Human Resources is Back on Pivot

Pivot‘s Human Resources has just debuted it’s second season. To date the show has received largely (deserved) glowing reviews.  However, the degree to which HR is scripted seems to be the major, and frankly unimportant, issue for the reviewers.  USA Today writes:

Though rooted in reality, it’s obvious that parts of Human Resources are scripted and planned, but the show doesn’t attempt to hide that. 

Meanwhile, Really Late Review is less certain that the show is scripted, saying:

The fact that I couldn’t tell whether the show was real or not was clever in my opinion. Many shows are too obvious in what style they are (sitcoms feature same, staple humor and situations, while reality shows put people in extreme situations for attention seeking purposes), so I appreciated how the show had me guessing from the beginning.

And the Grey Lady herself concludes its positive review with yet another reflection on how “real” the show is:

Human Resources shows what happens when you put people on screen who have grown up with video cameras. Everyone’s comfortable, no one seems to be performing for the camera. 

Basically these reviewers would have it that a show rises or falls either on how real it is, or how craftily it addresses the fact that it isn’t.  While this simplistic obsession may have been excusable back in, I don’t know, 1995/6 when The Real World first broke, after over twenty-five years the time has come for a modicum more insight into the Reality genre.  And we may as well start by discussing the primary (and most flawed) assumption: that Reality is some kind of homogenous category.  It is not.  Rather it is a variety of genres (Docu-Soap, Competition, Follow Doc) that share only the fact that the participants in the show are real people playing themselves.  
Thus a review will contain comparisons between shows as diverse as Survivor (which is a Competition Reality) and Real Housewives of Atlanta (a Docu Soap) as though such comparisons were viable or even fruitful. In fact, there are as many different genres of Reality as there are of narrative, and no self-respecting reviewer of the latter would compare Film Noire to a Romantic Comedy (or even compare a Romantic Comedy, like 13 Going on 30, to a Western spoof like Blazing Saddles).  I’m trying to bring a more nuanced–read: NUANCED–insider’s approach to Reality; starting with this review.

Set in a start-up recycling business, TerraCycle, and following owner Tom Szaky and his band of quirky scientists, designers and sales agents, HR has its antecedents in shows like Small Town Security (AMC – and also produced by many of the same people at Left/Right), Duck Dynasty (A&E), even The Osbournes (MTV): half hour shows that promote humor over drama.  Called Reality Sitcoms within the industry, these shows can be extremely scripted, like Duck Dynasty in which “real” people are thrown into absurd situations, or borderline Follow Docs like Small Town Security or The Osbournes.  

Now, I don’t work on the show and while (full disclosure) I know and respect many of the main players behind the scenes I have no idea how scripted the show actually is.  Given my experience in Reality, however, I would say: somewhat. We have limited shooting schedules so chances are some scenes need to be scheduled and don’t just fortuitously happen.  But whether the show is knowingly scripted (as USA suggests) or benefits from a great cast (as The Times asserts) is not of great interest to me. 

What makes Human Resources sui generis (and a pleasure to watch) is that it steers clear of either produced or happenstance 
conflict (sometimes we do actually luck into screaming fights between cast members).  Instead, it illustrates the small adjustments that are far more common in everyday life. Like, for example, the difficulty a quirky new Canadian employee Tony, encounters while adjusting to the zany environment of TerraCycle (the B Story for this episode); or how Dan and Randi manage to land (with the assistance of the team) a mid-level contract (an A Story that steers clear of the usual over-the-top Reality stakes e.g. “If we don’t land this contract, the whole business is gonna go down the shitter,” or what you will).  Along the way the viewer also gets some take-away about the recycling business, from TerraCycle’s sometimes hilarious science team, that feels fun rather than forced.  

These are the smaller conflicts those of us who live in the everyday world can relate to, and the kind of conflict that is under-explored in Reality for exactly that reason. Those of us in the industry have long complained about the usually broadcaster-mandated fake drama/stakes that we are forced to implement in most of our shows.  This commitment to over-the-top “stakes” ultimately becomes a parody of itself in shows like the now-canceled Kimora: Life in the Fab Lane, where every single task undertaken by Ms. Simmons‘ long-suffering team is a matter of life or death.   

In addition to having a pretty unique show in HR, Pivot has a pretty clever and unusual ad campaign.  Basically, it wants to appeal to viewers who either don’t watch Reality or, more likely, watch Reality and feel humiliated for doing so. Hence, the tagline for Human Resources is “Takes the trash out of TV one day at a time” (which, I assume, references trashy TV like Housewives and Love and Hip Hop in addition to the recycling business TerraCycle engages in.) And if you missed that obvious diss of all Reality, Belisa Balaban EVP of Original Programming for Pivot makes it even clearer, “Human Resources is an unexpected blend of classic workplace comedy within the structure of a process-driven Science show.  It is distinctive and delightful, and it’s a reality show you can feel good about watching*.”  

*And also, I strongly suspect, about producing

You just can’t say that for most shows.  We really could use a lot more Human Resources out there. 

Human Resources screens on Pivot on Fridays at 10PM EST. 

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