Allison Howe

Thoughts About Santa While Working on Reality TV

ISSUE 7 | LIES | AUG 2011

FOTO:FORTEPAN / Lencse Zoltán, Hungarian Santa Claus, 1958, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported, via Wikimedia Commons

It is three thirty in the morning, ten days before Christmas. We've just finished shooting a huge Christmas party for the reality show I've been hired on for the day. I am eating a cookie for dinner after working thirteen hours and this is not my preference and I may be stuck here. I am probably stuck here, a two-hour drive away from where I live because other crew members took all the passenger cars home earlier in the evening and all that is left is a white van with two of the benches taken out so that we can stuff it full of equipment. The cookie has a novelty laser print on it in frosting: a photo of the host's massive abode. The cookie does not taste good, and as it becomes increasingly clear that the only way out of this place is to Tetris myself into the van between a light kit and the end of a c-stand, the prevailing feeling I have is that of astonishment. How did I get here, carrying half my body weight in sound equipment, chasing people I don't know around their house? What's the meaning of all of it, of filming the personal moments of people I would never meet outside of this job? Did anyone ever really believe in Santa Claus?

I feel it's entirely possible that the new docusoap forms of reality TV—the high-drama, glamorous, lifestyle peek shows—are born out of the same mentality as the story of Santa. In each, we are invited to believe something is real, even though logic suggests otherwise.

I don't directly remember a time when I believed in Santa. What I do remember is a period when I was certain about the physical falsehood of the jolly old elf but I continued talking and acting with my parents and friends as if he were real. I knew he wasn't real, and my parents probably knew I knew he wasn't real, but the point of the thing was to keep on pretending, to make the myth come to life by getting caught up in excitement and anticipation of magic. The viewer operates in a similar mentality when watching reality TV. Anyone raised in the media age knows that the mere presence of a camera crew makes the idea of true documentation suspect, but the audience ignores that nagging feeling because the notion that the fights and the tears could be real is just too tempting.

But there are two varieties of the reality show fantasy. On one side, the viewers get caught up in the scenes and the conflicts, constantly wondering what's real and what's not. What the audience may not realize is, on the other side, that the participants on the show are also involved in a truth debacle. Though some of the backstabbing gossip in reality show drama is started by the show's players, a nice dollop of negative comments originates with the producers. On a show I worked on last year, one character nearly got beaten up by another for something he was offhandedly coerced into saying about the other's girlfriend. Not only did producers invite the degrading comment in the first place, but they also were the ones who repeated the comment to the boyfriend, and the ones who told him where the offender was hanging out (i.e., where the cameras would be) a few days later, just in case he wanted to do something about it (which we suggested he indeed should). Participants are of course never told if or when production has orchestrated something but just like the audience, they too begin to question the bizarre coincidence of cameras rolling right when the action happens. They often beg, plead, or try to trick crew members into divulging the real truth. But the crew's continued employment depends on secrecy so we uphold the illusions and don't speak out.

Some reality performers are entirely aware of the artifice and are more than willing to simply spit out a line for the sake of story development. Others have more invested in the show and are more desirous for things to be real. There are times when the show character is more negative or more ridiculed than the original person, but there are also times when the character actually has it better off. The show can make characters seem like they have more friends than they really do. The production company can turn an aspiring musician's mediocre concert into a grand event by pulling strings to get a better venue. Thus, some participants believe in the show despite the times of negativity or manipulation because they want to believe they are their characters.

The producers and the participants on reality shows feed into a doppelganger world in which truth and fantasy combine. Someone on the show starts with an agenda, the others run with it, and in the end no one can say what is genuine. Even when I'm closest to the conversation, I can no longer figure out what is real and what is a lie. The distinction seems impossible and irrelevant.

There are people who still believe entirely in reality TV. They believe the participants are never fed lines, never selectively edited, never asked to do something they wouldn't already do. My estimation is that despite what avid believers may say, truth isn't what we're after. The purpose, in fact, is to take things that exist and change them, heighten them, bring a taste of something beyond ordinary existence. So it seems reality TV is, like Santa, fanciful ideas presented as truth. Though this time we add joy in the misfortune of others as an agenda of the fantasy. There are many shows, of course, with varying themes. Some premises bring the viewer fantasies of success in business, adventure, or perfect relationships: not necessarily topics to cause the downfall of society. Yet regardless of thematic variety, there is still something unsettling about the genre. What disturbs me most about the current state of reality TV is not the potentially base or prurient aspects of viewership, but rather the idea that we are presenting a fantasy of a world just slightly different from our own. The fantasy is simply a world where people are a little more dramatic and a little less socially inhibited.

But if Santa is an okay thing for society, maybe reality TV isn't so bad. The characters on these shows might even achieve their dreams, form deep and trusting friendships, or gain insight into their true selves. They surely won't harbor grudges over ideas that have been planted in their heads about who did what to whom. The audience will find a moment of entertainment, or maybe even of inspiration. I will make it home to my warm bed and feel satisfied that I've helped to bring something good into the world. There will be rainbows and sunshine, and if we've been good Santa's helpers there will be a Christmas bonus. All you have to do is believe.

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