Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

the mean machine

Part One: Real Comedy

Reality TV as Sitcom: 'Green Acres, We Are There': Just when it seemed as if reality television might succumb to endless variations of the dating, talent and survival show, a batch of ambitious producers have discovered a new twist that they hope will inject freshness into the genre: the reality show as sitcom. [...] While comic elements are present in many reality shows, this variation on the genre builds comedy into the concept. "Average Joe," NBC's comic take on the dating format, follows the quest of a group of overweight, balding, nerdy guys to win the affection of, yes, another former cheerleader, accompanied by depictions of their accidents on the tennis court, belly-flops in the pool and misadventures in tanning.
     Fox's "The Simple Life" is "Green Acres" as reality show. Two Beverly Hills "celebutantes," as the show calls them — Paris Hilton, an heiress to the Hilton hotel fortune, and her friend Nicole Richie (daughter of the singer Lionel Richie) — try to make a go of living with an Arkansas farm family, which means milking cows and cleaning up a lot of road kill.
     ABC, which has steered clear of reality to this point in the summer, will jump in next week with "The Real Roseanne Show," a video-vérité chronicle of the comic Roseanne's efforts to start a cooking show on a cable channel.
     And Spike TV, formerly TNN, has "The Joe Schmo Show." It is a full-blown satire of reality shows that centers on one unsuspecting contestant in a faux reality series. The contestant obliviously performs gag challenges ("Keep One Hand on the High-Priced Hooker") with a cast of comic improvisational actors who try to keep him from discovering the joke. [...] "What's great about this one," said Mr. Stone, the Stone Stanley partner, "is if you love reality shows you're going to love this show. And if you hate reality shows, you're going to love this show."

Actually, I'd think that if you hate reality shows, you're going to loathe and despise that show. There's quite a lot more to loathe about it, after all.

Comedy may or may not be the next frontier of the reality show, but the first two are very different in kind from the latter. In "The Simple Life" and "The Real Roseanne Show", you have people who are used to the public side of fame, who are in on the joke, and who understand exactly what's going on. In the latter, you have someone who is utterly clueless being humiliated in public for the amusement of us all. How droll! How charming! How funny!

How utterly disgusting.

Leaving aside for the moment the public's apparently intense desire to watch unknowing people humiliate themselves for the public's joy and amusement, this trend would seem to pose significant problems for the networks broadcasting this material that they are pleased to call entertainment. SciFi has already been sued at least once over its Scare Tactics (it's baffling how that show got past any lawyers anywhere; I can't imagine that anyone with a brain cell in their head would think that it's remotely appropriate to make people think that their lives are in danger, or that their friends and acquaintances are being harmed or even killed).

The additional problem is that the subjects of the show may decline to be further associated with it once they learn exactly how they have been used. As the NY Times article notes, Mr Gould was clearly not amused by the charming little joke that was played on him:

Mr. Gould may not agree. Although he signed a release granting the show the right to use his image in any way it chose, he has refused to help with the show's publicity. The producers declined to describe how he reacted when he learned he had been duped for the sake of comedy.

One can understand that he would feel spectacularly betrayed and humiliated. It's not beyond the bounds of reason that one of the subjects of these shows might in the near future sue the producers and networks for fraud and material deception, in an effort to prevent shows like this from airing. And it is not beyond the bounds of reason that they would win; the argument that they would never have signed any contract for the show had they known what the show's producers truly meant to do is an argument that would probably play well with jurors. Frankly, it's fairly likely, given recent reactions of the subjects of "Joe Schmoe" and "Boy Meets Boy", that producers will try to force people to do positive publicity for their shows -- that it will be a part of their contract that they MUST go out and say how wonderful the show is, regardless of how they feel about it. (Of course, then the producers would be on the line for material deception of the public, of which the FCC takes a dim view.)

Gay guys join reality show scene, for better or for worse, with two new shows by Tim Goodman (, Tuesday, July 15, 2003): ... A MEAN TWIST: Much more controversial, of course, is "Boy Meets Boy," television's first gay dating series. It joins a long list of heterosexual "Bachelor"-type shows on the dial. The twist is that some of the contestants are straight. The series airs two weeks after "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." ... But rather than elevate what is a cheesy, embarrassing genre, "Boy Meets Boy" only makes it more cruel. After all, the "leading man," James, honestly seems like a nice guy looking for love. He doesn't come across as one of these vultures from the straight dating shows. What point can ultimately be made when (or if) he chooses a straight guy? None.

"Boy Meets Boy" would seem to be a prime example of the sort of truly mean and humiliating turn that reality shows are aiming for, in their desire to gain audience share.

The concept behind Boy Meets Boy vies with that of For Love or Money (also, interestingly, produced by NBC, Bravo's parent company) for sheer offensiveness. Exactly what do they prove by throwing the straight guys in there? Why would the producer -- a gay man, even -- feel that humiliating their lead is so amusing?

Interestingly, the producers of this show seem to be aiming for all around, comprehensive humiliation of almost everyone involved with the show. In the ads, one of the straight guys is also heard to lament, "All those guys think I"m gay!" The general impression from the ads is that the straight guy is perhaps just a bit dense; after all, unlike James -- the principal subject of humiliation -- he knew precisely what was going on when he stepped into the show. It's only on reading the Newsweek article linked below that you discover that his distress is due to the fact that one of the other people in the bachelor pool, as it were, is interested in him; he wound up deceiving people whom he had no intention of deceiving. (Interestingly, this means that the other gay men in the bachelor pool also clearly had no idea what was going on. One wonders whether or not, if they had been explicitly and clearly informed about the show's premise, most of them might have refused to take part. There does seem to have been a truly spectacular amount of material deception all around.)

Not at all surprisingly, it turns out that leading man James, like Mr Gould of "Joe Schmoe", was not exactly happy with his experience on "Boy Meets Boy":

Boys R Us (Newsweek, July 21, 2003, issue): ..... Douglas Ross, the show’s executive producer, says he “wanted to test boundaries between gay and straight, and create a world where the straight people were in the closet.” But the show may even prove divisive among gays—especially when they learn that the leading man himself is still smarting from the experience. “I felt betrayed,” says James, a California human-resources executive, perhaps the first reality star ever to speak a bad word about his own series. James was finally let in on the big secret when he’d narrowed his suitors down to three—we won’t give away their orientation—and he was livid. “They told me they put the twist in there because they wanted straight people to watch,” he says. “I said to them, ‘Well, you’ve played gay people as entertainment for straight people. Of course they’re going to watch’.”

To be sure, of course they're playing gay people as entertainment as straight people, to appeal to the broadest audience possible. Has he not seen one second of "Will and Grace"? The default assumption should have been that they would, shall we say, soften the edges to make the show appeal to straight people. (One notes that they are also pushing, very hard, the concept that there's just not that much difference between straight and gay, if they all had such a difficult time telling the difference. Of course, that's not surprising; pushing that sort of positive, evenhanded educational experience is about the only way they could avoid being pilloried by the gay press as well as the straight ... Oops! Too late! Much too late!) On the other hand, most assuredly he did not and had no reason to expect that sort of "twist", which anyone would consider an outright betrayal, if it happened to them. Since it happened to him, of course, that makes for fun entertainment!

Both Ross and James, however, agree on one thing: that people will be tuning in. “Is it entertaining?” James says. “Sure. To people who are not involved, it will be interesting because they’ll get to see me cry and wallow in misery. That makes for good television.”

Frankly, I don't want to see him cry and wallow in misery. I don't actually think that makes good television. And I don't intend to watch.

God help us all, there's apparently going to be another gay dating show with a "twist" Thankfully, it looks like it may be purely local to Florida. The "twist" would seem to be that it looks like a merge between American Idol and a dating show, judging from the production company's website (both Flash and Adobe Acrobat required, for heaven's sake; this is just a nightmare of design -- but I digress). Seriously, there's the talent portion, then there's the date, then there's apparently an elimination based on some combination of the two.

I don't even want to try to think about that.

Part Two: Real Hollywood?

Elsewhere on the gay reality dial, as part of its series The AMC Project, American Movie Classics is airing "Gay Hollywood" in August.

Making It by Jeffrey Epstein, How do you join the ranks of gay Hollywood? If you’re Morgan, a friend in business school forwards you an E-mail. If you’re Robert, a producer approaches you at a party. If you’re Allan, it’s the result of a deal not working out. If you’re Lance, you need to be convinced. And if you’re Micah, you just apply.
     That’s how these five guys became a part of Gay Hollywood, a documentary airing in two parts, August 11 and 12, at 10 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific) on AMC as part of its new series, The AMC Project. It’s the latest reality concoction from its executive producers, World of Wonder’s Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey—the team responsible for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Monica in Black and White, and both versions of Party Monster, the documentary as well as the upcoming narrative film. “AMC was interested in doing something about gays in Hollywood,” explains Barbato, adding that the original thought was to do a more historical look at the subject. “Then we thought it might be more interesting to do something contemporary—more personal and verité. We are always interested in gay Hollywood. Because we’re gay and live in Hollywood!”

On the slightly less exploitive -- if no less peculiar -- side, we have an examination of what it's like to be gay and try to work in the industry in Hollywood. It will be interesting to see exactly how this is put together. They seem to be proceeding from the concept that Hollywood has always been more welcoming to gays than the nation at large. As long as you're talking about behind-the-scenes sort of work -- script writers, set designers, hair, makeup, tech work in general -- then, yes, Hollywood's attitude in general has been "Gay, schmay. Who gives a damn? Can you do the work? Can you get awards for it? If so, welcome! If not , go away." However, for the high profile positions -- anything in front of the camera, or being a director (until fairly recently) or even a producer (well, SOMETHING has to be responsible for David Geffen and his public floundering on the issue) -- then Hollywood's attitude is, "If you're gay, shut the hell up about it. Not only do we not want to know, but we want you out there, dating people of the opposite sex, getting married, engendering children. We don't give a good goddamn if you don't want to do it, you're GOING to do it." Thus, you wind up with people being desperately coy about their sexuality, because they don't want to lie and they don't want to tell the truth. You wind up with Tom Cruise suing stupid pornsters to protect his reputation. (Note to Mr Cruise's lawyers: This is meant in no way to imply or assume that Mr Cruise is anything other than 100% heterosexual.) So to say that Hollywood is friendly to gays is to somewhat misrepresent the actual issue.

It will be interesting to see if "Gay Hollywood" actually has scope to deal with the various nuances of the issue.

Posted by iain at 11:22 PM in category