The fact that the vast majority of “reality” TV shows feature very little that could be considered “real” shouldn’t come as much of a revelation to viewers. Faking reality is a full-time business in Hollywood. But the networks seem to be taking it to another level these days. Take, for example, MTV’s recent airing of the “alternate ending” for crazy-popular 2006-2010 reality show “The Hills.” How exactly could a show that ostensibly documented the day-to-day lives of fabulous yet boring West Coasters have an “alternate” ending. Answer: It was a (badly) scripted soap opera that exaggerated, recreated and flat-out fabricated nearly everything about its stars’ lives. And producers shot three or four different endings.
Not that MTV is exactly a bastion of reportorial integrity. But when networks like Discovery or History or TLC (once known as The Learning Channel and founded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and NASA!) start indulging in patently false programming, it gives one pause. Earlier this month Discovery Channel ran afoul of science lovers for kicking off its annual Shark Week with a completely fake documentary about the discovery of a still-living, prehistoric shark. Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives was a spin-off of Animal Planet’s incredibly successful 2012 “docufiction” Mermaids: The Body Found. Network executives defended the decision saying, “though certain events and characters in this film have been dramatized, sightings of [the giant sea creature] continue to this day. Megalodon was a real shark. Legends of giant sharks persist all over the world. There is still a debate about what they might be.” The “we faked it, but it could be real” defense gets worse when you realize Discovery Channel ran a poll after the airing and found upwards of 70 percent of its viewers now believe that living Megalodon sharks (extinct for at least 1.5 million years) are a scientific fact. I’d hate to see how many people think sharknadoes are real now.
No viewer is harmed (permanently, anyway) by a show like TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” If Alana Thompson and her family exaggerate their redneck tendencies and engage in atypical activities suggested by show producers, so what? The show doesn’t pretend to be a serious documentary examination of rural Americans. A more dangerous game of subterfuge comes from shows that purport to have educational content. Discovery Channel’s “Amish Mafia,” for example, presents a portrait of a religious subsect with which few people have had direct contact. This is the kind of show that can really shape people’s opinions about a group. And yet it’s entirely fictional. Is there such a thing as the Amish Mafia? The opening credits to the show seem to indicate no. “The Amish Church denies the existence of the Amish Mafia,” the credits demur. “Recreations are based on eyewitness accounts, testimonials and the legend of the Amish Mafia.” In other words: We made all this crap up. Detractors have pointed out the show’s “star” Lebanon Levi is actually Levi Stoltzfus, a volunteer fireman from Lebanon, Penn., whose criminal record is decidedly non-Mafia-like (public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and a DUI). Also, he’s probably not Amish.
Artificiality is the new reality. We expect no less from the likes of outrageous Hollywood fabrications like the Kardashians and the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” But when educational programing fakes us out, the idiot box really earns its name.