E!'s new series Reality Hell isn't exactly heaven, but it's at least somewhere in purgatory. Based on the first two episodes, the series kinda works, surprisingly. The conceit is this: A reality star wannabe (called the "target") signs up to be on a show of some varietal (dating shows, home redesign, spouse switching, model competitions, etc.) and is subjected to all the common miseries of the form. There are obnoxious, antagonistic, camera-hogging personalities. There are tetchy race relations. There are outrageous, The Soup-ready moments like champagne bottles being broken over people's heads. The hook? Everyone but our protagonist is an actor and the whole thing is just a joke poking fun at the silliness of reality TV. It's like Candid Camera, except the mark already knows the cameras are there. At the end of the half hour, the clueless individual is let in on the prank and everyone has a laugh. I'm a big sucker for the gotcha! pay-offs of these kinds of everyone's-in-on-the-joke-but-one-person setup shows (see: MTV's underrated Boiling Points), and while the two reveals I've seen so far haven't been as wholly satisfying as I'd want them to be, there is definite promise for that kind of odd, jittery catharsis as the show ages and hopefully hits its stride.
There are also funny, if a bit obvious, observations about reality show cliches (bitchy wannabe models and horrifying tours into a wife-swapped family's heart of darkness so far) at work here that are spunkily candid and pleasingly meta (they're using a reality show to lampoon reality shows!) That we've become so familiar with the vernacular of non-scripted programming, that we can anticipate all the beats, is a telling sign of how creaky the whole format has become. So it's nice to see those things we hate mocked in a friendly, we're-all-in-this-mire-together kind of way. We're all helplessly imbued with the wretched language of reality TV, so we might as well chuckle about it, right?
The thing we try to keep in mind when attempting to reconcile reality television with our hope for a good and honest world is that reality shows are simply refuges for vainglorious circus freaks, not regular folks. We desperately need to believe that the mirror isn't being held up to real life, it's just reflecting other mirrors. This sentiment is, for the most part, warmly affirmed in the second episode, which puts a normal, likable, middle-class California family in a crazed Wife Swap-esque No Exit. The wife is appropriately shocked and appalled by the big fat Hollywood producer type and his overly-sexualized teenage daughter when she's brought over to live in their house for a day. Back at her home, dad and son are grossed out by the producer's snobby gold-digger of a trophy wife. The producers even grab the kitchen sink and throw it in the pile by way of an adopted Japanese kid named Kazu, who functions as the fake family's domestic slave.
We'll likely never know why exactly the real family decided they wanted to be on a spouse trading show in the first place (sadly there must be some narcissism creeping around in that house), but we meet them in media res without any background info, so I shrugged and forgot all that and pleasantly enjoyed watching them freak out in the same way we've all been freaking out since these shows started airing. There they are, actually in front of a camera, expressing the same enraged incredulity that I brim with in the lonely remove of my living room. When, in the end, the adept actors point their fingers and laugh and the family finds out it's all been a fake send-up of Wife Swap, the goal isn't to embarrass the family for having wanted to be on television (that would be a much darker, meaner show, which I suspect the series will become.) In this particular instance, it's really just mild fun at the expense of a tacky, slapdash genre. As far as social satire goes, the episode certainly isn't Swift, but it's enjoyable and nimble enough, especially considering it's set to appear on the 9th circle of reality networks, E!.
Unfortunately, the premiere episode doesn't fare as well. The setup is funny, but it carries a strong whiff of the meanness the second episode blessedly avoids: a too-confident and probably pretty dim aspiring model signs up for The Complete Package, a Top Model knock-off rife with ridiculous, preening fashion characters. The episode falters largely because the Target gradually begins to seem aware of the trick that's going down. She's suspiciously accepting of the over-the-top ridiculous jokes they throw at her, especially of a Milgram Experiment homage involving trivia questions, a catwalk, and an electric chair. It's silly and overdone and because the model so willingly gulps down the whole insane cocktail, I started to wonder if she was a plant installed by producers too scared to put an actual real person through the wringer for the first go around. If that's the case, then the whole thin conceit of the show crumbles.
But she is real, isn't she? E! wouldn't tell us that big of a lie, would it? Taking that on rickety faith, the Target must have gamely gone along with it because it's TV, because people with power were telling her the electric chair was just another part of the process.
And that's an obvious but still unsettling statement about the evolving nature of reality television and those it glamors. Just like Milgram's unwitting subjects were cowed into obedience by a lab coat and whirring machines in the '60s, 2009's model girl is awed and willingly hypnotized by lights, cameras, and fake British accents. Reality television's behavioral influence is powerful to the point of being vaguely menacing, some accidental part of Reality Hell insists. The genre has become a new sort of populist version of Milgram's experimenter. Reality Hell probably doesn't disarm or neutralize the beast any, but it's a wanly noble effort. Reality shows are stupid and predictable! And this reality show about how reality shows are stupid and predictable is slightly less so. And that's progress, I guess. But just what we're progressing to I'm not really sure.
Is it getting warmer in here?
"Reality Hell" premieres Sunday August 16th at 10:30pm, on E!