side you had Tim, a moonshiner working overtime to try and go legit so he wouldn’t have to constantly worry about the law breathing down his neck. He enlisted the help of his teenage son and a friend and obvious drunk/meth head known as Tickle. The second star of sorts is Jesse an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms whose job it is to find and punish moonshiners because they’re making illegal, potentially lethal booze, but more realistically because that booze would be taxed if it was sold legitimately (a fun drinking game is to take a shot every time the announcer man says the words “tax free”). Finally, there’s a third, much older moonshiner named Popcorn Sutton who looks to have been filmed with non professional equipment and is kind of oddly sandwiched in.

The men are pretty interesting, but I was more drawn in by the reasons the moonshiners gave for participating in an obviously illegal and dangerous activity. Tickle particularly says that it’s part of American history and should therefore be continued. He’s packed with the kind of rhetoric that could just as easily be used to defend drug dealing or slavery. I have a hard time believing he does it for any other reason beyond “It’s fun and it makes me money.” I was also fascinated by the idea that Tim and Tickle would allow themselves to be filmed like this. How is it possible to not get arrested at some point? There must be some kind of work-around or legal loophole, but all Jesse has to do is make note of this season and track down those guys. Bingo bango, right? Even if they move down the stream, that’s still a pretty good road map.

I gotta admit, the tension build up on the series was pretty amazing. First you see Tim and his son driving around creation trying to find the perfect spot to set up their still. Later, after visiting a legit still, he doubles his efforts to make the money it would take to go legal, which in and of itself is an interesting moral quandary that could be studied all on its own. Meanwhile, Jesse is almost constantly clomping through the woods at night only seen in night vision just about to stumble upon a working still. But, most of the paranoia and tension deflates as these people wind up not running into any real trouble. The closest things get to dicey is when Tim rolls onto a property and the man and woman show up with a shot gun and confront him. There’s a ton of chest puffery and talk of guns, but nothing happens.

That’s kind of the problem with watching something that, if it were written down would be an Elmore Leonard novel, but in reality turns out far less dramatic. All the elements for drama were there from Tim’s desire to rise above his standings and do right by his son to Jesse wanting to help his country and defend his fellow citizens. There’s even the mysterious and shifty Tickle who in the novel version would off Tim and wind up in a whole world of trouble. But unlike a story, the conflict in reality is basically just paranoia that doesn’t lead anywhere. This isn’t Crime And Punishment, they get paranoid, the paranoia passes and they move on. Tim and Tickle sell all the hooch. Jesse is never in any real danger (nor does he succeed in doing the interesting part of his job). We also find out thanks to the on screen text at the end of the show that Tim’s ensuing meeting with a group who wants to start a legit moonshining business doesn’t lead to anything. Perhaps that’s because he wore overalls on the private jet they set up for him.

The only story-like drama comes from the reveal of what happened to Popcorn Sutton. His inclusion in the series is odd considering the different look of the film and the complete disconnect between him and the other two characters. Why is he making this tape? What’s the point? Just because he’s a famous moonshiner doesn’t mean he’s famous enough that regular folks care. Well, it turns out there he got caught by the cops and was found guilty, but instead of serving his time, he offed himself. I’m still not clear as to when he filmed his stuff. He keeps talking about this being his last time making shine, but we don’t really know why. Was it because he was going to close up shop or because he knew he was going to kill himself? It’s not made clear by the show, but it’s a piece of information that could definitely paint those segments in a different way. I feel like Discovery included him because the rest of their season wound up being pretty boring and they needed some kind of end cap that actually had drama, conflict and maybe even a little tragedy depending on how you look at it.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed the series, though the finale was so drawn out and padded that I was certain nothing of substance would happen, which was true aside from the Popcorn stuff. If nothing else, it was an interesting look at how people can reconcile their actions and develop their entire lives around the idea that they’re doing the right thing for various personal moral reasons. These are the kinds of reality shows I find myself drawn to. These were real people doing real things that I’ve never done or experienced, so I appreciate the look into their lives. My real question, however, is how they will do second season. Will Tim return or will this be the Tickle show?