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Five Movies About Reality TV

The earliest “reality TV” shows such as Candid Camera had a clear but modest scope — to entertain us by showing how ordinary people reacted to extraordinary situations. The genre has since gone far beyond the quest for cheap laughs and, for better or worse, has grown into an unstoppable programming juggernaut. We’ve seen a seemingly endless stream of new concepts, some of which even give rise to spin-off reality shows.

But in many of these shows, the notion of “reality” is (at least partially) scripted, or creatively edited to create a more compelling product.  Not that unreality is a show-stopper for reality show audiences. For example, despite all the suspicions that many of the interpersonal dramas on The Bachelor are manufactured, the show still draws millions of viewers for each episode. And The Bachelor has been airing for more than twenty seasons. Clearly there’s a market for “reality” that’s not so real.

While the unreality of reality TV is perhaps its biggest flaw, it’s not the only one. Reality TV can be invasive, petty and unnecessarily confrontational. These five movies have explored the nature of reality programming, and none of them portray it in a particularly flattering light.

Real Life (1979) 

Not everyone enjoys Albert Brooks’ style of comedy, but his first feature film is spot on in terms of what reality television would eventually become. When Real Life was released, “reality TV” was largely comprised of game shows like The Gong Show, The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game (R.I.P. Chuck Barris), and it would still be some time before we start to see more dramatically-flavored shows such as The Real World, Survivor, and The Bachelor. Sure, Real Life is about the process of creating a reality movie, not reality TV, but it’s still directly on point.



Albert Brooks: To err is human, to film… divine.

Brooks (playing himself) is a self-involved and self-important filmmaker trying to make a movie about a typical American experience. A take-off of the PBS Series An American FamilyReal Life presages the biggest problems that exist with the reality TV genre; namely, that there simply isn’t a way to get real insight into human interaction when the subjects know the cameras are rolling. For better or worse (usually worse), people behave differently when they know they’re being watched. And perhaps more despicably, the creators of the show seem to have no qualms about trying to shape their subjects’ real behaviors for the sake of better entertainment.



Unfortunately, Real Life is no longer as satirical as it originally was, given the trash we’d eventually come to see on television.

The Truman Show (1998) 

In contrast to the middling outside interference we see in Real Life, there’s the omnipresent control in The Truman Show. Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) is the subject of the biggest, most elaborate and most expensive reality show on television. Every aspect of Truman’s life happens in front of the camera. Unfortunately, Truman knows nothing of the show, because it started when he was an infant. The coordinated and fake reality is the only world he’s ever known.

Christof: We accept the reality of the world with which we’re presented. It’s as simple as that.

Truman’s red pill awakening starts with a spotlight dropping from the sky. In trying to figure out exactly what happened, he begins to question everything about his life. Truman suspects that he’s part of a twisted game, and everyone is in on it but him — though he certainly can’t understand the magnitude of the ruse. We learn that despite his outward appearance of contentment, Truman has been feeling an itch for quite some time. As a younger man he missed an opportunity for love, and that’s stuck with him. He’s obsessive about the one that got away, and it drives him to break out of his bubble.



We all want to be free to choose our own path, and we want privacy to be able to do so. At the same time, many still want to be part of the audience watching the minutiae of other people’s lives. In fact, we’ll devote an incredible amount of time and energy watching something that is undeniably banal. The Truman Show is a worldwide phenomenon, but once the show ends, viewers will quickly move on to the next thing to watch.

The biggest irony is that there’s not even a pretense of reality in a show in which virtually every aspect of the lead character’s life is meticulously controlled to make it different from the average person’s life.

Edtv (1999)

A remake/re-imagining of King of the AirwaysEdtv came out the year after The Truman Show, and I think of them as opposite sides of the same coin.



Truman shows us how far the media will go in deceiving its subjects (and how, despite the high level of interest we might have in a particular reality show, we’re always ready to move on to the next shiny object). Edtv shows us just how far an individual will go in order to become the show for others to watch.

John: With no privacy there is no dignity. Capisce?

Ed (Matthew McConaughey) is chosen to star in a new reality TV program where his life will be broadcast, unedited, 24 hours a day. At first he’s excited for the newfound celebrity (and the prospect of financial reward), but it eventually becomes clear that having normal relationships and interactions with other people is going to be virtually impossible. This is a great premise, and could have made Edtv a less parabolic and more relatable counterpoint to The Truman Show.

Unfortunately, Edtv couldn’t seem to figure out a consistent tone. Sometimes it played like a satire, sometimes like a formulaic rom-com, and sometimes like an unnecessarily mean black comedy. The constant bouncing back and forth between the different styles made it impossible to connect with any of the characters. And their stories certainly did not need almost two hours to be told.

Reality (2012) 

To some people, reality TV is more than just entertainment or a temporary reprieve from the drudgery of day-to-day life. Reality shows represent something new, something better, something brighter. And if it’s a show like Italy’s Big Brother, then the financial rewards from winning the show can be life changing.

Reality tells the story of Luciano, an average guy who sometimes dresses up in crazy outfits to entertain his family. He has a brief encounter with a former star of Big Brother, and comes away a bit awestruck with the notion of celebrity. When the show comes to Luciano’s local shopping mall to conduct auditions, his children convince him to try out.

He does well enough to score a follow-up interview in Rome. After the interview Luciano is convinced that the show’s producers are going to choose him, and that his rise to fame and fortune is imminent. His optimism is initially indulged and encouraged by most of his family, and soon the show is all Luciano thinks about. He soon starts to believe that every new face he sees in town was someone sent by the show’s producers, in order to watch how he acts and make sure he’s right for Big Brother before they formally offer him a spot on the show.



As Luciano focuses on what he thinks is his inevitable reality TV role, he loses his grip on genuine reality — and not even his family can bring him back. In some ways Reality is the harshest of the movies on this list because it’s the most honest. There’s no parable or satire or exaggeration here; just a study of what happens when someone who appears to have a full and genuine life decides that it’s not enough, and that true fulfillment will only happen if they get to appear on television.

Natural Born Killers (1994) 

Extreme satire is often misconstrued. American Psycho generated a lot of controversy when it was first published, due in large part to readers misinterpreting the narrator’s words. It wasn’t until Mary Harron’s film version made the satire and absurdity crystal clear that some of the novel’s detractors began to reexamine their objections.

When Natural Born Killers first hit theaters, it felt like a natural extension of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel. Where American Psycho skewered 1980’s yuppie culture, Killers took on tabloid journalism and the bloodlust American society satisfies with the evening news. Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) are violent and depraved psychopaths, but because they’re on television they become heroic figures to many.

– Don’t get us wrong.
– We respect human life and all.
– But if I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.

News has become perhaps the biggest source of corrupting reality TV. The eventual capture and incarceration of Mickey and Mallory provide even more opportunities for media exploitation — even a live interview after the Super Bowl. They only achieve some measure of what we assume is peace and normality once they no longer have an audience.

OF COURSE Natural Born Killers is satire, but the underlying truth is obvious. We see horrors on television every day, and it’s just another form of entertainment or distraction. Whenever there’s an accident or disaster or violent crime reported on the news, the key piece of information is always how many people died or were injured — not what caused the incident or how to prevent it in the future — and where does that death count rank when compared to other events.



About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.