- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

NEW YORK
Everybody's talking about reality TV. To understand why, it might help to consider what nobody's mentioning. The season's new arrivals nobody's talking about include sitcoms such as "Good Morning Miami" and "Hidden Hills," hit dramas "CSI: Miami" and "Without a Trace," family favorites "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter" and "American Dreams."
So far, the only buzz from viewers about the broadcast networks' scripted fare has focused on the big bucks NBC will pay for "Friends" next year and how "The West Wing" isn't as good as it used to be.
At the same time, the audience has glommed onto so-called reality TV and its real-people characters, whether found in the wilds competing for $1 million or in cushy surroundings choosing a soul mate.
Not only do viewers watch, they talk about "Joe Millionaire," "The Bachelorette" and soon enough, the next "Survivor."
President Bartlet can eat his heart out. With fellow imaginary heroes, he's upstaged by living, breathing personalities as they make love or make war but mostly make a spectacle of themselves. No fictional leader of the free world can rival a character like Evan Marriott or Trista Rehn.
Or so the current craze suggests, as viewers cling to a misconception that "reality" automatically trumps scripted programs for truth and immediacy.
As often as not, however, reality TV is missing both.
… Truth? Yeah, right. A reality show typically sets its participants into a narrative mostly plotted out before the tape ever rolls. Nothing is rigged; it's all just tightly structured in formula and execution. This is a big-time network series. There's way too much at stake to leave anything of consequence to chance.
… Immediate? Warmed-over is more like it. Weeks or months after the events transpired, they are revealed, episode by episode, to eager viewers and the dutiful media, which endorse the show by reporting each deferred plot twist as if it were breaking news:
Miss Rehn of ABC's "The Bachelorette" (Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.) trims her dance card to eight suitors, and, boy, is Brook, the ousted Texas cowboy, ticked off. No way a scripted series can generate headlines like that, week after week.
Meanwhile, veteran on-air talent is getting beat by reality shows' new faces as they practice the first rule of TV circularity: Whoever you happen to be, when on television, act like people on TV always act, not like yourself.
There is a protocol for being a TV personality, and people who land roles on reality shows know what it is (especially because many of them are bucking for celebrity anyway and want nothing more than to shed their "real person" past).
Reality TV can boast of being unrehearsed, but its participants (who, like everyone, watch TV and picture themselves on it) have been rehearsing all their lives. They are ready for their close-up and their wireless mike.
In short, reality TV is no more "real" than any other oft-repeated public ceremony. For it to pretend otherwise is a lie, and that's a lie refreshingly mocked by "Joe Millionaire."
The most talked-about of the latest reality crop, this Fox hit (Mondays at 9 p.m., rerun Thursdays at 8 p.m.) spotlights Mr. Marriott, a strapping young bachelor, as he goes through the process of selecting his dream woman from, originally, 20 contenders. (Only Melissa M., Mojo, Sarah and Zora remain as of this week's broadcast.) The wicked punch line: None of these dishy dupes had any clue that Mr. Marriott is a low-paid construction worker rather than the fabulously wealthy heir he pretended to be.
The perverse charm of "Joe Millionaire" is that it's so upfront with viewers about its dishonesty, which makes it among the most honest of the reality-TV genre.
Granted, the show is less straight when it calls Mr. Marriott "the dashing ditch digger" while neglecting to mention "former underwear model" and "pro-wrestling school dropout."
The real truth about him, whatever it may be, must conform to the needs of the show, which has stereotyped him as an "average Joe" who "made a humble living by simply moving dirt" and now is seeking "the woman who will love him for who he really is" not his phantom fortune.
Mr. Marriott has played along with this romantic premise on "Joe Millionaire," but at a Fox news conference last week, he sounded more practical. "A lot of the reason I did the show," he says, "is I had such a bad year financially."
That was then. Now, like any other star of reality TV, he has a crack at cashing in on his overnight fame. Never mind the lies.


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