Reality TV Grammar

I don't watch a lot of reality TV, but I keep up with the "classy" competition shows, like Survivor, The Amazing Race, Project Runway and Top Chef. The problem with all of them–a necessary problem, but a problem nonetheless–is that because they distill two or three days worth of drama down to a carefully edited hour, after watching enough episodes it's not terribly hard to guess who's going to be kicked off. Start with the "previously on" intro, which usually reveals more than it should. If one contestant gets a lot of airtime in that first minute, or if the intro includes seemingly random footage of that contestant from earlier in the season, then you've probably been tipped off to the identity of the latest evictee.

Not that some shows aren't pretty sly about it. Survivor typically spends the first half of an episode setting up one castaway for elimination, and then as Tribal Council approaches, the producers show the various voting alliances tossing out multiple plausible names, teasing the audience into thinking there might be a surprise–one that rarely comes. The Amazing Race is even slyer, often editing the arrival of the final teams so they look to be bunched closer together than they actually are. Unfortunately, not even clever editing can disguise the position of the sun in the sky; and besides, if fans of The Amazing Race pay close attention to the inaudible/unspoken lines that the producers re-record in post-production, they'll get a lot of hints about what's going to happen. If we hear the overdubbed voice of a travel agent telling one team that some flights may be overbooked, it's almost guaranteed that they'll be waiting on standby while their rivals take off.

(Aside for AR watchers: So, The Amazing Race went to Auschwitz this week. Fun, huh? The producers tried to make it a somber moment, but still … Anyone else who watched the show think about Mr. Show's parody of Road Rules? "Gotta find the beanbag!")

As for Top Chef and Project Runway, they're harder to predict as the season runs on and the contestant pool dwindles. But in the early going? Not so hard. Any designer/chef whose clothing/cuisine is barely featured in the episode is definitely safe for the week. Only winners and losers get camera time. Both Top Chef and Project Runway also do a lot of foreshadowing, particularly at the start of an episode, when contestants make bold, ironic pronouncements. Whoever's showing up a lot in the interview footage in the first 15 minutes is either the week's overall winner, or the one getting booted. Once the judges slot them into the bottom group or the top group, the guesswork is mostly over.

Top Chef and Project Runway have other grammar quirks too, like the way they craft the "coming up on" teasers for maximum deception. If a judge makes an outrageously cutting comment, followed by a chagrined reaction shot of a contestant, you can be sure that either the contestant we see is not the one the judge is talking to, or that the judge's comment itself isn't as negative as it seems. Both TC and PR like to head into a commercial break on moments fraught with drama, then return and reveal that what had seemed calamitous was merely a bump.

You know, reality TV doesn't have to be so predictable, or so disreputable. Documentaries have a prestige patina around them, and they're often as massaged and deceptive as any reality show. But most documentaries actually try to represent real life in some fashion, while most reality shows create artificial situations and then see how they play out. And I imagine how they play out most often is that the individual participants keep to themselves and don't say much, making for some dull TV. Still, if that's really what happens, it would be nice if the shows acknowledged it more, and created more of an accurate reflection of what happened during the two or three days of shooting.

Or maybe asking for accuracy on reality TV--or any TV, or any movie--is like asking for politicians who don't lie. Better just to enjoy the show.

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