The film Reality (by Gomorrah director Matteo Garrone), about a provincial Italian fisherman who dreams of being on Big Brother, and keeps dreaming himself into a series of delusions that bring his life crashing down, beautifully sums up the ambiguity of the whole reality TV genre in its very title. In the 21st century, nobody in their right mind mistakes reality TV for reality. The fact of it its factlessness is no epiphany — but reality TV also shouldn’t be mistaken for fiction, either. Stripped of the woes that befall fictitious characters — as fiction is typically written to emulate reality — bracketing people, who, as real people, are prone to tragedy and tragic missteps, into lighthearted, producer-planned dramas that are confined to producer-planned sleepovers or producer-planned outings, reality TV is a claustrophobic realm unto itself of enclosed, resolvable dramas. The “reality” in it is neither “reality” nor fiction as we know it. It’s something far more stifling.
As we recently saw, when a reality TV “character’s” problems begin to match the problems of people in the real world (or, again, in fiction) — when problems exceed those which can be resolved with a good bitchslap — a network pulls the rug out from beneath a show. Nobody, for example, wanted to watch the Honey Boo Boo clan sink back into just-excavated past traumas. No one wants to watch the dismantling of a family whose appeal BuzzFeed writer Ryan Broderick summed up with the observation, “they may eat butter and ketchup on spaghetti, but they still love each other.” It was precisely this sort of sentimentality that exonerated viewers of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo from any guilt that they were participating in an inherently exploitative genre. No, it wasn’t a matter of gawking at this family’s otherness: everyone was gawking at the sweetness! Duh!
But to continue observing the family after they broke a tacit pact to exist within the bounds of watchably grotesque “reality” — after the sweet care they all seemed to feel for one another, on which viewers fed for moral validation, turned very sour — would catapult the show into something paralleling documentary. It would have, like a documentary, been a reality (albeit a restructured one) whose boundaries aren’t exclusive to quotidian woes. But, inevitably, it would have been some weird hybrid of this and the exploitative, profit-driven framework of reality TV. Which is to say, it would have been too heinous for words.
TLC knew it’d be hideously distasteful, if not impossible, to continue the show as it had always run — with the sudden addition of child molestation to that mix of opening-title fart sequences and conspicuous nose-picking the mainstream American population finds so heartwarmingly distasteful (funny that all us non-hillbillies likewise have orifices that expel gas and demand a good pick every once in a while, and funny, somehow, that the way the show contextualizes these things made them seem so alien, so worthy of our heart-warmed condescension). But hearts were no longer going to be warmed. When news broke that matriarch Mama June was dating the man who’d molested her children, distasteful became horrific.
Broderick’s article spoke of how the circus-of-impoverishment genre spikes during periods of recession; people’s desires for the poor to provide amusement rise when they’re also providing an extreme that dwarfs viewers’ own financial woes. There has therefore been shuddering anticipation for MTV’s new show, Slednecks — yet another series “documenting” the most foreign aspects of rural America — which debuts tonight, in light of the cancellation of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and, last year, Buckwild (which followed a cast member’s death from carbon monoxide poisoning). But poverty isn’t quite the focus of MTV’s new show, Slednecks; it’s not the object of producers’ and viewers’ fetishes.
While the show features some rather immature 20-somethings doing some rather dumb shit, it doesn’t quite speak to the ugly desires reality TV awakens in people — at least not yet. Because of its bland tastefulness (perhaps the most unexpected word to hear when talking about a show whose standout moments include diaper-golfing and whiskey-soaked meatballs, men calling certain women “tundra wookies” and referring to their dicks as their “North Poles”), Slednecks may not find viewers. It’s actually not quite the most morally repellent thing on television, so why participate? Of course, it’d be no great tragedy if it didn’t find a viewership, because it’s fucking Slednecks.
Despite its title, Slednecks, which follows a group of friends in Wasilla, Alaska — which you may remember from such vice presidential candidates as Sarah Palin — doesn’t focus on its characters’ financial status or even the hyperbolized “redneckishness” people think of when they hunger for Hillbilly TV. What we’re seeing doesn’t look much like poverty; the town in which it takes place has an average of 9.4 percent of the population below the poverty line, which is almost seven percent less than the American average. What the show focuses more on is ruralism and auto-exoticism, with lifestyles seeming far more dictated by the landscape than economics (though these are obviously intertwined) and characters constantly flaunting their “Alaskan-ness” so as to give a rugged label to their utterly normative selves.
The show gets its thrills from things that it wants to suggest are particularly Alaskan: whale blubber nibbling! Swimming naked in freezing conditions! Sleepovers in vacation cabins that are even more cabin-like than the cabins that are people’s homes! And the thrills that aren’t particularly Alaskan are simply juvenile: strip-drinking games! Blowing up ex-boyfriends’ sofas! Learning to become a male stripper!
The activities we behold aren’t those of a bunch of people scrounging because they’re poor — unlike Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, we’re not gawking at dumpster diving. Rather, we’re watching the activities of people who like to self-describe as being “at one with the land” — activities surely curated, at least in part, by producers. In this TV show, they’re trying to paint a portrait, and not a particularly strange one — behavior-wise you wouldn’t see anything here that you wouldn’t see at a large university, especially if that university were in rural Alaska — of fun in a cold climate. The premise is, truly, that thin: many scenes are demarcated by a heading that gives the temperature outside, as if we’re supposed to gasp in shock by being told, “these crazy folks are doing what other people would do… but it’s COLD!!!!!”
Over the course of Buckwild‘s run (Slednecks is, if you haven’t noticed, modeled after Buckwild), many dark things were revealed about its main characters — things that allegedly brought about the show’s end. Recently, there’s been a lot of discourse in the media about the dangers of focusing a show on certain subcultures and then not being able to handle the actualities of those subcultures. But this seems, to me, something of a mishandled argument: Buckwild’s characters received DUIs, were tried for drug dealing, and ultimately one of them died when his Ford Bronco got submerged in mud. Perhaps the cause of death here is somewhat site-specific, but the assumption that the “real” reality of these rural characters’ lives is somehow darker, less containable, and more likely to bring a show down than, say, a Real Housewife of NJ, or anyone for that matter, seems a little off.
Rather than assume that the lives of these particular people exist outside the watchable confines of reality TV, perhaps it should be noted that this is the case with all lives. It’s not just poverty or whatever problematically generalizing associations we may have about “ruralism” that engender the problems that make reality TV shows scramble to self-euthanize: it’s the fact that for any form of reality television, there’s an unrealistic balance that needs to be struck between repulsion, pathos, and some form of cultural extreme or another. When life — as it’s wont to do — escapes this ersatz balance, the only thing you can do is to deny the existence of reality, and craft a new form of “reality.” And so Buckwild becomes Slednecks.