Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Thursday, February 28, 2002

return of return to the pines

[Telling Pictures is] developing a documentary series for HBO about a house in the Fire Island Pines

HBO—that’s the thinkin’ bub’s television channel, plus swear words and boobies—is getting into the act with a documentary series about a group of gay men living in Fire Island Pines. No one’s coughing up the details, because it’s still “in development”—that’s code for “the executives still have time to parachute”—but the word is that the show will be a reality-type series with real men living in a real home in the real Pines. It’s unclear how the show will be presented, but it’s a good bet that it won’t be as schlocky as The Real World or the real-o-rama drivel on other networks. How do we know this? Well, the series is being developed as a joint effort between HBO and Telling Pictures, the acclaimed, Oscar-winning documentary outfit from San Francisco responsible for films like The Celluloid Closet and The Life and Times of Harvey Milk. A potential air date for the show is a long ways away. But if the show is greenlit, filming is expected to begin this year, sources said.

OK, I just have one question, really:

WHY?

Seriously, haven't we done this before? In fact, Bravo did The Pines in June 2000 and Gay Riviera in June 2001. Both series done for Bravo's "Out of the Closet" festival during Gay Pride Month. Both series taking place in the Pines of Fire Island. And it wasn't terribly good either time. So, having watched Bravo do this two consecutive years, I suppose HBO is deciding that third time's a charm. After all, they can do the sorts of things that Bravo couldn't, show sex, cursing, nudity, and fun fun fun!

The potential is already making me cringe.

What is this peculiar fascination that production companies have with doing gay reality shows in the Pines? Granted, Fire Island is The Great Gay Island, or some such. But if you're going to do this sort of silly thing, why not at least move around? You've done the Pines twice now, so jump over to Provincetown for a summer, then hook on down to South Beach (with a little luck, a hurricane will come through just in time for filming!), maybe take a little jaunt over to Houston's Montrose neighborhood, zip on up to Chicago's Lakeview, jet over to West Hollywood, and then, for the big wazoo finish, spend a summer in San Francisco's Castro (or better yet, fall, since summer in San Francisco is so godawful cold).

Assuming that HBO and Telling Pictures do decide that the world needs, for some reason, Yet Another Pines Reality Series, it will be interesting to see if they manage to get past some of the things that rendered the previous two series so deadly impossible to watch. For example:

- The Young and the Beautiful and the Sincerely Shallow. Watching those series, you got the impression that there just aren't that many gays who aren't young and beautiful and no deeper than your thumbnail. And the thing is, I'm sure that these people really aren't that shallow -- not that relentlessly shallow, anyway. Everyone has their shallow moments. It's just that those moments seem to be the ones emphasized. They're the only ones that the people who make these shows seem to want to follow. It's not that other aspects aren't around; it's just that they're not looked at in anything pretending to be detail. To some extent, that's a limitation of the format itself -- people who are older and people who have different types of lives really aren't terribly interested in being followed around by cameras so that the world can watch, in general. You do wonder, sometimes, how hard these shows look for others, though. The lack of people outside that group does mean that the shows come off as MTV's The Real World, all-gay version.

- Lesbians? What a concept! OK, that's somewhat unfair. The previous shows do acknowledge that lesbians exist. They even tried to follow a few around. But because the emphasis is so strongly on the men -- maybe just because it's easier to find them, or there are more of them, or they're more flamboyant, I really don't know -- the lesbians tend to fade into invisibility. The lesbians chosen also seemed to have more traditionally domestic lives, which frequently rendered their storylines rather dull compared to the men. After all, which seems more interesting: childcare problems, or watching some guy in a centerfold shoot on the beach? The first is considerably more universal, but the latter has naked guys! (with pixellated genitalia, of course.)

- Minorities? Blacks? Hispanics? Asians? ... ooooh, what are those? Again, somewhat unfair. The intrisic problem in including minorities from a minority community is that there just aren't that many in a given area. (Although considering as the area is New York City, you wouldn't think they'd be that hard to find.) And, again, they have been present in the previous series; they just haven't had all that much attention paid to them.

- A severe case of affluenza. Let's face it: if you can afford to get to a vacation spot in the Pines (let alone owning anything out there), you have money or some sort of moneyed connections. There's relatively little acknowledgement that nonmoneyed gays even exist, despite the fact that this is the bulk of us. (Well, let's get real. It's the bulk of any group in this country, really.) Nobody wants to know that most gays have less money than society at large. We don't want to know it. For some reason, we're invested in this myth that's been presented to the public. We want them to believe it. We want this to be The Face of Gay America, despite the fact that it has little to do with the lives of people in Gay America, whatever that is. I have no idea why.

The filmmakers response to all this might be as follows: Well, this is the sort of life we're interested in showing. It's OUR lives, more or less. We can understand it better. It's easier to craft into a narrative. And why shouldn't we play to our strengths? All very good arguments, to be sure. However, when you wind up with a studied lack of interest from people who aren't in those age groups, you shouldn't be surprised. And you should also not be surprised to run into a buzzsaw of irritation and resentment with people from all over the excluded spectrum saying, "But these aren't OUR lives. Our lives are nothing like that. You're presenting this to the world as if this is the range of The Gay Experience, whatever that is, and you're not looking at anything else."

To some extent, all this is an aspect of being new to the world, so to speak. Society does, slowly and painfully, seem to be accepting gays to one extent or another, and we're trying to push and shove and make it happen faster, faster, faster, NOW. But ... let's assume that by showing these lives, the filmmakers are trying to say, "Look, we're real people with real concerns, just like you." Wouldn't that be more effectively done by showing people with those concerns? I mean, how many people in this country really do go off for a summer like that? It's not really the life of anyone I know, gay or straight. And if that's also part of what they want to do, how does it help to show a life that's so remote from the reality for most of us?

And if the issue is showing dramatic and interesting lives, then why do a documentary/reality series? Wouldn't a regular drama series do considerably better at that? After all, Queer as Folk is so dramatic that it makes my teeth hurt. Why not take that route?

The filmmakers might say: This is the type of show that works best. We're essentially trying to make a real life soap opera. You can't DO depth in soaps. You can't do a huge variety of types of people. We just don't have the time to cover all that. We really are trying to make a gay version of MTV's "The Real World". We want characters and storylines that will draw the most people to the series, because we want them to WATCH. Once we have an audience, maybe we can do something a little different with the show.

And frankly, it's true that making good television and making documentary series that track a broad range of experiences may just be incompatible sometimes. But ... if you continue to do things because they ARE true, then they STAY true. Maybe pushing the envelope on this would make it possible to do more, and you can never be certain what people will find interesting. As far as the MTV show goes ... Whatever else you can say against MTV's "The Real World" -- and there's a great deal to say against it -- despite the title, MTV makes no pretense that this is anything remotely resembling a real situation. They throw these people together in a highly artificial environment, and see what happens. That's not really what the Telling Pictures/HBO series is doing. It's trying to say, "This is real life."

The filmmakers might also say: Look, it's what we can get on the air. At least it's something! Something with real gay people, even if they're not your reality, or most gay people's reality. It's visibility. Something is better than nothing, isn't it?

To which I can only say ... I'm not sure. Maybe. Probably.

But for whatever reason, we will Return To The Pines yet again. Here's hoping that the third time really is the charm.

Posted by iain at 12:11 AM in category