Monday, November 12, 2007

Barnum and Bachelor Circus (reality thoughts)

The promo just before the rose ceremony a few weeks ago was “See Hillary melt down” with a clip of the nurse from Philadephia crying uncontrollably on the grounds of Bachelor Manor. Throughout her few weeks on the show, Hillary Reisinger was portrayed as equally ready to laugh or cry hysterically at any given moment. In the meantime, she was shown calling her rivals names, engaging in graphic (censored) sexual fantasies about Brad Womack just prior to his attempts to tell her that he thought of her as a “friend”, comparing a divorced contestant to a used car, etc.

When exit time came, Hillary Reisinger had some trouble breathing, and she cried a lot. She was certainly emotional, but it was hardly a meltdown. Four out of five of the women who leave after week three cry a lot afterwards. We’ve also learned from some of the participants that those tears are poked and prodded from them as if they were circus animals. While most insist that the producers of the Bachelor stop short of using steel hooks and tranquilizer darts, the crew will insist on running camera while talking to them about dead relatives and other painful life events until the Bachelorette tears flow. It doesn’t hurt that the ladies are prevented from having any contact with the outside world during their captivity and have little to do other than to talk to one another amidst a copious and constant supply of alcohol. It’s not Guantanomo, but the principle is the same.

By all accounts, Hillary Reisinger is a balanced individual in ordinary life who’s quite capable of laughing at herself. I suspect that the show’s edit of Hillary Reisinger was more embarrassing than permanently damaging. I’m not sure though that that’s always the case.

A few installments ago, Sarah Welch got a first impression rose from Charley O’Connell, which historically had been an invitation for abuse both from the show and the remaining women. In her private interviews particularly after any rough patches on the show including her eventual elimination, Welch kept falling back to a bit about “being beautiful”. In fact, Welch’s exit speech became part of Bachelor lore because she claimed that she had been discriminated against because she was so beautiful.

It came out on one of the message boards that as a teenager Sara Welch had been part of a residential program that serves mostly emotionally troubled teens, some of whom got there because they had attempted suicide. The “I am beautiful” speech was almost word for word a mantra used in the program. Given that, the Bachelor’s edit of Sara Welch was genuinely disturbing.

To be fair to the show, Sara Welch seems to be fine. She’s currently working as a model and even made Youtube recently when she fell through a faulty runway. Still, I have to wonder about what might have happened and if the show even had provisions for dealing with emotional consequences that serious.

Honestly, the embarrassment factor is part of the fun of Reality TV. There are also individuals who certainly earn whatever grief they get on the show, edit or no edit.
At the same time, I’ve been thinking that while the words “ethics” and “Reality TV” might never belong in the same sentence, there has to be a point where “Reality” stops and it becomes a scripted show with non-professional actors. In the movies, they sometimes run a tag at the end saying that “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie”, I could see them running an item during the end credits telling viewers that no contestants were tortured to get them to do and say outrageous things on the show. While they’re at it, they can also include a disclosure that ruthless production assistants (birdies) who are never seen on screen stalked the participants with a single goal in mind, to get them to embarrass themselves in front of the camera.

I could even see something develop like the “organic stickers” in grocery stores, “alcohol free” reality tv with the equivalent of CSPAN say running on some cable channel to show that the video feed hasn’t been adulterated beyond recognition. They banish additives or pesticides that makes fruits appear bigger or juicier than they really are. There’s already outrage in the sports world about players using steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs. Shouldn’t we feel the same the same way about the Bachelor and so called “Reality Television”? After all, sports is entertainment too.

When I was a child, I enjoyed the first couple times I went to the circus. It was unquestionably a thrill to see lions and tigers jump around cracking whips, dogs ride bicycles, and elephants stand on tables. I was about eleven when I read an article in a magazine about how some circuses managed to get animals to do things like that. It felt too cruel to me and I couldn’t enjoy the show any longer regardless of how spectacular the stunts happened to be. I started refusing to go. As I got older, circuses like the Pickle Family and Cirque Du Soleil came into vogue precisely because they refused to use animals and questionable training techniques.

Has that time come for the Bachelor? Do we really watch the show to see people who are made to appear to do and say outrageous things in front of the cameras? The people I chat with about the show actually mostly talk about the relationships both between the bachelor and his rosed ones and the ladies themselves. Even if they find some of it funny, as in I’d never be caught doing or saying that and even though they know about the “edit”, it’s the story that matters to them.

Why do Fleiss and company insist on keeping this an updated version of gladiators and lions done with evening gowns and roses? Well, for one thing the guy happens to be Heidi Fleiss's cousin. I suspect that they fear that real people having normal conversations and developing real feelings might be boring as hell. Maybe that says something about the producers? I’m sure they would also defend their approach by pointing out that the participants volunteer for the show, making it the reality tv version of a victimless crime.

I found that I liked circuses that didn’t include animal acts based on cruelty even more than the more traditional version with its cracking whips and the constant smell of fear just below the surface. If the Bachelor took another approach, I suspect that I wouldn’t miss the constant suggestion of manipulation by means of edit and the power of social isolation mixed with alcohol. By the way, this installment of the Bachelor included a trip to the circus. If they got interesting people who could talk on camera and let them interact more or less naturally, the show might actually be far more intriguing. So, if they do another one of these, how about an installment of the Bachelor Unplugged?

You could still have Jenni Croft dancing with Dolphins and Deanna Pappas greeting Brad Womack in Greek. We just wouldn’t be getting invitations to watch anyone melt down on national television and maybe instead more of the ladies will be exiting by saying "Nice to meet you, guy. Best of luck.I can't wait to go home to my boyfriend."
Maybe too, some of the ladies would admit to just not liking the Bachelor. It does happen.

odds and ends: One of the odd things is that the first reality show I remember actually originated on PBS. An American Family aired in 1973 and followed what was supposed to be a typical American family with relatively little intervention from the documentarians. Whether it was because of the tv cameras or not, the parents wound up getting divorced and Lance Loud, the oldest son, turned out to be gay. There was a follow up to the show in 2001 when Lance died.

One of the best reality series ever remains another PBS series borrowed from the BBC. A group of modern families made like 19th century pioneer families living in Montana.

Perhaps the most fascinating of all is the British Series 49 up which follows a group of individuals from a variety of class backgrounds by checking in with them every seven years.

Each of these is every bit as riveting as their more modern more commercial cousins.

btw, apparently Bettina Bell knew Tessa Horst from childhood.

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At 11/12/2007 11:13:00 AM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

It's a fairly obvious point that enthusiastic viewers of reality shows either don't want to consider or cynically assume without giving it any weight: these shows are heavily edited, which is why the 'real' emotional meltdowns always seem staged; because they are staged, only you don't know how, so you don't know what people are reacting to when they rage, cry, explode or melt down. Maybe we're about due for a meta-reality show which is entirely compiled from footage edited out previously, explicitly to show how certain effects were contrived or manipulated into existence. (Apparently incriminating remarks on reality cop shows are often rigorously edited as well, and in context aren't anything resembling admissions of guilt.)

At 11/12/2007 03:54:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

It would be interesting to see a "behind the scenes" show some time.

I think I'd rather see one that went the other way with less editing and manipulation, but things don't happen as fast in real life so it might be boring.


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