The reality television genre faces more doubt and criticism these days than usual. Bachelorette winner Ed Swiderski reportedly cheated on Jillian Harris immediately after she selected him as her true love in the fifth season finale, causing a stir among audiences and entertainment news circles.
Big Brother 11 contestant Chima Simone was unexpectedly expelled from the CBS summer reality house after rebelling against her loss of power at the hands of a voting audience. And Ryan Jenkins, realtor turned Megan Wants a Millionaire contestant, allegedly murdered his model ex-wife before committing suicide, months after moving to Los Angeles to film the reality match-making contest.
So where do these extreme contestants and situations come from? Have networks and producers skewed reality so much over time that it's no longer about real people and real life, or have we just mislabelled a genre that thrives on manufactured clichés, unreal situations, and good old fashioned voyeurism?
"The word people should be looking for is television, not reality," says Dating in the Dark contestant Sasha Perl-Raver, who was one of six people looking for love in the third episode of this year's new ABC reality romance series. She spoke with me recently about her televised dating experience and had some insightful comments on reality TV today, how it got here, and where it should head next.
Perl-Raver admits that she had her own reasons for appearing on Dating in the Dark, in which each episode, three men and three women get acquainted in complete darkness before selecting a suitable match to see in the light. She's writing a book on dating and wanted to put herself in as many situations as possible, including reality TV, speed dating and more traditional ways of finding that special someone. She wasn't the only contestant with another agenda.
"Everyone had ulterior motives," says Perl-Raver. "Everybody had something they wanted to get out of it." She adds that Los Angeles, full of aspiring actors, models and industry insiders, is the perfect place for reality producers to prepare their cast and scenario recipes.
"Of course it was a bunch of actors," she says. "They put out casting calls to agencies and casting companies. They want attractive people who are comfortable in front of a camera." She believes only one person in her episode was truly looking to meet someone without writing or the entertainment industry as added benefits.
But ulterior motives or not, Perl-Raver and five other singles entered the Dating in the Dark house to mix and mingle for three long days.
"The producers made sure they had something interesting for an hour of television," she says. In her blog, she writes "A large part of me feels like they edited out some of the best stuff to make the storylines clichéd enough to entertain without illumination" – a perfect metaphor for her dark dating experience.
In the episode, Sasha and contestants Jennifer and Megan all select the same man – athletic trainer Chris – to share a final date and reveal each other in the light. The other two males remained in the house only as companions to Chris. Perl-Raver says the show left out several other dates and milestones, including a scene when the girls receive humorous sketches based on the guys' perceptions of them in the dark, and a sexually-charged date including Jennifer, Chris and whip cream.
According to Perl-Raver, producers and editors created narratives and clichés based on exaggerated actions or parts of their personality. During Chris' final date with Sasha Perl-Raver, producers captured and chose to air an aggressive kiss where she bites him on the lip. Scenes then focused on her sexually aggressive nature, which she doesn't feel represents her personality at all. She said her friends and family questioned the uncharacteristic move.
"I bit him because he was such a bad kisser. I wanted to make him stop," she says.
"Everybody had to be boiled down to the minutiae of what people best fit into," says Perl-Raver. "They didn't talk about any of the nuances in their personality."
"I had to ask myself, is that the person I really am or is that just how they're portraying me?" she adds.
Chris eventually hoped Jennifer, who was portrayed as a fit, athletic girl, would ‘join him on the balcony' – the contestants' way to signal a mutual match – but all three women chose to leave the house without meeting Chris. No love lost, no love found. Sasha says none of the women were attracted to him, but the episode made it look like they had tough decisions to make and plenty of confrontation to deal with.
"It really bothered me that they made it seem like the girls were against each other,' says Perl-Raver. "It wasn't like that. We laughed so hard that the producers yelled at us for having too much fun."
Perl-Raver also commented on how Dating in the Dark tried to manufacture emotional and physical conditions to heighten to the probability of dramatic moments and entertaining television.
"It's psychological warfare when you're doing a reality show," she adds. "We weren't really fed – we had frozen food and dry goods." She specifically mentions Red Bull and Frosted Flakes. "We also drank (alcohol) the least of any other cast," she says, indicating the producers were hoping otherwise.
"You're sequestered, you're disconnected from your family and your support system," she says. "After three days, I was losing my mind. We all were losing our mind."
So it's no surprise that scandals emerge from the depths of reality TV. The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, which both remain popular televised dating competitions, have had their share of controversy in the past couple seasons. In addition to audiences learning that Bachelorette Jillian Harris was cheated on immediately after crowning her fiancé Ed, Bachelor Jason Mesnick also shocked audiences earlier in 2009 by changing his mind after the season finale, switching out Melissa for Molly as his true love.
"I just really hope that reality TV doesn't become the last bastion of entertainment … I would love to think that, like everything else – the pet rock, the hula hoop – the entertainment value of reality TV is going to dwindle." Perl-Raver would rather see a resurgence in scripted television, acknowledging that's hard during a recession. It costs a great deal less to produce an hour of reality than an hour of primetime drama.
My fear is that (reality TV) will become more participatory with the audience," she says. "Sort of like America's player was on Big Brother, but with everybody involved." Big Brother often puts strategic power decisions in the hands of voting viewers, which Perl-Raver believes goes against the natural reality that should be inherent in the genre. This season of Big Brother also interestingly categorized its houseguests under four high school stereotypes – brainiacs, athletes, offbeats and populars – and they also withhold and reward contestants with certain foods and alcohol.
So what reality TV does she watch? Perl-Raver lists Project Runway and Top Chef as her favourite reality shows, noting that they're more genuine and skill-based than most. About Amazing Race, she says "That's a great reality show, because the rules are laid out and people know what they're getting into."
"The Real World started as a brilliant documentary," she adds. "All the characters were so relatable." But recent seasons of MTV's pioneer reality show focus mostly on drinking, partying, fake work environments and late-night hook-ups.
She also enjoys Big Brother After Dark, a three-hour candid set of unaired scenes where houseguests talk, argue, or just do everyday activities in the house. Perl-Raver says it reveals the most real scenes from an otherwise manufactured reality environment.
"If only reality TV could be a little more honest with its audience and with itself, like a caution on a package of cigarettes. Some of this is real, some of it's not." She acknowledges that most reality shows state in their closing credits that decisions are influenced by producers, but that might not be enough for mass audiences to see and understand. Perl-Raver believes reality television has an opportunity to illuminate some of the more truthful sides of life – details about real people, real feelings, and real situations.
I asked Perl-Raver what she thinks about Dating in the Dark's ultimate question, is love blind?
"Love will never be blind," she says. "The only love that's truly blind is between a parent and their child. No dude ever crosses the bar because a girl looks funny or smart."
Dating in the Dark is joined this season by More to Love on FOX, which tries to pare a group of larger women down to one man's ideal match, and Hitched or Ditched on CW, which pits one unstable couple against all their obstacles en route to the altar – in one week's time.
I also asked Perl-Raver if she would date on reality TV again.
"Oh, hell no," says Perl-Raver. "You walk away a little bit damaged."
Republished with permission from TVDoneWright.com.
TVDoneWright.com was launched in April of 2009, in hopes to get exposure so when site owner/founded Adam Wright graduates, he has lots of experience and contacts for a job. Adam is currently taking Journalism at St Thomas University in Fredericton NB (Canada). This year will be his last, meaning after he graduates, he'll be free to pursue a dream job in the TV world. He wants to become a comedy/satire writer on a TV show, or a TV critic. TVDoneWrignt.com site has grown quickly. Adam started off alone, then formed my team of writers. They come from all over Canada, and the US. Adam created TVDW.com to inform and entertain. They offer all the latest news, reviews, updates, but they also do more.He writes satire/comedy pieces for the site. They also have have over a dozen interviews with TV stars. All this within a little more than a year.