IF SALLY FIELD’S FAMOUS Oscar acceptance speech had instead followed her recognition for “best performance in a reality show,” it would have sounded a bit different — something like, “You hate me! You really hate me!”
Fortunately for Hollywood, the rubes lining up to provide cheap labor haven’t entirely figured it out yet, but this reality — the contempt that producers and the audience feel for fame-seeking contestants — is becoming increasingly difficult to hide. In fact, as soon as the TV industry finishes schmoozing media buyers in New York, they’ll probably resume dreaming up new ways to make ordinary citizens look like morons.
This week saw the premiere of the WB’s “Superstars USA,” which snidely mocks aspiring singers; and the conclusion of “Showbiz Moms and Dads,” a Bravo documentary about stage parents. Exhibiting a flair for understatement, one mother concedes during a hastily added coda airing tonight that she’s “not really happy with how we’ve been portrayed.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Duncan Nutter, the show’s wannabe actor patriarch — a guy so disconnected from reality that he views an “Oprah” appearance where he’s held up as a model of misguided parenting as being promotional. “In this day and age, there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” he says, displaying the parents’ astonishing naivete regarding their aspired-to business.
The truly telling unscripted moment, though, occurred during the May 9 “Survivor All-Stars” finale, when Jerri Manthey attempted to discuss the toll that the show exacted on participants — only to be roundly booed by the crowd in Madison Square Garden. During the next commercial break, the contestant-turned-Playboy-model-turned-contestant-again stormed off.
“The point was that this show for entertainment comes at a price,” Manthey later explained on CBS’ “The Early Show.” “Some of the costs for us [are] friendships and feelings.” To which the audience collectively said, “Feelings? We don’t care about your stinkin’ feelings. Now quit whining, and dance, puppet, dance!”
HAVING FUN AT THE EXPENSE of real people is certainly nothing new, but 21st century TV has elevated the art to mean-spirited heights that would cause Allen Funt — the late “Candid Camera” architect who died five years ago, shortly before “reality’s” ascendance — to turn cartwheels in his grave.
In the early stages of the Great Reality Wave that began massing after “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in 1999 and “Survivor” a year later, much of the allure was aspirational. People identified with and rooted for the players, mentally putting themselves in their shoes.
More recent strains of the virus, however, hinge on an emotionally detached viewer’s willingness to laugh along at — and feel superior to — the hapless losers and dupes. From Spike’s “The Joe Schmo Show” to Fox’s “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance” (which bought off the offended family with cash), from FX’s “Todd TV” to NBC’s “Average Joe,” the prevailing mind-set appears to be that once you’ve volunteered for such exposure, hey, let the buyer beware.
THEN THERE’S “PROJECT GREENLIGHT,” the series that fulfills the dreams of young filmmakers, places them on an accelerated production schedule and documents their every screw-up, the better to make them look like inept dunces. A valentine to Hollywood, the show conveys the point that churning out bad movies (and the elaborate screening process notwithstanding, “Greenlight” has spawned major duds) is harder than it looks.
Granted, most of the excesses seem fairly tame, other than Fox’s “The Swan” and other programs that make undergoing plastic surgery appear as simple as ordering coffee. Yet in their totality, the latest trends raise legitimate concerns about how much nastier programs can get in the competition to satiate the small, benumbed, demographically desirable mob that seems to enjoy watching contestants suffer.
In that vein, the coming season should provide an interesting signpost, as NBC and Fox slug it out with unscripted boxing shows — “The Contender” and “The Next Great Champ,” respectively — that each offer lucky contestants the chance, ultimately, to get their faces punched in for our amusement.
Boxing and various other sports have always peddled such thrills, of course, and the producers promise to develop heartwarming stories about the combatants. Still, considering the audience’s diminished empathy, watching an average Joe get pummeled qualifies as a pretty good metaphor of where we’re heading, and perhaps where we’re at.
So for all aspiring reality “stars,” strap on the headgear, because the kid gloves have come off. And remember, don’t complain no matter how many body blows you take, and be sure to keep smiling for the cameras.