As much hand-wringing goes on about the lack of racial diversity in television, realistically speaking, it’s an issue that will probably always be lamented in critical essays and press releases from watchdog groups, rather than actively remedied. The issue is and always will be dollars and cents; scripted television shows cost an assload to produce and market, and so no one wants to sink that kind of cash into a production unless they’re very confident it’s going to appeal to wide swath of the viewing public. The initial performance of BET’s The Game demonstrated that this argument isn’t as bulletproof as bean-counting types pretend it is, but it’s easy to say “You never know until you try” when it’s up to someone else to cut the checks.
The advantage of reality television in this regard is that it’s dirt-cheap, so train a camera on whoever seems interesting, and if it flops, no one’s worse for the wear. That’s why, while scripted television still struggles to reflect the country’s diversity, the reality television that is cable’s bread and butter has something to cater to just about anyone. There are Shahs Of Sunset, I Love Jenni, and The Real Housewives of Atlanta (the top rated Housewives franchise), and VH1 has made angry black women its stock-in-trade, between Love & Hip Hop, Basketball Wives, and its Los Angeles-based spin-off. The problem is that most of these shows are terrible, even when they're good.
For African-Americans especially, the trashy (though, admittedly, often riveting) scripted reality of a show like Basketball Wives is the television equivalent of a snack proferred from a break room vending machine: cheap, delicious, and temporarily satisfying, but only attractive in the absence of a better option. I never jumped onboard with Basketball Wives, but I do watch Real Housewives Of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop. (As a gay black man living in Atlanta, to avoid all three would be all but impossible.) There’s a case to be made for these, or any similar scripted reality show. Basketball Wives, for example, is a celebrity gossip site in a television show’s clothing, a storytelling model that emphasizes catty, drink-hurling conflict over coherence or continuity. Woman X and Woman Y don’t like each other. Why? Because they don’t. Now watch them claw at each other.
Girlfights are to drama as pratfalls are to comedy: The satisfaction they deliver more than makes up for the shame they inspire, so the appeal is not a mystery. But even for someone like me who enjoys this sort of thing in small doses, the complete lack of credible, resonant storytelling gets exasperating, and I wonder if I couldn’t make the same show for even less money by using my iPhone to record myself taking a pair of black Barbie dolls and banging them against each other. (If anyone decides to do this, and it gets picked up, I’m going to need a creator credit.)
WEtv’s Braxton Family Values, which just closed out its second season, would appear to be the very same type of show to someone quickly flipping past it. It is, at the end of the day, a scripted reality show that often features black women yelling at each other. But its characters and relationships are so well-rendered, and its conflicts so relatable, that it’s the only black reality show on the dial that demonstrates that the financial realities that keep black faces off of television screens don’t necessarily have to limit African-American viewing options to utter crap. Braxton Family Values probably shouldn’t work; while it focuses on Grammy-winning singer Toni Braxton; her sisters Towanda, Trina, Tamar, and Traci; and their mother Evelyn, Toni, the only recognizable star of the bunch, is often missing for episodes at a time. Toni’s been plagued with a myriad of health issues over the years, struggles that are chronicled throughout the show, so her limited participation is understandable. But more than this, Toni seems completely indifferent to being documented. Her narration isn’t enthusiastic; it’s dutiful, reflecting the attitude of someone who would just as soon not have cameras around at all except that it’s a way to rebuild her brand with minimal effort. Toni’s seeming reticence toward the production makes her a bit of a cipher. Fortunately, her sisters are all too eager to pick up her slack, and are more than able to do so.
The show is produced by Magical Elves, the company that helped Bravo slough off its Merchant Ivory-marathon image with Project Runway and Top Chef. It’s a team with a proven track record of taking complex, messy people and streamlining their foibles into surprisingly dimensional reality fodder. In the Braxtons, they’ve stumbled on a treasure chest of strained relationships, deferred dreams, and long-simmering sibling rivalries. Towanda is the steady-handed sister, the level-headed and responsible one, dealing with a marriage on its last gasp and trying to start a new career after spending years as Toni’s personal assistant. Trina is a slightly bratty party girl who sings lead in a wedding band and trades infidelities with her insecure weasel of a husband. Traci is the outcast of the group. The chunky, inelegant Leah to the other girls’ Rachel, she’s intrigued by the idea of a music career, and envious of how easily it comes to her sisters, but she’s unwilling to push out of her comfort zone in order to do it. That leaves baby sister Tamar, who is far and away the breakout star of the show. She’s also the wealthiest of the bunch, as she’s married to Vincent Herbert, Lady Gaga’s manager.
Tamar is the main attraction of Braxton Family Values for much the same reason NeNe Leakes rose to prominence on Housewives. She’s funny as hell, when you don’t want to reach through the screen and slap her. Tamar, like NeNe before her, views tact as a convention of the weak. In her world, everything that is thought must be said, because if she doesn’t say it, no one else will. Predictably, she’s also the most sensitive of the girls; she constantly spouts criticism but is deathly allergic to it, and she’ll burst into tears or storm out of the room when her tough talk isn’t warmly received. But no one does talking head narration like Tamar does. She’s such a cartoonish catch phrase machine, it’s shocking that she’s not already available as a pull-string plush toy.
What’s not shocking is that her keep-it-real-at-all-costs ethos has won her a cult of fans and driven her to extremes this season. In classic observer-effect fashion, Tamar internalized the praise she got from fans for being bitchy and hammy, so the natural next step was to be bitchier and hammier this season, and she’s more than delivered. Every time a camera is trained on her, she does a shrill, exaggerated performance of season-one Tamar, which, predictably, drives her sisters batshit. In fact, the effort to try to return Tamar to Earth’s atmosphere has been a thematic engine for much of season two. While the women are always careful not to overtly acknowledge the effect of the production, most episodes tend to devolve into mini-interventions with the sisters trying to get Tamar to stop being a horrible person, and Tamar insisting that the criticism amount to sour grapes over all the attention she’s getting. In the season premiere, Evelyn, the girls’ typically genteel mother, threatens to “slap the piss” out of Tamar for her constant disrespect.
But this sort of self-reflexive drama can be found on any scripted reality show, and luckily on Braxton Family Values, while there are some scripted reality indulgences, most of the show’s story has genuine emotional underpinnings that make the occasional contrivance go down easy. The most affecting story belongs to Traci, whose lack of social graces often makes her the show’s unwitting comic relief, even as she is nursing deep emotional wounds. In the mid-90s, the Braxton girls (minus Toni, who was establishing herself as a solo artist) were offered a record deal with Atlantic, but Traci found out she was pregnant and was forced to choose between terminating the pregnancy and walking away from the deal. When she chose to keep her baby, her sisters signed the deal without her, and she’s been harboring resentment over it ever since. In a therapy session, Tamar and Traci locked horns over the issue, and both sides of the argument had their merits. It was as easy to see why Traci would be outraged that her sisters didn’t join her in solidarity as it was to see why Tamar wouldn’t feel like she should have to forfeit her dreams because of her sister’s life choices. That kind of grounded interaction between two people who love each other deeply feels like sustenance after watching shows about conflicts between people who wouldn’t be in the same room at all if cameras weren’t there to capture it.
Research done earlier this year showed that traffic to black gossip sites had dipped, while traffic to black news sites crept up. Down went Media Takeout, a gossip site with such an aversion to veracity it makes the average orphaned Wikipedia entry look like a New Yorker investigation, and up went BET News. These kinds of studies can be spun and respun infinitely, but it suggests a black audience weaning itself off of manufactured drama in search of something realer. If that is indeed the trend, I’d expect a similar reversal of fortune with Basketball Wives and Braxton Family Values, which has become a hit in its own right. As Tamar would no doubt attest, there’s something to be said for keepin’ it real.