A Cut of Reality: What I Learned While Writing Reality TV -The Toast

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I started working as a writer for reality TV the same week I graduated from my MFA program. It wasn’t so different from the kind of writer I was before, with its mixture of observance followed by some kind of assembly, except that the watching was less romantic—I was not sitting in a cozy coffee shop. Instead, for eight hours a day, I sorted through footage of uniformed men and wrote deep-bellied voiceovers full of puns that would make your dad cringe for a show that I will refer to as Rural Cops.

There were parts of the job that came easily to me: the desire to create order in the midst of disorder, for instance. But there were also parts that were new, like how natural a lie can feel when it’s coming out of you. I felt a sort of wonder at the fluidity of the transition, how easily I slipped into this new role.

Admittedly, within the genre of reality TV, this story—Rural Cops—was not the most offensive variation on the truth. While what made it onto your screen at home was a better version of what actually happened, eschewing many of the parts that made it human—like aimless driving, fiddling with the radio, giving a speeding ticket—and reordering the best parts to pack the biggest punch, for the most part nobody was telling the cops of Rural Cops what to do or what to say. We just watched.

When I used to share my profession with someone new, I was often greeted with some variation of the question, But if it’s reality, what are you writing? Through this, I came to learn something remarkable: Americans still largely trust television. Of course we should trust TV. Or rather: we should trust that television is a trustworthy measure of what Americans want to regard as narratively sound. TV’s whole M.O. is reflecting what people want to see, how we make sense of the world. It’s a mirror—not a Baroque-style gilded mirror; more like an overlit bathroom mirror in which a shirtless teenager is taking a selfie. But still, a mirror.

Sitting in the cramped quarters of my office, I quickly learned my first lesson in writing reality TV: Imagine the story I wanted to happen, and leave out everything else. While I lacked experience in writing TV, I was also twenty-four and still had faith in my unique perspective, my opinion of how things should be. As a fiction writer, I also understood narrative. The mirror again reflects inwards: we are creatures of habit. We crave narrative to help make sense of the world. If something inexplicable happens to us, we struggle to put it in terms of some kind of causal relationship—x-thing happened, so y-thing was the result. Some days, we might boil down the whole of human experience to this two-sided equation. This kind of thinking may be what prevents us from deleting our exes’ phone numbers, or what keeps us in contact with our estranged parents—our innate desire for an answer to a simple question: “Why?” It’s also this kind of thinking that makes TV compelling.

An example from the show:

The call comes in on the police radio: There is a wild lynx on the loose in a local neighborhood (remember, this is Rural Cops).

This is what actually happened: The cop drives up to a man, who directs him down the icy road to the family who reported the lynx. Right away, you can see on camera that the lynx appears to be injured in the snow, maybe 100 yards away. The discarded carcass of a half-eaten rabbit is nearby, the snow stained red around it. The lynx isn’t moving much. Because it has already wandered too deeply into the neighborhood and because it is fatally injured, it must be put down. The cop gets his rifle, approaches the large cat. A gunshot later, he retrieves it from the snow.

This is the TV version: The cop gets the call. He drives up to a man, who tells him the lynx is nearby. The voiceover surmises the cop is hot on the lynx’s trail, so he hunkers down to start searching. The music climbs. As he drives, the voiceover reminds the viewer there are kids in this neighborhood, likely playing outside in the snow right now. The voiceover also reminds the viewer how dangerous lynx are, and explains what they generally look like for those at home who don’t know. Insert a soundbite about the possible but not yet realized danger. After a tense search, the cop arrives at the house where the call originated. The lynx doesn’t make it on camera yet, but the bloody carcass of the half-eaten rabbit does. The snow blooms red. The voiceover instructs the viewer to note the evidence: the lynx must be close, and who knows, it may still be hungry—because it didn’t finish eating. (Note the voiceover does not explicitly say the lynx will attack.) The music crescendos as the camera finally reveals the main event: the lynx, entrenched in white snow.

There is one important change, one made precisely because of our innate desire for neat narrative order. In the unedited version, you can see how the lynx reacts to the man approaching him with a rifle, paws clawing backwards as he tries and fails to escape; on television, the footage is reversed. The lynx claws forward, as if ready to leap. A moment later, the gunshot splits the air in two. You see: x-thing happens, and y-thing is the result.

As a child, I was always looking to the future. I found myself inventing elaborate scenarios featuring myself as an adult, specifically a twenty-four-year-old, an age I settled on because my mother had told me that twenty-four was her best year. When I asked her why, she said she wasn’t sure, just that it was “a lucky year.” At twenty-four, my mother had already had her first child, and was also on the cusp of ending her first marriage. It seemed that at twenty-four she had begun to direct the course of her own life again. My own childhood fantasies of what life would be like at twenty-four tended to be more dramatic. In these visions I would be standing on a sandy beach, wrapped in a silk kimono, wearing large sunglasses that covered my entire face. If anyone had asked me why I was standing on that beach, I would have had an answer ready: of course I owned that piece of it, and I also owned the bungalow behind me, where I spent my summers taking photographs for glossy fashion magazines after my divorce (by now I imagined that I too had already loved, and already lost, but had persevered).

At the actual age of twenty-four, the best thing I could say I’d achieved was getting paid to piece together elaborate TV scenarios that stretched the truth as far as they could without technically being untrue. Still, at work I often thought of my old imagined lives from childhood. My bosses, the company’s married owners, seemed in some ways the walking embodiment of my former imaginings; the kind of people who impulse-bought cars and boats and puppies and returned them if any of these things leaked too much. Money was in the foreground, background, and middle of all their interactions. I privately referred to the third boss of the managerial trio (not exactly a full partner, but not just an employee) as “the henchman,” not least because he actually looked like a movie villain.

At the office, we were sold on reality TV like a group of hungry Gold Rush miners. There were few people over the age of twenty-five, which was a running joke for us—as in, look at this bunch of kids making TV. It was also a perfect intersection of promise, possibility, and gullibility (not to mention cheap labor). Management often impressed upon us a simple and digestible idea: You just need one pitch, just one that works, and you will make a lot of money.

These are actual show ideas I was involved in pitching:

  • Meet the Co-Parents: Where raising a family doesn’t need to include romance!
  • Surviving Siberia: Could You Take On the Extreme?
  • Sew Me the Dress! (About wedding dress seamstresses.)
  • Deep Sea Underwater Welders—this one didn’t even have a title, it just sounded like a promising field.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the idea of making lots of money, especially when one is making very little of it. So when “the henchman” sat me down one day and asked me to find “Mormons, but ex-Mormons. Like Mormons Gone Wild,” I did my best. (Note: Breaking Amish was a popular show that year.) Of course, I’m not sure my boss had ever met an ex-Mormon, or understood what it meant to be one. But pitching shows often operated on the same principle as writing for them did—that is, imagine the story you want, and try to make reality fit into it.

It wasn’t easy to collect these stories from strangers. My speech was always the same: the show would be about transformation, not exploitation. If I really had to convince someone, I talked about gaining strength from sharing their experience. But as emails flooded my inbox, a sea of confessions too personal to replicate, I began to feel that I was holding something tender in my hands—something that was not supposed to be mine.

Sure enough, the stories and the people we found weren’t what they wanted. Too old. Too young. Too boring. The show died before it launched. In the end, my failure to find what they needed was a relief—at least I knew that their stories, intimate as they were, would stay safe where they belonged: with the people who lived them.

On the whole, this was an unhappy time for me. I began and ended a disastrous relationship, was passed over on several new projects, and went almost two years without writing a single word of my own work. In response, I hurt the people I cared about. I cut myself off from many of my friends. I cried until I was not even aware of when I was crying and when I was not, and when I went to the doctor, she only said that I seemed to be a bit depressed and that I should talk to someone. She wrote down a name and number for me, but I was so embarrassed I did not call.

I’ve been told by some that sadness can be a problem of narrative, the narrative we see in our own lives. One day you own it, the next the plot seems out of your control. Like having too many hands in the pot—everyone else has had their say about your life, and the taste of it all is not what you had planned.

Working late one night against a deadline, “the henchman” poked his head into my office. He leaned against the doorway and said, “I have a job for you.”

It’s embarrassing now to think of how my heart leapt.

He said, “I need you to walk on my back.”

You can imagine what I wanted to say. Instead I turned back to my work and said, “I’m not going to walk on your back,” in a tone that maintained this was all a ridiculous joke. I am not going to walk on your back was an assortment of words that certainly sounded like a joke when put together.

He ignored me, complained about his pain, and laid down on his stomach at my feet.

When most women imagine themselves in a moment like this, I think we all see ourselves saying “no.” But when the moment actually comes, sometimes it’s messier and more frightening than we imagined. The truth is, I panicked; shrunk down to the size of a pea. And as I took off my shoes, in that moment it felt as though the wide expanse of his back would become the terrain of the rest of my life, the law of a new world. I thought: this is it, from here on out my life will always be like this, ruled by somebody else’s demands. It seemed silly that there should be a part of my own story I had no say over, even as I stood above him.

That was not the last night I worked there, but it was the first night I knew with certainty that I had to leave. Every day thereafter I struggled to explain to myself what that night meant. Every day, I searched for things that marked the change that had occurred in me, half-expecting something incredible to happen, like a tornado touching down. But nothing ever came, and the violation, like many worse ones, came and went without note from the rest of the world.

Part of what I want to tell you is what the narrative of a young woman can be like, how a handful of minutes can become the rest of your life with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve. That is how that job appears to me now, a long sequence of cinematic shots. A snowy afternoon dissolves into a sun-kissed meadow; I enter a revolving door at twenty-four and come out older, and with new hair.

Remember: x-thing happens, and y-thing is the result. But that equation doesn’t always answer the question, “Why?”

I’m making it sound like there was never anything good about the job, but the truth is there was a great deal of laughter. While anyone who works in television can’t deny that it’s an example of “low” art, or maybe just the kind of art that tries a little too hard to please, even people who work in reality TV can find pleasure in it. Because in making any kind of art—base though you may consider it—there really is still something undeniable and unquantifiable: the challenge of creating something out of virtually nothing. That is a pleasure of the highest order for people like us.

In the end, what I learned writing reality TV is this: in all this mess, reality shows can hold a certain appeal—which they share with fiction and almost every other kind of narrative we come across. We hope, desperately, to find something relevant to our own lives: some small hint about how to live just a bit better, something to justify our optimism, something to show us we are not alone in what we face. A new story starts in hope and excitement, and when it begins, we see another possibility for change.

When the show I wrote for was eventually canceled, I ended my two-year stint in this strange but provocative industry. While the job wasn’t all bad, I could not imagine writing for another reality show. The longer I did, I thought, the more I would stray from the kind of writer I wanted to be: one whose chief concern was not how to make sense out of chaos, but to tell the messiest parts of life in the truest and most honest way I knew.

Jean Burnet lives and writes in Seattle. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Brevity, and Palaver, among others. She occasionally blogs about pop culture at Three Imaginary Girls.

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