Not Everyone Understands ‘Structured Reality’

One of the familiar rejoinders from networks and reality TV producers is that viewers are sophisticated and understand when reality shows are shaped and staged, which has gradually taken on the vague, not-completely-accurate description “structured reality.”

Now we have more evidence not even people who watch TV for a living really “get” how all this works.

As an example, read Linda Stasi’s review in the New York Post of the new Discovery series “Amish Mafia.” To be fair, Stasi and I seldom have the same taste, but this boils down to buying all the artifice that went into the show hook, line and sinker. (Thanks to my colleague AJ Marechal, who had the same reaction I did, for bringing it to my attention.)

As I noted in a recent column about the program’s practices and a related review, Discovery freely acknowledges the show relies heavily on reenactments because of the difficulties dealing with the Amish community, while carrying a disclaimer that the show is “based on eyewitness accounts, testimonials and the legend of the Amish Mafia.”

But Stasi accepts the whole thing at face value, which includes marveling that the lead character “allows the cameras to follow him and record it all. If they exchanged their Amish clothes for sweats, you’d swear he was Tony Soprano with his boys.” Except the writing and acting in “The Sopranos” was, er, somewhat better.

This isn’t meant to pick on Stasi (OK, maybe a little), since I see reviews all the time that don’t reflect even a hint of skepticism about reality shows. And if that’s the way viewers want to watch these things, fine, more power to ’em. Far be it from me to break the news that there’s no Santa Claus, or that it’s not an accident when Donald Trump decides to call Joan Rivers, and she happens to have a camera crew following her at that exact moment. Personally, being able to see just how manipulated things are sort of spoils the exercise for me, but I get it, a lot of people don’t mind if there are wires on Peter Pan.

But please, spare me the “Everybody’s in the joke” explanations. When it comes to reality TV, the Amish aren’t the only ones who exhibit naive about what goes into the stew.


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