With an with an ever-expanding spate of reality shows on TV, it shouldn’t come as much surprise that there’s been a gradual shift away from light and fluffy unstructured programs to series with distinct and often socially relevant perspectives. This year’s nominees for the unstructured reality program Emmy reflect that change.
A&E’s “Born This Way” follows the lives of seven young adults with Down syndrome; Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch” depicts the dangerous working conditions faced by Alaskan crab fishermen; Viceland’s “Gaycation With Ellen Page” explores the lives of LGBTQ people in various cultures around the world; A&E’s “Intervention” shows real-life addicts being confronted by their families and friends in attempts to save their lives; HBO’s “Project Greenlight” tracks the ups and downs of a first-time director taking a film through the entire production process; and CNN’s “United Shades of America With W. Kamau Bell” investigates different subcultures across the nation.
There’s something else unique this year: Mutual respect among fellow nominees.
“I love that there are so many shows that are trying to be something or say something,” says Spike Jonze, co-president, Viceland. “I was very encouraged when I saw the list of nominees. The people we’re up against are all shows that are trying to explore something meaningful.”
That is echoed by Jon Murray. “‘Gaycation’ was a surprise [nomination], but I was like, ‘Wow! That’s in there!’ If you look at what they’re doing, it’s really interesting,” says Murray, founder and executive consultant of Bunim/Murray Prods., which produces “Born This Way.” “And there’s ‘Intervention,’ obviously that’s been around a long time, but it really broke a lot of ground. Even ‘Project Greenlight’ — if you watched that this year — there was a big issue of race in that show, with the producer of the film fighting with the director over a lot of race questions.”
While the TV Academy has expanded reality categories, in previous years, issue-driven series were often nominated against lighter fare.
“There are a number of different types of shows that fit into the reality category, but ‘Intervention’ is a documentary series, through-and-through, and wouldn’t necessarily want to be lumped in with reality shows,” says Tom Greenhut, “Intervention” executive producer and showrunner. It even competed against what Greenhut calls a “hilarious, soft-scripted comedy,” “Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List.” “To put that up against the likes of ‘Intervention’ is apples and oranges for sure,” he says.
This year the shows are much better matched.
‘The first job of a reality show is to be entertaining, but when there’s something truly real about that show I think it helps raise the stakes of the drama,” says Murray, also a co-creator of MTV’s long-running “The Real World.”
“Whether it was ‘Real World’ or ‘Born This Way,’ we were on a bit of a mission,” Murray says. “In some ways we had an agenda. We wanted to bring these people into viewers’ homes, but we wanted to do it in an entertaining way.”
Early on, he says MTV’s audience was receptive to seeing people of diverse races, beliefs, and lifestyles interacting on camera.
“And that younger generation, those millennials, are the most open, the most tolerant. They don’t look at race, they don’t label people the way the older generation does. And I think that’s partly because of the power of not only ‘The Real World’ but some other shows, too,” Murray says.
Jonze says Page is accomplishing something similar in “Gaycation,” a show she pitched to him shortly after he asked if she had any ideas for the new network.
“When I started seeing scenes, I was so moved by it, and by her,” Jonze says. “Her strength and her ability to be in any situation, whether it’s a personal situation with a boy coming out to his mother, or a situation where Ellen is sitting across from an ex-police officer in Brazil who’s been driving around killing gay people. The tension [as she’s interviewing him] is so palpable, and she’s so fearless in being who she is and telling him she’s gay, asking if he wants her dead.”
Meanwhile, more than 200 episodes in, “Intervention” continues giving voice to addicts, their families, and friends, by honestly depicting how insidious addiction is.
“That’s really unique to us,” Greenhut says. “Even other shows that deal with sensitive matters may treat it like a journalistic news report. These are real people’s stories we’re sharing. Their hopes. Their fears. We can illuminate for the general audience how addiction works, what the solutions are for addiction, and also give a face to it so it’s not this evil unknown or this dark, mysterious thing.”
Gary R. Benz, founder/president of GRB Entertainment, and an “Intervention” executive producer alongside Greenhut, says the ability to remove the stigma from addiction couldn’t be done without the cooperation of the people who agree to be on the show.
“I can never thank enough the individuals who allow us to come into their lives and tell their stories,” Benz says. “These are the deepest, darkest, and most vulnerable times in their lives that would make most people want to run from a camera or a stranger asking them to tell everything. The courage of these people to do what they do is awe inspiring to me.”
Benz and Greenhut say the larger message they want to get out is there is hope for addicts and their families.
“I feel incredible gratitude for being able to be part of a project where we help people, or at least make an attempt,” Greenhut says. “We’re really just opening a conversation by letting individuals speak. We’re giving a face to it. That’s how it starts.”
He says one reason 12-step programs are so effective is because it’s all about one addict talking to another. People in the throes of addiction have a hard time trusting those who haven’t gone through the same thing. “What we’re doing is an extension of that. We’re a conduit to the audience.”
Exposing viewers to subjects or people unfamiliar to them can be risky, which is why Murray was glad A&E even ordered the initial six episodes of “Born This Way.”
“What was really powerful was when the audience discovered the show and the ratings went up 80% over the course of those first six episodes,” says Murray, whose company also produces “I Am Cait.”
And with any show, the more viewers tune in, the higher the odds that the positive messages will get through.
“Sometimes it’s easy for people to think that something like being transgender is somehow otherly and not part of their world. But when you get someone who was on the front of the Wheaties box — like Bruce Jenner, who after many years of anguish decided to live the life he felt he was meant to live [as Caitlyn] — it opens it up and it becomes much more acceptable,” Murray says. “I think we get a better sense of our greater humanity by finding the things we as humans share with one another.”