By Episode 5 of UnREAL viewers are no doubt growing accustomed to the kind of in-depth discussions producers have about the cast: who has an eating disorder, who is blowing the bachelor on the side, who might be gay. These conversations are presented as work—which they are—but, in another context might easily pass for something else, that is, gossip. And this illustrates a fundamental fact about story producing for Reality: to be good at it you need the instincts of a gossip. In fact, it isn’t a stretch to say we’re paid to gossip.
At base gossip is fueled by curiosity (generally considered to be a laudable human trait in any other context), and good story producers are compulsively curious. For instance, brunch simply isn’t brunch if I can’t eavesdrop on the people seated in my vicinity, noting that the four individuals at the table to my left are most-likely work mates, stymied as they are by anything to talk about other than work. I also can’t help but note that Man Bun is so displeased with/distracted by his Eggs Benedict that he is missing out entirely on Neon Cardigan chick maligning an absent co-worker. While the desire to ferret out dirt in even the most banal exchanges may be (is) annoying to those with whom I break bread, it is invaluable while pursuing multiple hours of footage or, as in Rachel’s case this week, shooting a seemingly blah trip back to a cast member’s hometown. It’s amazing what material you can unearth simply by being truly engaged.
However, in both Reality and gossip, snooping out revealing moments is not sufficient in and of itself. A series of fact fragments without context could function as a Surrealist statement (à la “the chance meeting of a sewing machine and umbrella on an operating table“) but fails as a story. Gossip takes moments that are true and combines them to create a story that may or may not be quite as true. For instance, the week of April 13, 2015, there was a flurry of tweets about Ben Affleck in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with some reporting that he was with a not-his-wife woman. Barring a photograph of the alleged side piece, and hesitant to run with that story, gossip sites nonetheless found a way to use the information nonetheless by combining it with another fact: Jennifer Garner’s birthday was April 17. The story thus became one of a neglectful husband ignoring his wife’s birthday. Similarly, were Man Bun and Neon Cardigan characters in my footage, I would play a good deal of Neon’s shit talk against shots of Man Bun looking disapproving (even if was only about his runny eggs), and then have Man Bun seem to cut in on her trash talking to shut it down. Now we have a story instead of random “facts.”
Gossip and Reality also share, for lack of a better (or real) word, a kind of judginess. Both forms tend to focus on what isn’t socially acceptable. We don’t gossip about the fact that our neighbor donated to Médecins Sans Frontières; that would only make us feel like shit for not doing the same. No. We gossip about the harpy mom of tantruming twins who should probably be reported to Child Protective Services, the domestic dispute that spilled out of an apartment and into the public hallway, or the smell of weedcoming from yet another (my?) apartment. Of course fiction is usually similarly preoccupied with the less appealing aspects of human nature. The difference is that fiction is fictive: it doesn’t reference real people.
The fact that we deal with real people means, of course, that real people may be damaged by the stories we tell. Gossip may tag Ben Affleck as a Bad Husband but it doesn’t (nor does it seek to) provide a nuanced portrait of the guy. Maybe he’s a great father, possibly he has an understanding with his wife, we wouldn’t know and nor do we seek to find out, because none of this is viable fodder for gossip (well, maybe the open relationship part…). And yet it is precisely that we are dealing with real people that makes it possible for them to, ultimately, become the author of their own story. Because, with real people there is the ongoing-ness of life. Ten years ago Brad Pitt was a scoundrel who broke another Jennifer’s heart. Now, ten years later, he’s the consummate family man. So is he a Betrayer? Father of the year? Both and neither? For that matter, what will we think of Ben Affleck ten years from now?
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