What do you do during a pandemic when it’s a struggle to film Reality TV?
Make a documentary about it, which is kind of ironic given most observers feel the genre emerged from Documentaries in the first place.
In For Real: The Story of Reality TV presenter Andy Cohen casts his eye over American reality television but the results are closer to 20 to One clips with allied commentary, rather than considered critique.
The timeline begins unexpectedly with an I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky, an art-imitates-life event which mirrored Ball’s own birth to Desi Arnaz Jr. America was gripped by the synergy, which enables Cohen to segue into Celebrity Reality stars for Episode 1.
MTV, long considered the pioneers of American reality with Road Rules (1995, it’s kept for Episode 2 here), features heavily with MTV Cribs (2000) a series in which rock stars gave camera access to their homes. Its success spawned The Osbournes (2002) and the crazy, unfiltered family of Ozzy, Sharon, Jack & Kelly. Producers recall having no blueprint to follow in capturing a rockstar at home, nor the dangers of contradicting his stage image -yet their authenticity led to a runaway hit.
Others would follow: Surviving Nugent (2003), Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (2003) and Gene Simmons Family Jewels (2006).
The Anna Nicole Show (2002) starred a frank ex-Playmate Anna Nicole Smith as “America’s Guiltiest Pleasure,” largely capturing her downfall. But Smith died in 2007 of an an accidental drug overdose. While Cohen asks “Did reality TV accelerate her decline?” there’s far too little time addressing an important question.
The Simple Life (2003), by the documentary’s same producers Bunim-Murray, was another hit with friends Paris Hilton & Nicole Richie thrust into a faux-Green Acres premise, as rich girls on the farm. Hilton’s sex tape, it turns out, hit the news but didn’t hurt the show…
Other series featured in Episode 1 include The Girls Next Door (2005), with cameras at the Playboy mansion, and the arrival of Kendra Wilkinson, who proved so successful she landed her own shows. While Wilkinson bared her life warts and all, including her marriage failing, it is noted “vulnerability is what people connect with.”
Danny Bonaduce turned it on for cameras in Breaking Bonaduce (2005), desperate to up the ante by suggesting he jump out of a moving car (do not attempt at home).
But it’s Keeping up the Kardashians (2007), produced by Bunim-Murray with Ryan Seacrest productions, that perfected the Celebrity Reality show and built a business empire. Cohen gets a sit down interview to discuss their audition tape and how much editorial input they have. The family known as being “famous for being famous” insist their legacy will be “family over everything.”
Given the balance of the episode favours E!’s own Kardashians I think I can work out what this series is really for…. a tease for their final season. Yet they have also signed a deal with Disney, so are not about to disappear anyway.
Further episodes will explore The Real World, The Bachelor, American Idol, Survivor and more. Unless this manages to devote more time to the manipulation, morality and ramifications of the genre, you’ll probably learn more from an episode of UnREAL.
For Real: The Story of Reality TV screens 8:30pm Thursdays on E!