The Reality of Reality Part I: Docu Soaps

Couple Problem

I heard tell of a Docu Soap where they accidentally broke up a couple they were supposed to be following to the altar. In the producers’ zeal to create peril regarding the impending nuptials, they put the characters into scenarios that revealed actual issues in the relationship; this led to great fights (for Production) and an unintended breakup.

Reality producers often get asked: “How real is Reality anyway?”  The question is tough to answer: what does “reality” mean in any context, let alone a world of social media mediated personas? So let me rephrase the sentiment as follows: are the actions of the characters on a show like Real Housewives of New York City documentary? Well …


vikki pollard


Here’s the thing: when it comes to Docu Soaps, the scenarios are almost entirely scripted. We have an episode outline — essentially a script — before we go into the field. We know which activities the cast will be participating in and what the character’s emotional arcs are expected to be. We decide in advance of shooting what beefs will be teased out, what heartstrings pulled and what conflict we are likely to climax with.

So it’s all fake? No-but yeah-but no-but…

The outlines are based on what we know to be true about those characters. For instance if two characters hate each other, we will write to that reality and deliberately create scenarios bound to exacerbate their animus. A tried and true strategy is the old throw them into therapy to “resolve” their issues (AKA have them talk shit about each other in front of each other thereby provoking hurt feeling and most likely fueling their beef). However, while the scenario is produced, the emotions that the scenario elicits are real and usually quite deeply felt.

Further complicating the question of, “WTF is real here?” is that characters may react to scenarios, like the hypothetical therapy session mentioned above, in ways that change the direction of the episode or even the series. For instance, if therapy gets particularly heated, cast member A may refuse to talk to cast member B, requiring us to change the script sometimes quite radically. We may even decide to make this hitherto minor squabble into THE conflict of the season.

The cast, then, aren’t passive puppets in the hands of the producers. They’re actually somewhat active in their fate and their emotional reactions lead the story as much as the script sets them up for it.

Which brings me back to the couple I mentioned at the top. That show ended up being about the downward spiral of what seemed to be an intact relationship. So, was the breakup real or Reality? Or both? Or does it exist in some form or dimension that has yet to be explored?

To quote Crazy Ex-Girlfriend “It’s a wormhole, it’s a möbius strip, it’s snake eats tail, it’s the infinity sign!”

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