Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Unreality TV: the game show as story

I know, I said just last week that I was retiring a blog that I hadn’t updated in almost a year, and here I am posting again. But I realised that there are things I want to write that don’t fit on Wild Lily. So The Philosophy is staying for now, where I can write about society, education matters, and other miscellany that fills my mind.


Apparently there was some controversy this week about My Kitchen Rules.  Apparently, not everything is as it seems.  

Now here’s my disclaimer: I have never watched an entire episode of My Kitchen Rules. I don’t watch much at all in the reality-competition genre. It’s not really my thing. A few episodes, or parts of episodes of, The Biggest Loser, Survivor, Beauty and the Geek, The Great Bake Off, The Amazing Race, to name a few. I have, however, seen more than one entire series of MasterChef. I started watching season one halfway through on recommendation, and enjoyed it, so I watched from the start of season two and ended up forcing myself through to the end. Big J decided he really wanted to watch it last year, and I had to keep abreast of the show to know what he was talking about and explain the bits he didn’t understand. (He’s counting down until this year’s season starts next week.)

I am not sure that a lot of the viewing public realise that there is more than meets the eye in these reality-game shows.  There needn’t be any controversy, if viewers understood that it is all just storytelling.

These game shows are not just game shows. They are not Sale of the Century, or Wheel of Fortune, or Deal or No Deal, where the contestants show up, filming runs all day.  A few clothing changes make it look like the carry-over champ has been there all week, when they have actually played back to back games. In this new breed of game shows, filming lasts for weeks, but probably not as many weeks as the show actually runs for.  But, that’s not particularly controversial. It’s almost common knowledge that a week in the MasterChef Kitchen or the Biggest Loser house is not a week in real time.  At least I hope it’s common knowledge: last year on MasterChef, the contestants travelled to Dubai and Paris, all in four days! 

Reality game shows are not just game shows: they are an unfolding drama. 

Contestants don’t have a quick profile read by the gameshow host on their introduction: they have a backstory, a dream, and something to play for.  A life changing accident, migrant parents, children they want to be an example for.   They are more than just contestants: they are characters.  The show is carefully edited, possibly even scripted, to help build characters that the audience will love or hate. The caring mother, the young man barely out of his teens lacking in confidence, the feisty older lady, the middle aged man who has had a string of rotten luck. The things they say on camera, the things we see on camera, have been chosen out of hours of footage to create a character which may or may not reflect who they are in real life. 

(My cynical hunch is that the producers have already decided the winner, or a selection of possible winners, after the contestants have been selected. The potential finalists are created as the loveable characters, juxtaposed against the arrogant, the cocky: the ones we are glad to see go. We cheer when our favourites scrape through, and when ‘the bad guys’ don’t get through to the next round. The competition is constructed to make sure that the chosen finalists get through to the finals, even if it means a surprise return of an eliminated contestant.)

It is all story telling.  Every single contestant on MasterChef gets a plate up in time, despite the preceding scenes suggesting that some people might not. Their benches are all clean in time for judging.  No-one ever gets so hopelessly lost or delayed in The Amazing Race that they are ever more than an hour or two behind the first to arrive. And how come sometimes they have to carry a backpack and sometimes they don’t? 

It is all story telling, as much as Home and Away, Big Bang Theory, or NCIS is story telling. Scenes are crafted, characters are created. Props and sets are used, along with clever camera techniques.  The music heralds tension, climax, resolution, victory. 

The producers don’t really care about who can lose the most weight, or be Australia’s best amateur cook, or get to the last checkpoint without being eliminated. They care about getting the most people to watch their show. 

I don’t want to discourage you from watching these shows.  The stories are enjoyable. They are meant to be. We relate to the characters. We empathise with them. We are inspired by their triumphs, their progress. If she can do that, then so could I!  

However, I do want to protect you from the next controversy. Just like in a movie you know that the bad guy didn’t actually hit the good guy, it was just acting, you should also know that the ice-cream should have melted by now and those two bickering contestants actually get along just fine, so you won’t be shocked when you see in Facebook newsfeed that someone has revealed the dirty tricks of your favourite reality show (controversy is handy for boosting ratings… just sayin’).   

Keep enjoying the shows, but know that they are not reality: they are a cleverly told story.  

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