The PopCulteer
January 13, 2012

“But If It’s On TV It Must Be Real!”

Reality is being warped. Television is to blame. I’m not talking about the kind of skewed reality you find on FOX News, where the bizarre notion that Republicans can be trusted to govern is pounded into viewer’s heads 24 hours a day. I’m talking about the unreal world of Reality TV.

I’m not a big fan of reality television. In fact, you could probably safely accuse me of being rather snobbish about it. I think it’s lowest-common-denominator programming that carries with it the bottom-line-enhancing quality of being dirt cheap to produce, mostly by non-union crews.

But it is booming. Reality shows have spread like a fast-growing cancer, mutating several formerly sophisticated cable channels into slack-jawed, drooling shadows of their former selves.

The problem is not so much that real life is stupid. It’s the conventions of the genre of “Reality TV” that make the shows so formulaic and contrived. Some of these shows cover really interesting ground, but they bow so far to the conventions of the genre that they are, at best, guilty pleasures. I’ve been watching a few of these shows lately, and even when they entertain, they manage to insult my intelligence.

First, a little history: Reality TV pretty much means any television show that isn’t scripted in the traditional sense. It can mean games shows, clip shows, documentary shows, hidden camera prank shows and those hideous messes where a camera crew follows around a bunch of dysfunctional nobodies and tries to make their inappropriate antics appeal to a nation of voyeuristic twits.

That last category, which includes shows about Kardashians, Hiltons, or people locked in a house together or drawn from the dumber parts of New Jersey, is not something that I will let my brain ingest. So I’m not going to talk about that crap. What I plan to cover in today’s column are some of the so-called documentary shows that follow people through their everyday lives, supposedly showing us how interesting their jobs are.

These are shows that can be genuinely entertaining, until you think about them too much. Once you ask yourself a few key questions, these shows start to lose their luster, and then you realize that the “reality” in these programs is more contrived than WWE RAW.

Let’s start with Pawn Stars, a major ratings hit on The History Channel. The show is a fun half-hour with mostly likeable characters and quite a bit of real history lessons sprinkled throughout. It follows the goings-on at a Las Vegas pawn shop, as people come in to sell their rare items.

The show is almost 100% staged.

Logic dictates that you can’t shoot every transaction in the pawn shop and just edit it into a workable show. Pawn Stars is completely made up of staged reenactments, and some partially fictionalized, pawn shop encounters.

What happens is, if a transaction occurs that seems like it might be good for the show–if there’s a visual hook, historical item, or just a strong personality of the seller–one of the show’s staff producers contacts the person to see if they’d like to appear on the show to be in a dramatization of their recent dealings. The person gets a decent fee (but less than it would cost to hire an actor) and the research staff digs up tons of info on the item so that they make Rick, the main pawnbroker, look like he knows everything.

Whlie they’re showing you something that really happened, it’s not real. It’s reconstituted reality, chewed up and spat down your throat like a mommy bird does with her young ‘uns. Do you really think they can call an expert from almost any field and have them stop by the pawn shop to look over an item by the time the commercial break is over?

Each episode of Pawn Stars also has a sub-plot starring the guys who work in the shop. This follows reality show convention. There’s the strong, competent guy, the cranky old guy, the screw-up kid, and the comic relief doofus. These segments are occasionally funny, but they’re usually just stupid. The haggling over the price on the show–all faked.

The Science Channel has a knockoff of Pawn Stars called Oddities. The twist here is that Oddities follows the dealings at a store called Obscura, in New York City. Obscura deals in offbeat weirdities like freaky taxidermy and Victorian medical devices. The show is less of an insult to the intelligence because they don’t focus so much on the folks who work in the store.

The clientele of Obscura are colorful enough that they don’t need the stock comic relief incompetent co-worker. The show falls down a bit when they stray from the customers and oddball items and focus too much on the social lives of the stores employees, but for the most part it’s a fun waste of time. Again, it’s all reenacted for the cameras.

Back on The History Channel we find American Pickers. This show is fascinating and infuriating at the same time. We follow two guys, Mike and Frank, as they roam the back roads picking through junked-up barns and hoarder’s houses looking for antiques. They have a hot, tattooed babe, Danielle,  who calls in leads and the show is pretty interesting, though it seems to be in a rut.

There are things about the show that will drive you nuts. The contrivances, like the phone calls where the camera captures both sides of the conversation, or the “cold calls” that turn out to be gold mines wear a bit thin. There’s also the whole camera placement issue. Mike will look directly at the camera and talk about what an honor it is to be the first person to set foot in a particular barn in fifty years. Then the next shot is him supposedly entering the barn the first time…shot from inside the barn.

The fact is, they never acknowledge that there is a film crew, with audio people and lighting folks accompanying them on every pick. We wouldn’t be watching it if there were no cameras there, but the way the show is edited and presented, it just seems dishonest to the viewer.

Another problem I have with the show is that Mike is presented as an expert on almost all antiques, yet I’ve seen him pass over very rare toys to zero in on worthless crap. When the guy passes up a GI Joe jeep that’s worth over a hundred bucks so he can buy a box full of beat up Green Army Men, then he really has no business buying toys at all.

The values they present on the show for the various items they pick are pretty arbitrary, too. They’ll show the guys fake haggling with a grizzled old dude before they buy a rusted crankshaft, then they put up a graphic with what they paid, and how much it’s “valued” at, then list the difference as a profit. It’s not in the books as a profit until it’s sold. They do the same thing in every episode.

And that’s the biggest problem with American Pickers. The show is in a major rut. Frank and Mike find a colorful old man who sells them rusty signs, motorcycle parts or old oil cans, then they find “that one big score that makes this pick worthwhile” and the show ends. The haggling is not believable. It’s clear that each “pick” is carefully per-arranged, and lately the show has been stretching the bounds of credibility with their contrived “character segments.” Recent episodes featured a pathetic sub-plot where one of the pickers played hooky to go to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, and another involved selling an elephant head to Jack White.

It was nice of White to demonstrate that he can’t act, though.

American Pickers, again, can be a fun guilty pleasure, but the show needs a major kick in the ass. It would be nice if, once in a while, they’d follow the items that they pick as they find their way to their new owners. I’d imagine a lot of what they find winds up on the walls at Cracker Barrel and TGIFridays.

A related show on The History Channel is American Restoration. This is a bit of a spin-off of Pawn Stars. Rick Dale, who runs Rick’s Restorations in Las Vegas, restored several items for the folks at Pawn Stars before he got his own show. There have been crossovers among all three History Channel shows.

American Restoration is probably the best of the three. It’s hurt somewhat because the actual process when they restore an old vending machine or barber’s chair gets the short shrift in favor of the formulaic reality show trappings. I would have much rather seen the painting, sanding and detail work being done on a candy machine in a recent episode than watch one of the crew take his sick cat to the vet.

But the show does cover the process, and that’s pretty cool. I just wish they’d show more work and less crew antics.

Another show that looked promising  Saw Dogs, premiered last week on the HD Velocity Channel. This one follows chainsaw sculptors, a topic with endless possibilities and loads of interesting stuff they can show.

And from the first episode, they mucked it up with formula reality show conventions. There’s fake conflict, a goofy apprentice who breaks things with a forklift, long sequences of guys riding ATVs to blow off steam. And maybe five minutes of actual carving shown in each half-hour episode.

That was sad because I was really hoping they’d show the process, instead of a soap opera about people who just happen to do chainsaw sculpting.

That seems to be the problem with most of these “documentary” shows. They don’t trust the topic to be interesting enough to carry the show, so they borrow from those damned annoying reality shows like The Real World and Big Brother to make the shows more attractive to morons.

It seems to be the goal of the folks who produce these shows. They are working toward a dumber reality.

Facing Off With Another Kind Of Reality

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another reality show that debuted this week, Face Off 2, on Syfy. Rob Haddy, a local effects make up wizard and teacher, is a contestant on this reality show/competition, and I have mixed feelings about the show.

I’ve been a fan of Rob’s (he’s called “RJ” on the show) work for years. I would love to see him win this thing and get some Eugene Landau Murphy-sized recognition. He clearly deserves it.

Yet, I also loathe artistic competitions. I won’t ever allow any of my work to be entered into any of them, and I won’t allow spots on Radio Free Charleston to be given away to any winners of battles of the bands or film competitions. I think that type of artistic competition demeans and destroys the integrity of the art and the artist.

So the show rubbed me the wrong way from the start.

It’s supposed to be a competition program, but there are still conventions and formulas for that genre, too. You’ve got three judges, the nice one, the prick, and the incomprehensible twit. The contestants are thrust together into teams even though there will be only one winner in the end. The contestants are straight out of central casting. Rob is the ringer, the one who should win. You’ve also got your cute bimbo in the short dress, your arrogant jerk, your token gay, your token black, your non-descript people who will go home in the early rounds..if you’ve watched any of these shows, like American Idol, Dancing With The Stars or WWE Tough Enough, you’ve seen it all before.

Face Off is pretty loud and obnoxious, with too much talk and not enough of the actual process of creating the make up shown. It’s pretty typical for this type of television show.

If not for Rob, I would not give this show a second look. However, since I am a fan of Rob’s, and would love to see him win and get the prizes and recognition, I’ll probably try to keep up with the show. I’ll probably watch with the sound off, though.

That’s A Wrap

That’s it for this week’s PopCulteer. Don’t forget that a special Friday The Thirteenth tribute to Twin Peaks comes to you courtesy of Dr. Sketchy’s tonight at 7 Pm at Kanawha Players Theater. Also, don’t think we’ve forgotten about Radio Free Charleston 150. We can now announce that episode 150 will be the first of five themed retrospective shows that will spread out over the next year. RFC 150 will focus on music and other coolness that originated at Livemix Studio. Look for it by the end of January.