Nabokov said that reality is the only word that makes sense only in quotation marks. The reality in Reality TV might need a second pair: one that every instance of reality should have and another for the reality as constructed by the television production. But under all of those inverted commas is a word, and it still means something.
This week on The Hills ("No More Mr. Nice Guy," 22 October), the show had the task of introducing two new characters: Kimberly, a co-worker for Heidi at Bolthouse, the party-planning firm where she works (ok, "works"); and Gavin, a model Lauren meets at a Teen Vogue shoot with whom she goes on a date. The function of these new characters is obviously to facilitate certain storylines for the leads. Heidi needs a frenemy to be in expository scenes in which she talks about her relationships and perhaps to add dRama to the workplace environment now that Elodie, the likable schemer who was pissed that H got the promotion she wanted and so ruined H+S's anniversary dinner by lying to Heidi about having a party covered when really she had quit that day, is gone. Gavin is there to make Brody Jenner jealous and to prompt Lauren to see Brody as an appealing suitor (or at least a friend with benefits), as the LC relationship arc at this point is moving in the direction of L+B.
Because The Hills is both reality and fiction, the viewer has to wonder if the new characters were actually people in the world of the existing characters or if they were cast by the producers to play their roles. But this is a false choice, because even if they were cast by the producers to play roles, their roles intersect with the real lives of the characters. Epistemology in reality TV is more a matter of belief than fact, but as I interpreted the events as I watched them, Gavin and Lauren did meet at a photo shoot, they did see each other again at a barbecue (a staged event, but a barbecue even so), and they did go on a date. Now Gavin has told his story, an account of how the show is produced that is presented as a great unmasking, a demystification. Like, OMG The Hills is fake!
His most important claims:
-The producers set up the situations between him and Lauren and the others, e..g, they told him to ask her out and staged the party where he meets Brody.
-The time sequence represented in the show is false. L+G's date is represented as having ended early, after which Brody calls her and comes over to (not) watch a movie; really G+L stayed out until 2:30ish and the scene between LC and Brody was shot another time (this last bit is implied rather than stated).
-Lauren is boring and all she talks about is herself, her friends and nemeses, her fame, her fashion line, her clubbing, etc. My favorite detail is how, on their date, Lauren takes Gavin to Barnes & Noble to show him a book about the first season of The Hills. (I find it so touching to know that she is proud of her accomplishments, but whatevs.)
-The date didn't go as badly as was represented. The editing makes it seem as though Gavin was insensitive after Lauren told him she doesn't like salmon and he ordered it anyway and put a piece on her place (she makes a face when she tastes it, and this brief sequence tells us everything we need to know). G says he ordered it for himself and she said she wanted to try. Basically, he accuses the show of portraying him as boring, insensitive, and unsuitable as a BF for Lauren when, in "reality"...
Now consider that Gavin expects us to believe his story is real and the MTV version is not. He is the truth, and the show is a sham. But what authority does he bring? For one thing, we have much more evidence to support MTV's version: we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears. But never mind that. Both the producers of The Hills and Gavin craft their narratives to achieve certain effects, to further particular interests. In the case of the show's producers, the point of everything is to tell a good story that will engage the audience and make them want to keep watching. But what are Gavin's interests? My interpretation is that he wants to be well-regarded and famous.
The show made him look a little dull and clueless. It cast him in one episode as someone with the potential to be a new beau for the lead, and then quickly tossed him aside. He wishes it had gone down better for him. He doesn't deny that he was interested in Lauren; indeed, he says their date was better than The Hills portrayed. He uses weasel words to minimize his own agency in this sequence of events. At the Teen Vogue shoot: "the next thing I know, a producer’s asking me to ask Lauren for her number, and I’m signing release forms and being shot for The Hills. They wanted me to ask her about the runway show, how long she had worked that day, when would she get off, stuff like that." It sounds here like participating was something that just happened to him, but no one forces you to be a character on a reality TV show. If he's a model, his career is only helped by being on television. It gives him exposure, free publicity. I'm guessing he was stoked at the thought of being a character on MTV's most important program. He should, moreover, be grateful to the producers for their eagerness to play wingman and give him friendly advice as he was making his move. If he didn't want to go on a date with Lauren, he could have just said, no thanks.
The fact that he was encouraged doesn't tell me that the show is fake, only that the producers are part of the characters' reality. People seem to hold onto a strange assumption that reality TV or any form of documentary media can capture reality as it would transpire if the cameras and sound recorders and crew were absent. Of course it never can. The medium always mediates. Observation affects behavior. But this doesn't make everything we see fake. It's still reality, but reality as shaped by the presence of people monitoring and recording it. The Hills is only interesting because it combines reality and artifice, and I doubt that anyone who watches it is really unaware of this. As Justin perceptively remarks of the show, it encourages us to switch back and forth between suspension of disbelief (i.e., belief) and disbelief, watching and meta-watching.
The detail in Gavin's description that damns him the most is the accusation that Lauren is boring. He says that she's self-centered and her interests are uninteresting. "I honestly had a really hard time talking to her - she’s kind of a conversation killer," he says. "Lots of fascinating discussion about 'the club', Vegas, getting drunk, Heidi is evil, and so on. The lack of depth was actually uncomfortable for me. Like, how can nothing be everything you talk about? OH, I forgot – lots of talk about Lauren’s clothing line. That’s pretty important, right?"
But she's a television star and a tabloid celebrity, and millions of people do find this interesting. So interesting that they watch a show in which she is the main character, buy magazines when she's on the cover, even read blogs with photos of her shopping at Target. And what's so great about G? I think this sounds like the bitter disappointment of a guy who was rejected not only by a pretty girl he liked, a fantastic catch, but by a television show that could have made him famous. He sounds like a jilted whore.
What do we expect from The Hills? I think we want it to be two often incompatible things: a good story and a true story. It's not true that there are no good true stories, but the process of making life into narrative (Hayden White calls it emplotment if you want to be fancy about it) always requires the selection and emphasis of events to suit the ambitions and agendas of the storyteller. This isn't to say that reality doesn't exist, that we're living in the Matrix. The point, rather, is that it pays to be aware of the forces that impinge on those who craft stories out of experiences. In the case of The Hills, the storytellers are obviously active agents not only in crafting a narrative ex post facto, by editing and looping additional dialog to impose meaning, but also in staging the events just so. But this doesn't make the staged events any less real. A barbecue and a date are what they are whether the characters plan them alone or with the help of the production.
What matters more to me than staging and editing, which are features of documentary media across the board, is emotional truth. I am not troubled by fakery in the mechanics of production and narration, but I would be genuinely disturbed by if there were evidence that the characters' most significant relationships were phony. If it came to light that Heidi and Lauren have contrived their friendship, its implosion, and its aftermath, I would feel a kind of betrayal that I do not get from reading Gavin's account. I have little evidence that the characters are really friends and enemies except what MTV has shown me, and yet I have my belief, and in reality TV, as in documentary cinema and photography, belief is what matters most to the beholder. On dating shows, we believe that a couple can really fall in love. On Survivor, we believe that the deceptions and machinations occur in the context of real friendship and rivalry. On the performance shows, we believe that the good contestant has given his or her all to achieve a dream. You can't appreciate these programs in a spirit of total skepticism any more than you can in a spirit of total naïveté. The pleasure is somewhere in the middle, in recognizing that in spite of the beauty of a highly artificial form, there is also a more fundamental appeal in the experience of an underlying reality of universal human needs and desires. I wouldn't want to miss this point in the rush to brand productions as "fake." They certainly are fake, and this should come as no surprise. But Gavin's description of what happened on The Hills also tells me that it's real--that LC and her friends and enemies, on a level deeper than staging and editing, are who MTV presents them to be. I believe that she really does hate Heidi and she really does aspire to be a fashion designer even if her internship is more a matter of providing the show a setting than providing the person a career opportunity. The rhetoric of both the show and the description of its production by this disgruntled model dude lead me to believe that despite of all of this televisual contrivance there is a core of authenticity in The Hills, and this gives the stakes in the show's drama a kind of immediacy and consequence that fiction can scarcely claim.
(PS 5/15/08: if you're still here, check out my more recent companion post, "The Hills is Too Real")