Nonfiction shows offer fake takes
Using “Jersey Shore” as the basis for scholarly analysis is a risky undertaking, but here goes, in a treatise we’ll call “The Cycle of Un-Reality.”MTV’s favorite bed-hopping, brawling Guidos and Guidettes return for their second season Thursday, and coming back after a threatened hold-out for more money, there’s no reason to expect the ratings won’t be bada-boffo. Yet the very fact these kids are now “stars” — meriting US Weekly covers and David Letterman telling “Snooki” jokes — makes their carefully staged shenanigans ever more unreal. The “Jersey” group hardly represents the first reality players to experience this phenomenon, as their elite become fodder for movie red carpets and magazines. The “Real Housewives” rub elbows with actors, “The Hills” gang has gone Hollywood, and Kate Gosselin has little in common with any ordinary mother, raising eight kids or one. Still, the “Jersey Shore” negotiations do reveal a particularly meta aspect of reality that, frankly, requires the audience’s complicity and willful ignorance in order to survive. The issue isn’t just straining the economics of these shows, as the New York Times examined, but shredding their credibility. Because once you’ve established that Snooki and company are going to make well into six figures — and that not all of them are equally marketable — you get into that area where their stardom either becomes part of the show or, more likely, has to be conspicuously omitted. Moreover, when the cameras begin rolling again, the participants are well aware who garnered the most attention, and thus know precisely what sort of behavior is required. So the cat fights, hook-ups and expletive-laden tirades — when not entirely fueled by alcohol — in essence become a pitch for more screen time. In this context, it’s interesting “Jersey Shore” returns a week before Bravo launches the next edition of its signature franchise, “The Real Housewives of D.C.,” where alleged White House party crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to achieve notoriety even before the premiere. That left co-stars insisting during a conference call that the show wouldn’t be all about the Salahis, when of course anyone who understands a thing about media knows that it will. Those “Housewives” also acknowledge being thrown together for the purposes of the program, which — given the premiere’s major conflict, where one frets as only a longtime friend might about Michaele being anorexic — underscores how orchestrated the interaction is, even without the party-crashing connection. Increasingly, the only way to ensure that honest human emotions emerge in reality shows is to cast people lacking the normal safeguards. Animal Planet, for example, recently premiered “Confessions: Animal Hoarding,” where a pathetic woman named Bonnie bursts into tears at the thought of being compelled to part with her dozens of dogs. It’s uncomfortable, but thanks to her psychological issues, feels “real.” Unlike the assorted “Housewives,” Bonnie isn’t worried about book deals, gracing the pages of People or preening for her close-ups. It’s here where a kowtowing media and gullible audience come into play. Yes, the younger generation is said to be much like these reality players — managing their own public personas via social media — so to them, presumably, such antics don’t ring as hollow. Still, by embracing the “drama” of something like “The Hills” — undaunted by news accounts of staged scenes and heavily edited retakes — the allegedly media-savvy end of the alphabet (Gen X, Gen Y, etc.) has revealed itself to be plenty naïve, just as newspapers, magazines and TV play along in their hunger to corral coveted Web traffic and ratings. So when “Jersey Shore’s” Pauly D asks for a reservation for seven at an exclusive Miami club, nobody watching bothers to ask, “Does that include your camera crew?” Referring to her “Jersey” co-stars Snooki and JWoww, castmate Angelina (who, by feuding with them, clearly craves more camera time herself) inadvertently summed up the nagging problem plaguing this subsection of the unscripted genre, at least for those who can’t pretend not noticing the lever-pulling behind the curtains: “They’re just too fake for me, anyway,” she whines. “I don’t deal with fake people — never did, never will.” As they say, out of the mouths of babes.