Reality shows increasingly employ what are essentially actors
Without sounding existential about it, when does reenacting become, in fact, acting?The question isn’t just theoretical or academic but actually quite pragmatic given the growth of what networks have come to call “structured reality,” conceding (albeit somewhat vaguely) that meticulous shaping goes into assembling unscripted programs. Several networks have become increasingly overt and unabashed about these practices, which are as old as “The Hills.” Ratings suggest viewers don’t seriously mind. Nevertheless, the proliferation of such fare has led to a spreading gray area between fact and fiction. As evidence, consider the extraordinary disclaimer affixed to next week’s premiere of the Discovery series “Amish Mafia,” which states the show contains dramatic reenactments “based on eyewitness accounts, testimonials and the legend of the Amish Mafia.” Remember “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and the line about separating truth from legend in the Old West? In reality-TV’s untamed frontier, amend it as follows: “When the legend didn’t conveniently happen in front of a camera crew, reenact the legend.” All of this would seem to have potential implications for SAG-AFTRA, the union representing performers. The Writers Guild of America, for its part, made a push to organize producers and editors who provide what are tantamount to writing functions on reality shows. As the guild noted, while this offered benefits to underappreciated workers, organizing reality TV maestros “is in the guild’s self-interest as well. … Clearly our position at the bargaining table is weakened to the extent that such a significant component of TV programming is not represented by us.” Granted, those efforts didn’t exactly sweep the industry. For SAG-AFTRA, navigating these waters is perhaps even murkier — complicated by the fact that a lot of these programs cast people “playing” themselves, replicating events in which they participated. But think about it: Audie Murphy, a decorated WWII hero, starred in the film version of his autobiography “To Hell and Back,” just as Muhammad Ali and Evel Knievel headlined their own biopics. Nobody would confuse them with Laurence Olivier, but neither could anyone argue they weren’t acting simply because they’d lived through it before, only with real ammunition, punches and jumps. The exec producer for Discovery on “Amish Mafia,” Dolores Gavin, said the network felt it was being responsible in identifying the reliance on reenactments necessitated by dealing with the camera-shy Amish community entails but added, “I would in no way say that this is a scripted show.” Still, she acknowledged not all re-creations are “with the actual individuals” who took part in the original encounters. In other words, the featured characters shot scenes with other people pretending to be someone they’re not. Not to be a stickler, but that sure sounds like acting. This isn’t meant to pick on Discovery. Asked last spring about pervasive staging within TruTV shows, the network responded that its series “feature real people and are based on real situations. Due to production needs, some scenes are reenacted.” Such a policy creates extensive latitude and cover to mold events, just as the fine print on Showtime’s “Gigolos” reveals nobody was actually paid to have sex, which introduces a second meaning to the notion of “performing.” As always, addressing unscripted TV’s business realities ultimately boils down to money. These shows have prospered because they’re relatively inexpensive to produce, and efforts to recognize the “stars” as actors — or those guiding them (dare one say “directing?”) through reenactments — opens a can of worms and would add to the costs. There’s also the little matter of snobbery and whether trained actors truly want to embrace these amateurs as fellow performers. Still, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences has already allowed reality hosts to occupy a prominent seat at its annual prom. Can an Emmy for outstanding performance in a reality show be far behind? According to Gavin, Discovery did whenever possible endeavor to reenact sequences in “Amish Mafia” involving weapons as a matter of safety, so on the plus side, the network can freely use a disclaimer saying no Amish were harmed in the making of the program. As for the damage done to the general definition of “reality,” that, alas, may be a different story.