Episode 7 of UnREAL deals with the fallout from cast member Mary’s on-set suicide. The story line initially bugged me because it didn’t seem believable. The only suicide I could recall was that of Sinisa Savija, who appeared on the first version of Survivor, a Swedish show called Expedition Robinson. His suicide provoked such a scandal that the network almost canned the series (as the Survive! format was launched with this show, one might well wonder how it might have fared after that).
However, as I discovered when Googling “suicide” and “Reality TV”, the words appear in close proximity with alarming frequency. There’s even this handy-dandy slide show of reality cast members who have died, and a fair number of them killed themselves. You may note that Kitchen Nightmares has been particularly lethal, clocking 2 suicides; Russell Armstrong, a member of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills cast, killed himself after fearing how he was to be represented in an upcoming season of the show; not mentioned on this list is the suicide of Kellie Williams a participant on Extreme Makeover.
It is this final suicide that most closely resembles what happened on UnREAL, where there is little doubt that some combination of Rachel and Shia — both Field Producers — were responsible for Mary’s suicide. Basically, Kellie Williams’ sister Deleese was selected to appear on Extreme Makeover as a plastic surgery candidate. As part of the show, Kellie was interviewed about her sister’s looks. According to family members during that interview producers “goaded” Kellie into saying negative things about Deleese’s appearance, things that Deleese overheard. As it turns out Deleese’s surgery was canceled at the last minute (her recovery time apparently “wouldn’t fit the show’s schedule”), exacerbating the issue between the sisters. Because now Deleese knew her sister considered her ugly, and she couldn’t even have the corrective surgery to address it. Four months later Kellie, overcome with anguish, committed suicide. The family filed a lawsuit holding the Producers culpable.
The Extreme Makeover suicide is exceptional, however. Reality-related suicides generally seem to occur after the show has aired, and this isn’t a coincidence. Field Producers—while wily (and often evil)—can seldom rise to the level of unabated cruelty practiced by Post Producers. To clarify: when a show is shooting it is usually in the edit at the same time. So there are producers shooting in the field (Field Producers), and producers in Post (Post Producers) working with editors to craft the story. While Field Producers see cast members as human beings (and require the good will of casts to perform their jobs), Post Producers tend to view cast members as characters in a script they’re writing. Their intent isn’t to represent people accurately but, rather, to present the most compelling version of a person (even if that version is less than desirable to the actual person). If the cut reflects the reality, great, if it doesn’t reflect the reality, they don’t care (much). They just want to get their fucking cut past the network, and they will do whatever it takes to make that happen. If Kellie Williams was upset with how her sister reacted to her words in an interview, god knows how she would have reacted if Post had gotten their claws on it.
There is no overstating the havoc that can be wrought on an individual by an adept Post Producer. And cast members aren’t the only ones whose characters are impacted in this process. Because in the process of coldly transforming people into often inaccurate, or at least incomplete archetypes, Post Producers are themselves transformed. Spend enough time in Post crafting people’s words against them and creating conflict out of whole cloth and even the nicest and most well-meaning among us can devolve into arrogance. After all, we are godlike, creator of worlds. And with such arrogance comes a loss of empathy for the real people whose real lives we impact. Because, whereas Rachel and Shia have literal blood on their hands and are plagued by the awareness of their sins, a Post Producer kills from afar and without consequence.
Long story short: Post Producers need to occasionally get the fuck out of their chairs and head into the morass that is Production, lest they lose their souls entirely.