Remember when “reality TV” was new? When The Real World actually seemed like an entertaining and legitimate social experiment instead of a weeks-long fraternity-party-gone-bad? When, if you squinted your eyes just so and silently agreed to suspend a little bit of disbelief, you could convince yourself that what you were seeing was, in fact, some sort of–mediated, yes, but nonetheless somewhat authentic–version of reality?
Those were good days, but I’m afraid they’re gone. Long gone. Even my grandmother now knows that reality starlets often do retakes in order for the “real” action to be suitable for cameras to capture it, cameramen get scrubbed out of the “film”, and something like New York Reality TV School exists to teach reality wannabes how to earn their 15 minutes of “fame”. Indeed, it’s impossible to write a paragraph about reality TV anymore without putting something in scare quotes–that’s how inauthentic the format has become.
And so it was with both skepticism and delight that I tuned in to WE’s newest series, Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best? The premise of the show is simple: Joan Rivers moves across the country to be closer to daughter Melissa and grandson Cooper. Of course, bossy Joan can’t keep her mouth shut, and so family drama (and big jewelry and hilarity…it is Joan Rivers, after all) ensues. Without a home of her own, Joan has to stay in Melissa’s house (overly full with wacky friends, of course), and the two bicker as Joan goes to a plastic surgeon, the family eats take-out every night, and mother & daughter plot new ways to develop the Rivers family brand.
When I pitched this post a few weeks ago, I envisioned a snark-filled analysis of the bizarre experience of watching a show that purports to represent “reality” that is produced by and stars two immensely successful media producers–and believe me when I say: it is a bizarre experience. It’s absolutely impossible to take any aspect of the show seriously, for the most part. The two women sit in their (joint) confessional and calmly explain to the cameras how important it is to stay in the public eye, to keep the brand growing and fresh…and then kooky Joan just happens to end up as a contestant on Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? or spreading a deceased friend’s ashes around Beverly Hills. This is the precise opposite of “reality,” and its over-the-top, in-your-face artifice makes any suspension of disbelief impossible. The show itself draws attention to its function as a publicity tool, and each segment seems more contrived than the last–not least because the stars are constantly reminding you of their function as producers.
But just when I was at the height of eye-rolling smugness, something strange caused me to rethink my stance. The fourth episode of the series, “Family Feud”, moves along its manufactured path as Melissa’s boyfriend Jason suggests that perhaps the family should go through some team-building exercises to help them cope with the stresses of living together. The plot, obviously another cleverly contrived scheme suitable for functioning as the narrative thread of an episode, carries along as one might expect. Melissa & Jason interview a string of goofy life coaches, psychiatrists and team-builders, and settle on a New Agey woman whose motto is “Funky to Fabulous.” They set up Joan, who (purportedly) doesn’t know what’s about to happen, and the life coach makes them don silly hats to “represent their roles in the house” and leads them through some inane exercises. And, believe it or not, that’s when things get weird, as Melissa, and then Joan, really begin to open up about what’s bugging them, and the whole mess gets very personal, ugly and uncomfortable, as you can see in the clip below.
What’s noteworthy about this episode is its apparent break with the overly manufactured nature of the series. Viewers get the sense that something went slightly awry, here, and we’re no longer watching a cutesy segment intended to follow the episode’s theme–we’re seeing something “real.” Despite Joan & Melissa’s position as producers and media moguls, their tears and anguish seem real, and the pain is palpable. This seems like the kind of arguments we’ve all had–or considered having–with our own mothers or daughters. In the following episode, “Can We Not Talk?”, the two aren’t speaking when Joan leaves LA for New York in order to put some space between them. Unlike the episodes that came before, these are awkward, uncomfortable, and filled with tears and tension until the two finally speak at the end of “Can We Not Talk?”, apologizing and promising a reunion in LA.
It’s instances like this one on Joan & Melissa that keep me watching reality TV, that remind me of the Real World promise that reality TV allows us to “See what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.” In this case, of course, it’s that the producers forgot, in the heat of the moment, that they were producing–and they got real, to some degree. After the initial crisis has blown over, I’ve no doubt the series will attempt to structure itself around recouping some useful themes and jokes out of it, but there were certainly moments of “reality” in there, despite any production intended to smooth it over. “Reality TV” is a bizarre concept, and Joan & Melissa provides a bizarre incarnation of the format, given the stars’ own institutional histories. But despite the fact that we’ll never be able to fully believe in the “truth” of reality TV, every once in awhile there’s still something “real” that’s worth watching , if you’re willing to put up with the production that surrounds it.