Shaping Reality Television: Why Nothing Is What We Perceive

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Editor's Note:

Alexandra Oliva was born and raised in upstate New York. She has a BA in history from Yale University and an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. The Last One is her first novel.

Two people can witness the exact same event and remember it very differently, but that doesn’t necessarily mean either is lying. Our brains create narratives out of experiences, emphasizing, omitting, or otherwise altering details based on our personalities and individual histories. Thus does each of us perceive the world a little bit differently. In writing my debut novel, The Last One, I realized reality television employs the same mechanism: selecting a narrative and cherry-picking details to support it.

The editing of a reality show is consciously done, of course, whereas the refining of a memory tends to be a subtler, unconscious process. But there’s a similarity that came to fascinate me as I wrote; I realized that despite reality TV’s reputation for being vapid and playing to the lowest common denominator, it’s really just another form of storytelling. Any story can have depth or be shallow, can include characters who are well-rounded or lazily conform to stereotypes – those choices aren’t determined by form, they’re determined by the storyteller.

We have all always known that reality TV isn’t “real,” of course. But I’ll confess that I used to underestimate how blatantly many of the stories we see on reality shows are shaped. My eyes began to open when a friend of a friend told me a story. She’d had dinner with a cameraman from one of the “Real Housewives” shows, and he’d regaled the table with anecdotes, including one about a time some of the wives got into a huge fight – thrown vases, pulled hair, the works – but the cameramen missed it. So they asked the wives to reenact the fight, and the wives happily did. Later, I heard about a production crew who was following a celebrity around, but the celebrity was being too boring for their tastes, so they hired a jogger to run into her – violently, so she’d drop her phone and hopefully give them some drama. It worked.

Both tales strike me as rather tame now – anyone who’s seen an episode of “UnReal” knows just how much worse it could be – but at the time I was surprised. Though I’d understood that reality TV was manipulated, I’d naively assumed most of the manipulation occurred in the editing suite, not on set. But through stories like the above, I realized I had way more tools at my disposal in designing a fictional reality show than I originally thought; I could do pretty much whatever I wanted and chances were an actual show was out there doing worse.

This knowledge was invigorating. Reality television was never something I’d felt compelled to write about; when I had the idea for The Last One it was all about finding a way to really mess with a character’s head in an apocalyptic/dystopian setting. When I realized reality television could fill that role, I was incredibly excited – but I also worried that writing a reality show might become something of a chore.

Wow, was I was wrong. I had a gloriously good time designing, casting, and developing the fictional reality show in my novel. To show both the facts of a moment and the twisting of those facts into a pointed and inaccurate story, to show how an individual can be simplified by careful editing to fit the character that’s been chosen for him – I loved it. My exploration of how reality show narratives are constructed also melded beautifully with a concept I find myself increasingly enamored with as a writer: the malleability of memory. In writing The Last One, I was able to alternate between my main character telling herself a story – cherry-picking details from the world around her to make the story she wants to believe seem plausible – and the makers of a reality show shaping dialogue and footage, manipulating facts, in order to tell their viewers a specific narrative. As different as the processes can seem to be – memory, the shaping of a reality show – it turns out that in the end, it’s all just storytelling.