I Was on an Early '00s Reality Show So I Could Be the Hero of My Story
August 19, 2023 6:33 AM   Subscribe

How did I miss this show? I feel like I was watching all of them back in the day. Why wouldn’t they think this storyline had star potential?
posted by amanda at 6:40 AM on August 19, 2023 [1 favorite]

Wow, this is fascinating and horrifying. On PBS?!

What do the participants know? What are they being told? What are the rules of their experience and how does sloppy editing and the actions of a production team play into the constructed world we encounter as viewers?

This is a really helpful set of questions to consider. I learned at some point about how simple editing creates narratives out of nothing on reality shows, but never really knew that what participants are told could be very different than what viewers believe are the rules.
posted by Baethan at 6:51 AM on August 19, 2023 [11 favorites]

I just vaguely remember this show (and have thought about it on/off since then).

I think I remember the ad for it showing someone being 'lazy' and having a camera shot towards an ethnic minority who was laying in a hammock, which didn't sit very well for me so I never ended up watching it.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:14 AM on August 19, 2023 [4 favorites]

“Over the course of the summer, the other participants grew to hate me and constantly chastised me for betraying the integrity of the experiment.”

This is giving me flashbacks. My earliest stable role-playing group was largely made up of queer kids. There wasn’t much overt discussion about gender and queerness, but it was baked in. So when I played with other groups, with other straight males, I was shocked to find really strict policing of gender expression and behavior based on “historical realism” in *checks notes* a world which includes orcs, dragons and magic spells.

People will go through ridiculous mental gymnastics to make the past, or imaginary fantastic worlds, confirm to what they think of as tradition.
posted by Kattullus at 7:23 AM on August 19, 2023 [46 favorites]

(raises hand)

My wife and I were on a reality show. This was a small, low-budget show on a cable channel that was packed with bigger home makeover shows. In 2003, the show, called "New Spaces," contacted my wife's hospitality-interior-design company (she and her partner design hotels, spas and such—successful business owner for over 25 years! So proud of her!) and asked if they had any projects who would want to appear on this show. No, she replied, all her projects are commercial and wouldn't fit the show... but... she (and I) were in the late planning stages of renovating our two-bedroom downtown Chicago condo. They were interested and the rest is history.

Well,.. it exists on a single DVD that I have left somewhere. I cannot find the show anywhere online. This was a small show during the era of a jillion of these cable TV shows. The production company was Chicago-based, but they carefully tried to do projects in unassuming suburbs where there are no visible landmarks, so it looked like it could be anywhere in the USA. Our project was an exception. We lived in Printer's Row at the time, an historic area just south of the Loop where big printing companies thrived from around 1890 to 1960 or so. They left behind hulking concrete buildings which have been converted into lofts after the businesses moved out or disappeared. Ours had a view of the lake, which they showed... it was obviously Chicago, but they never mentioned the location (reality, huh?).

We had a small place then, 2 br, 1 ba. The producers told us they need "little" projects like ours to fill in between some of their larger houses-sized projects in the 'burbs. Sometimes, those large projects get stuck in limbo; people run out of money, couples divorce, or someone dies... putting the project on hold and keeping this small production company holding the ball with an unfinished episode on their hands, and money sunk, going nowhere, possibly for years, or never. (This show was small, low budget and contributed nothing at all financially to the renovations).

Anyway, the producers told my wife this would be good advertising for her business, and of course we wanted to be part of a TV show. It would be fun and a cool memory. Well, kinda.

Again, my wife at the time was a seasoned, licensed, professional interior designer (not a decorator, she always works with architects, sometimes on 200+ room hotels... it's a complex business), and this was the late stages of her planning the renovation. She did all the CAD drawings, measuring, had chosen probably 75% of the finishes by then... she did all of the herself (with me chiming in an opinion on stuff once in a while). It's what she knows and does for a living, and this was a small job in her scope.

(sorry, this is getting long, I'll be more brief). In short, the show revised the story to show our contractor to be the lead in showing us the plans (to be fair, they showed wife's home office, and said she was a pro designer), and this guy we hardly knew was in charge. Sexist? Yes. But mostly I think they were lazy and on a budget. The vast majority of the time, the homeowner is not a professional, and often the contractor leads the way. So that's how they made our story to be... just like all their other stories. They did mention that my wife knew her stuff, but it still came out to be that this guy was in charge.

It was a massive pain in the ass, too. The shooting sessions went on way longer than they told us they would be. I had to take off time from work to appear in some scenes, and the lights and equipment was everywhere and in the way of our lives for over a week. Other than sending us a thank you card and some small gift (I don't even remember what it was), they bought pizza for us and the crew one time. That's it. We were often left waiting, hungry and bored while they did setup. My wife was in the vast majority of the scenes and it was really disruptive to her life/work. Her business got an extremely brief mention at the end, and in the credit titles.

It was fun to watch the final thing and I really need to did the DVD out of wherever it is because I haven't seen it in forever. But that's my story. Reality shows are fake. Big surprise, huh?
posted by SoberHighland at 7:28 AM on August 19, 2023 [35 favorites]

If it is any consolation to the writer of the article, I watched the show and don't remember her at all! I do remember the ranch family were boring and brought no enthusiasm to the experience. I think they were pretty lousy to the ranch hands, to the point where none of them came to reunion. Horror!

I watched other PBS series of this ilk--"Colonial House" and "Frontier House" or whatever they were called...... They were much better.
posted by rhonzo at 7:57 AM on August 19, 2023 [5 favorites]

Decades ago, when my wife and I had recently moved back from the US to Chile, a relative of hers was producing a show about "love stories" and wanted us to be on it.
We said "Fuck no!"
She seemed surprised.
posted by signal at 7:58 AM on August 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

The full show appears to be on YouTube if you really want to see it.
posted by Pyry at 8:02 AM on August 19, 2023 [4 favorites]

I do remember this show and remember her on it. She was much maligned by the other contestants, but I thought it was cool that she rejected stereotypes and became a cowboy.
posted by pangolin party at 8:07 AM on August 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

We said "Fuck no!"

I've never been invited to participate in "reality" TV and yet this is the very same reaction I've experienced even to viewing any of it since the very first appearance of Big Brother - with the single exception of the Alone franchise, mainly because by virtue of duck-shoving even the labour of filming the fucking thing onto the participants, that one gives them something vaguely resembling an acceptable degree of influence on how they're eventually presented.
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 AM on August 19, 2023 [5 favorites]

This series was produced by a Britishproduction company, based on earlier BBC/Channel 4 programs.
All reality shows have added drama. I produced one about cleaning up clutter, having a yard sale, and donating all the stuff that didn’t sell. We shot the extra junk going onto the charity truck, and then, I let the people take their junk back after we got the shots.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:20 AM on August 19, 2023 [8 favorites]

The irony is, a woman in the frontier taking on a man's role was a thing that happened.

I watched a BBC reality show about people living in a manor house like it was the Edwardian era. They had trouble keeping on young women to be scullery maids because it was such a horrible job, in a windowless room all day scrubbing pots and pans.
posted by LindsayIrene at 8:56 AM on August 19, 2023 [16 favorites]

If you haven't seen it, there's an episode of Bob's Burgers about this. They go to recreate not-Downton Abbey and are cast as servants.
posted by tofu_crouton at 9:30 AM on August 19, 2023 [5 favorites]

Not sure if it’s just hindsight being what it is, but I saw this show at the beginning of the pandemic and thought that the dad/ranch owner was portrayed as the clear villain. Maura definitely got some hate from her fellow cast members, but I didn’t get the impression that the audience was supposed to see her the same way (granted, I may just be overcorrecting my response to what was clearly A Very Different Time*).

*edit to add: by A Very Different Time, I’m talking the early 2000’s, not Ye Olde Ranch Dayes
posted by not just everyday big moggies at 11:15 AM on August 19, 2023 [3 favorites]

I feel like everything I've ever heard about reality TV is just the most relentlessly awful shit over and over and over; the closest thing to a redeeming quality it has is that people will watch it, and apparently that's enough.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:29 AM on August 19, 2023 [6 favorites]

I have been skeptical of reality shows ever since falling in love with the addictive Meerkat Manor. If producers can create heroes, villains, and lifetime rivalries by carefully editing footage of wild animals, it makes sense that most of the narratives we’re given about humans are just as manipulated.
posted by rpfields at 11:56 AM on August 19, 2023 [20 favorites]

“I feel like everything I've ever heard about reality TV is just the most relentlessly awful shit over and over and over; the closest thing to a redeeming quality it has is that people will watch it, and apparently that's enough.”

I'm not sure if I've ever watched a reality show. I did very memorably closely follow the first season of US Big Brother by reading the TWoP recaps — but that's because it was very weird and fascinating due to the fact that participants did not yet understand there was a certain way they were expected to behave, and so they didn't.

I've always felt reality TV was a blight, but it's worth considering that their rise coincided (in the US) with that of prestige TV, their antithesis.

It's also interesting that the burgeoning awareness of the contrived falsity of reality TV didn't inspire the kind of backlash that the revelation of game show TV shenanigans did in the 50s. It seemed like there was and is some disparagement, but mostly audiences maintain a kind of willful quasi-suspension of disbelief, as in pro wrestling.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:07 PM on August 19, 2023 [6 favorites]

Reality TV was more fun before people know how they "had" to behave on it.
posted by jenfullmoon at 12:10 PM on August 19, 2023 [8 favorites]

I have never been a big reality show person, but I remember (with strange intensity) Frontier House, which aired on PBS way back in 2002. This was the era of Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire-style extreme trash, so I guess as a kid I figured there was something more respectable about a PBS reality show. It was pretty harrowing, though. Most of the "characters" came off really poorly, except the kids (annoying but not responsible for the situation) and the young, childless couple. I remember thinking that if I were a cast member, I would've really regretted signing up for that show.
posted by grandiloquiet at 2:54 PM on August 19, 2023 [4 favorites]

I remember watching Frontier House too! I was a huge Laura Ingalls Wilder fan as a kid and while I had grown out of the books by then, it still tapped into that part of my brain.

Recently came across it on YouTube and was so surprised at some of the content. One lady and her kids start sobbing when they are told they can't wear makeup. There was another segment in the "prep" episode where the adults are talking about their contraception options (no pill, obviously) and it gets heated fast. In a later episode one of the dads man-babies that they aren't allowed to hunt (federal law); an Indigenous man does bring them game and talks about how in the 19th c his people were driven off this land and weren't allowed to hunt for food, and not only does the wannabe sharpshooter not have any shame as he gobbles down the venison stew, but the show's narrator doesn't even comment on the irony.

The only well adjusted couple on that show was the newlyweds, who were super chill and are apparently the only ones still together.

That show was the first nail in the coffin of my pioneer fantasy. (Then I read Prairie Fires and the coffin got nailed shut right quick.)
posted by basalganglia at 3:53 PM on August 19, 2023 [10 favorites]

That's really interesting, thanks for posting. I didn't see this programme, but remember Frontier House - I think one of the couples smuggled in a modern mattress, and another (or the same) was hunting-obsessed. *checks Wikipedia* Frontier House. Yes, same couple. Some of the reviews quoted in the Wiki article talk about the effect of editing, specifically on how the couple's conflict was shown.

I hope that Finkelstein finishes and publishes her memoir. There is an extract from it here: On Less Convenient Histories.
posted by paduasoy at 3:54 PM on August 19, 2023 [2 favorites]

Frontier House was produced by the same UK production company as mentioned before. Why PBS spent money on this stuff is beyond me.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:25 PM on August 19, 2023

I really appreciated this articulation:

The formula is simple— find a group of participants, take away everything that makes them feel safe and in control of their world, and then watch them explode.

It applies to these surveillance-style exploitation shows, and, as the author goes on to say, to so much institutional mistreatment of populaces in general. And it speaks to how fundamentally abusive the premise can be, yet in a way that can be not immediately apparent to audiences -- not just because of off-camera manipulation, but also because so many families, schools, employers, etc. do not consistently take care to ensure children/students/workers/etc. feel safe, and because they are often pretty bad at supporting people's autonomy as appropriate to their maturity and capabilities, so as a culture we are used to this structural mistreatment and don't notice it as strange or shocking.

Perhaps I am overgeneralizing.
posted by brainwane at 6:09 PM on August 19, 2023 [5 favorites]

Survivor was, I think, an example of a pretty decent show in the reality genre but tempered by there being a game aspect to it and opportunities for both teaming up and double-crossing. I decided to rewatch with my daughter the first season and wow, those people were starving. I did not remember it that way at all because later seasons when EVERYONE was watching, every other challenge rewards them peanut-butter. In S1, the last three participants stopped trying to “out maneuver” each other in favor of working together to try to make their meager rice stores survive another day. I’m guessing it didn’t do great with test audiences and got both boring and scary for the crew.
posted by amanda at 6:40 PM on August 19, 2023 [4 favorites]

I am a sucker for reality TV shows, except the Kardashian/TOWIE type of influencer genre, other than RHONYC and Darcey & Stacey (I know, I know, I should be ashamed but I'm not ...).

I remember one of the American Pioneer/Frontier shows that was on in the UK. IIRC, they broke the fourth wall because the fiancé of one of the contestants (he wasn't on the show) was killed in an accident right at the start, so they couldn't, you know, not tell her for three months and leave her to find out once filming was over and she went home. So they told her and gave her the choice of leaving or staying (she was with parents/siblings in the show). She left, but her family members stayed behind. I think they were the main family, so I'm sure production was relieved about that.

FWIW, Australian Survivor is miles better than American Survivor, because it's on for three or four nights a week, and each episode is about 90 minutes long. This means we see way more of the machinations between the contestants about who they're going to vote for, making the whole thing much more interesting than a once a week show.

Anyway, I found this article really interesting. I expect contestants now are savvier about the manipulations that go on by production, but if you're isolated then it's much easier to fall victim to it.

I'd also recommend Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera, a podcast about a UK reality show that was probably the worst, cruellest concept for a show. I'd like to think we've moved on, but then there's MILF Manor ...
posted by essexjan at 6:23 AM on August 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

It's interesting to me that most folks recognize "reality television" as just the opposite — it's fake and produced and un-real — but few seem to understand that all television is like this...even the news. (Especially the news?) I've participated in a handful of television "news" segments and a couple of documentary films. They're all produced af and deliberately manufacture a pre-conceived story. The folks filming the segment (or show) go in with the end in mind, and that's what they get out of it.

Call me cynical but I mistrust all edited film media. My friends like to hate on Fox (as they should), but their "news" of choice is no more truthful. It just tells them what they want to hear; thus, to them, it feels more real.
posted by jdroth at 8:39 AM on August 20, 2023 [1 favorite]

Interestingly, it appears some reality TV stars are fighting to unionize, which can only be a good thing.

I have a very clear memory of watching what I think must have been the Edwardian Manor House show mentioned above. It was in the early days of reality TV and was presented more like a documentary-experiment at that point. The thing that was so fascinating, was that people who got to be the "family" had absolutely zero idea how hard the "servants" were working. They were all living in the same house, and the "servants" were in and out of their rooms all day doing the cleaning, making up the fires, serving meals etc.

But the "family" just couldn't appreciate - because they couldn't see - just how physically exhausting the servants days were. There was this amazing scene where the maids basically got pissed off and said they couldn't take it any more, and told the woman who was playing the "mother" of the family how bad it was, and took her round the servants quarters/explained what their hours were like. And the poor woman was so embarrassed because she'd had absolutely no idea what they'd been going through.

What I took from it was that the very architecture of a house during the Edwardian era was designed to make the labor of certain people literally invisible and unthinkable. These were normal, nice 20th century people who had gone on a TV show, and if you'd asked them ahead of time they'd probably have said they intended to treat the cast mates playing the servants better than people would've in the past. But the point is they couldn't have, because everything from the way they heat their houses, to the kind of food they eat requires/makes invisible exploitation.

All of which is to say: there was some value, for me at least, in one of these shows. Teenage me learnt something that stuck with me for years from that one.
posted by EllaEm at 7:17 PM on August 20, 2023 [19 favorites]

But the "family" just couldn't appreciate - because they couldn't see - just how physically exhausting the servants days were. There was this amazing scene where the maids basically got pissed off and said they couldn't take it any more, and told the woman who was playing the "mother" of the family how bad it was, and took her round the servants quarters/explained what their hours were like.

There's nothing weird about that. I mean, we have people today who think we (generally) work more and for less. 'Hunter societies had more free time', and what not.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:37 PM on August 21, 2023

Interesting! This reminds me of a public TV show about 10 years ago, where they made some Dutch teenagers or students work in various South Asian and African sweatshops, tanneries, chicken farms, shrimp farms, gold mines, you name it. It was called 'blood, sweat, and first world problems' (Bloed, Zweet & Luxeproblemen). Generally, at least some of them failed the first assignment each day, and were made to do even more menial work. They always went through various stages of impressed, incredulous, determined to show they could do it, to various levels of meltdown and exhaustion, and some empathy at the factory workers.

I mostly found it surprising that they never seemed to be really changed due to their experience: if they bought fast fashion before trying to sew 20 blouses in 8 hours, at least some of them shrugged and said they'd just keep doing that back home. Same for eating meat after the slaughterhouse etc. I wonder to what extent that was framed by production team, surely some type of redemption arc would have been more satisfying?

Echoing EllaEm above: I learned something! My takeaway from watching that show was that rather than educating each individual, we need to solve bigger environmental and social issues behind the scenes via EU laws, because people will just be people. The production processes are so far away and so unimaginable, you can't leave it up to consumers. Although since it was state television, perhaps that was the intended message after all...
posted by kwartel at 2:57 PM on August 21, 2023 [5 favorites]

Reality TV was more fun before people know how they "had" to behave on it.

Sex House was 11 years ago.
posted by flabdablet at 12:15 AM on August 22, 2023

There's nothing weird about that. gosh, you don't say. My point being, in this thread about historical reenactment reality tv shows, is that as a teenager I found one useful because it illustrated this point in a new and useful way.

kwartel you're reminding me of the infamous (at least in the UK in the 200s) Jamie Oliver Chicken Nuggets incident, and how that also raises the question of how documentary style shows like cooking programs edit the reactions of members of the public to make their point.

TV shows think you ought to make political or important points by making them personal and relatable. Presenting issues through an individual character who goes through a satisfying and intelligible narrative arc. But in reality the problems are structural, and that gets reflected in the way individuals in these shows react. When you address big social problems from the perspective of individual emotions and choices, children still want to eat chicken nuggets; teens still want to buy cheap clothes; and the head of the household can't help but look down on the servants.

Now structural problems are solved and made by human beings... for instance, I'd love to see a reality TV show where a group of ordinary average people were put in charge of the budget of a major city like New York or London [simulated, obviously. Or maybe not... ] and we watched what they came up with as solutions. Now that would be interesting :-P
posted by EllaEm at 3:49 PM on August 22, 2023 [2 favorites]

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