Now that reality TV has been around for a couple of decades, most viewers are savvy to behind-the-scenes machinations. We know that in order to tell a compelling, interesting story, people need to be shaping that story both during and after filming.
Knowing that this is the premise, why do I still find it disappointing when the seams of the story show?
Let's talk about a little show on Lifetime called Bring It!
This is the time for me to confess before the jury that I am a grown woman who couldn’t stop watching a teen majorette dance team in competitions on a reality show for which I am definitely not the target audience.
Bring It! aired on Lifetime from 2014-2019. It focuses on Coach Dianna Williams of Jackson, Mississippi as she screams, claps and snaps at the Dancing Dolls, her very large team of majorette dancers.
In the first couple of seasons the team captain was Kayla, who made such an impressive expression with just her hands that I had to rewind and learn it. When she left, there was a battle for her spot, which in a surprise move (to me) went to introverted Camryn.
I understand that the bread and butter of the reality TV genre is to make it feel like we are watching actual reality, and I understand that without this suspension of disbelief, the genre does not work. These people are playing themselves; there's no script; these aren't characters. As reality TV boomed and more shows cropped up, it slowly became evident to everyone watching – either from interviews with an unwitting "villain" on a competition show, or from cast members who admitted to playing a certain role so that production would give them more screen time – that it's impossible what we're watching is actual reality.
Once again, I KNOW that none of my favorite reality TV contestants are actually represented accurately as their full, nuanced selves. We, as viewers, are aware that our favorite entertainers are just that: entertainers. They are not real people who just happened to be in the same room as a camera. They are fully aware of their status.
Not to mention, WE are fully aware of editing, and production, and the need to build a storyline. We are aware that reality is actually rather boring, and doesn't fit into neat 44-minute episodes. We are savvy now. We understand what needs to be done in order for ALL THIS to be entertaining to us.
Which is why I’m so confused about my disappointment when TV shows don’t pan out as expected: If I know what’s going on, why am I still expecting a full, scripted story?
On Bring It! there was a full character arc that was abandoned as the result of actual reality. Originally, Camryn wasn’t a shoo-in for the captain spot. Her challenger was another exceptional dancer, Tamia, who stood out even though she didn't have any talking heads or major parts.
While Coach D was deciding who would succeed Kayla as captain, Tamia's name was in circulation. She started leading the dancers in Battle Squad, a portion of competition where teams face off against each other. Camryn was clearly as good a dancer as Tamia – possibly even more so, since she was more technically trained – but when they stood next to each other it was clear that Tamia had more charisma and personality. So Tamia got the captain spot, and then .... something happened off camera.
According to social media posts at the time, something happened at the Dollhouse that made her either quit or get kicked off the team. Something to do with boys or an altercation or behavior unbecoming of a Dancing Doll. And there was no explanation at all on Bring It! until Tamia shows up a few seasons later dancing for a rival team, at which point she is ridiculed for defecting in a tailor-made battle stand from the Dancing Dolls.
The problem for me was how jarring it was to be snapped back to reality. There was a lot going on behind the scenes. These are all kids being exploited by the producers and their parents alike.
I suppose part of the indulgence of reality TV is in the fact that we can to trust it to tell a full story. We can trust it to fulfill our expectations for a good binge watch, or a guilty pleasure, or plain enjoyment with no guilt involved. Lifestyle shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Jersey Shore promise love, lessons learned and outrageous behavior, but if they fizzle out after the first couple of episodes, that, too, is expected. Competition shows are supposed to be the easy ones, with an embedded structure of contestants getting whittled down until there’s only one standing.
I had genre confusion where Bring It! is concerned. For all intents and purposes, Bring It! is supposed to be a competition show – each episode, they compete against a different team and the Dancing Dolls either win or lose. It’s also a lifestyle show, to some extent, and that’s where it failed me. While many of the players get full arcs that end satisfactorily, Tamia’s abrupt exit will always remind me that it’s just a production and a story as best they can tell it.
Ever since reality TV surpassed “novelty” to become a category in its own right, it’s had to deal with various challenges in its storytelling. (I, myself, made a mockumentary web series and had to learn the hard way that in-person interviews are the side dish, not the main.) What I’m really looking for is a reality show that uses the genre to its advantage to tell a really good story. One that doesn’t bore me, or disappoint.
Give me a reality show that uses documentary film tools to tell a really juicy, dramatic story that wouldn’t be better served by being scripted.