Pop Culture

Cruel reality shows don’t play fair

Finding sympathy for people who willingly subject themselves to the whims of reality TV producers is difficult. Whether they’re seeking a new face on “The Swan” or looking to get trashed and hook up on “The Real World,” contestants deserve what they get, and we should feel no guilt watching them react to the situation, however horrible it may be.

Rule changes, shocking twists, complete fake-outs — they’re all fair game for those who’ve agreed to play a game or live their lives on camera.

These cast members have all signed up to be on a reality TV show and they know what they’re in for. At least, they should. The reality of living under the watchful eye of a lens might be brutal and a lot different than it appears on TV, but four and a half years of prime-time network reality television is plenty of education for any would-be cast member. And the massive contracts that contestants have to sign ensure that they’re not entering into anything blind.

I know: When I applied for “The Mole 2” in 2001, I filled out a 10-page application that concluded with more than a page of disclaimers. Among other things, I agreed that producers could “use all or any part of my Likeness, and may alter or modify it, regardless of whether or not I am recognizable.” Accepting that provision was, of course, completely insane. Yet my desire to spend weeks hanging out with Anderson Cooper in Europe while playing a human game of chess led me to sign it without flinching.

Had I made it past the two-minute interview and ended up on “The Mole 2,” I would have had no reason to complain if the series’ editors cleverly assembled footage to make me say or do things that weren’t quite true to reality. Likewise, had I watched producers drop my luggage into a fire during one particularly wrenching challenge, I would have deserved the mental anguish that went along with it.

New shows twist the knifeYet there is a new breed of reality TV shows, ones that cull their stars from the unsuspecting and manipulate them ruthlessly and relentlessly.

Those at the center of these shows didn’t agree to be the stars of these programs or, worse, don’t even know they’re being filmed. Although it has its origins in the comparatively tame and harmless “Candid Camera,” this new subgenre is meaner and crueler, and impacts its victims in much more substantial ways.

Earlier this year, FOX aired “My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance,” a short series in which a woman pretended that she was marrying a fat obnoxious guy. The woman, Randi, thought her fake fiance was also just a real person like herself, and so watching her reactions to his piggish manners, lack of courtesy, and general slovenliness was funny. But when her family arrived and learned that not only were they engaged but were getting married on TV in just a few days, the fun stopped.

From the moment they were told, her brothers, sister, and parents seemed to be either livid or heartbroken, alternately getting mad and bawling. Her brother ran out of a room, angrily kicking at nothing; her sister choked out tears; her parents tried to hold things together. They were strapped in to this emotional roller coaster by Randi and the producers solely for our benefit. Watching them get flipped upside down again and again, devastated by the situation, we saw them fight with each other and get pushed to their limits by the situation, which they believed was completely real.

Randi essentially whored herself and her family to FOX, exchanging the trust and faith her family had in her for $1 million. At the end of the series, after the betrayal was revealed and the cash reward unveiled, everyone seemed to cheer up. But after the cameras turned off, how could they deal with Randi, who’d lied to them just so they could win some cash? Could they ever trust her again? Was her arrogant I’m-doing-this-for-them sufficient justification for her to forgive herself? How much would it cost for you to sell out your best friend or closest relatives?

On NBC, we now have the “$25 Million Hoax,” premiering Nov. 8,  in which a woman tortures her family by pretending that she won the lottery. Ed McMahon’s there for extra realism, and if the family manages to suffer through their loved one blowing all of her winnings on herself, they get a much smaller cash prize.

Once again, a willing participant will drag those she loves most in front of TV cameras and subject them to mental anguish — all for a check.

Other networks have shows like these, such as which brags that its “starring ‘victims’ are real people with real emotions and absolutely no clue that they are about to be taken on heart-pounding thrill-rides that will leave them creeped out, gasping and screaming.”

Dude, where's my reality?Another, slightly different offender is “Punk’d,” Ashton Kutcher’s half-hour series on MTV that features celebrities pranking other celebrities. Watching a series like this should be, in theory, spectacularly fun, because who doesn’t want to see a self-absorbed celebrity be reminded that they’re human, too?

Jayme Halbritter / Getty Images North America
NORTHFIELD, MN - OCTOBER 26: Actor Ashton Kutcher (L) speaks in support of Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) while musician Max Weinberg (2nd-R) and one of Kerry's stepsons, Andre (R) listen at Carleton College October 26, 2004 in Northfield, Minnesota. The host of MTV's show "Punk'd," Kutcher stated that he had been punk'd by U.S. President George W. Bush after voting for him in 2000. (Photo by Jayme Halbritter/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Ashton Kutcher;Andre Heinz;Max Weinberg

Somehow, though, it’s hard to laugh when Seth Green panics as fake law enforcement agents crash a card game, or be amused as Jack Osbourne is asked to drop his pants in public by a security guard at MTV, or be delighted when Justin Timberlake nearly breaks down as he watches all of his possessions get taken away and even destroyed by federal agents.

That’s because their horrified reactions and compliance are perfectly rational.

Now Kutcher has brought us “You’ve Got a Friend,” an MTV series based on a British show in which a willing participant introduces his or her family and friends to an intolerable, detestable new best friend. That person is an actor who will attempt to humiliate their friend in front of his or her relatives by making up stories and doing everything possible to ruin the person’s life.

On the first episode, fake best friend Jack tells participant Jayson’s girlfriend “that Jayson had multiple threesomes and he is known to be unfaithful.” Later, Jack tells Jayson to actually quit his job and break up with his girlfriend. Jayson goes along with all of this in exchange for a mere $15,000 at the end of the two days. While Jayson deserves the eternal scorn of his former girlfriend for participating, was this set-up fair to her?

Certainly, these accidental, manipulated reality TV stars sign a release later, which ultimately makes them culpable for letting us partake in their misery. Yet it’s not quite the same thing.

Other reality TV show participants can walk away during the production. The “Big Brother” house doesn’t have locks on the doors, and we’ve seen people quit “Survivor” in the middle of the game.

But someone who doesn’t know they’re being played doesn’t really have that option. Ultimately, although they were horrified and saddened, Randi’s family showed up to the "Big Fat Obnoxious" wedding because they wouldn’t leave her behind.

Abandon a family member or friend? Defy the orders of someone who appears to be a member of federal law enforcement? These aren’t really viable options for these unknowing reality TV stars.

Watching these victims’ emotions erupt and misery increase should make us very uncomfortable, even if emotionally torturing passive bystanders does make good TV. That’s especially true since they most often involve someone consciously using those who are closest to them for a laugh or a check or both. I don’t feel sorry for people on “The Swan” or “Average Joe,” but I won’t be complicit in the constructed misery of innocent people.

Unless it’s really funny.

is a writer and teacher who publishes , a daily summary of reality TV news.

TOP