The State of Reality TV: Producing Reality on Joan & Melissa

March 1, 2011
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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.


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4 Responses to “ The State of Reality TV: Producing Reality on Joan & Melissa

  1. Cynthia Meyers on March 2, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    Isn’t conflict the main signifier of authenticity in reality drama shows? Without some tearful conflict, we don’t have a show. Joan and Melissa’s premise is generational conflict but wasn’t it sort of pitched sit-com style? I was expecting misunderstanding, funny line, tears and hugs. This clip, however, is not sit-com at all! I’m wondering if it illustrates an evolving strategy.

    What I’m curious about, and please chime in, is how the conflicts in reality dramas are more and more between actual family members rather than strangers-sharing-a-house. In Bad Girls Club, ANTM, Real World, etc., housemates lose it at each other all the time, but there’s little at stake because the relationships exist only within the parameters of the show. Audiences could begin to wonder if the conflict/drama isn’t all drummed up by producers (and be inauthentic, and thus less interesting).

    So are producers, aware of audience cynicism, trying to ramp up the drama by using more characters who are *actual family members,* thus raising the stakes, and thus gaining conflict-authenticity points with viewers? (I’m thinking Real Housewives, Biggest Loser, Tori and Dean, etc.) The characters have a past of resentments and grievances (a deep well to draw from) and are supposed to have a future too. And then we get these extra-textual bits about whose not talking to whom after the taping or airing–allowing us to invest in the conflict’s authenticity even more. What happens to real families post-taping?

    So, if Joan and Melissa are producers, are they savvy ones? Or are they spiraling into a hall of mirrors without end?

    • Erin Copple Smith on March 3, 2011 at 9:20 AM

      That’s a really interesting point, Cynthia, and one I hadn’t yet considered. I think you’re likely right–the stakes are relatively low for folks who get to bid each other adieu at the end of the season and only reconnect on reunion shows. Family drama does have, as you note, a deep well from which to draw, as well as the potential for future ramifications.

      Your point about “conflict-authenticity” points is also apt, particularly since, while we can convince ourselves that, even if living in a house with strangers, we would not resort to hair-pulling and catfighting, we have likely had (or can at least envision having) the sorts of familial conflicts you find on the shows you list. Part of the reason the Joan & Melissa fight was so powerful, to me at least, is that these are precisely the sort of tensions I think all mothers & daughters have, at some point or another.

      Perhaps Joan & Melissa are both savvy and spiraling? They figured the conflict would be sitcommy, but it ended up being more “real” than that?

      Thanks for the food for thought!

  2. Ethan Thompson on March 4, 2011 at 8:38 PM

    Joan & Melissa is probably my favorite reality show at the moment–only because Joan Rivers is still brilliant. After watching the recent documentary about her, which pretty much reveals she is the hardest working woman in show business, I was glad to find this show. I so appreciate her pithy comments, even if the set-ups aren’t “real” as you describe, she comes across as so much funnier than all her contemporary Real Housewives. This is the TV world we now live in. Time to let go of nostalgia of some authentic “real”…

    • Erin Copple Smith on March 5, 2011 at 9:19 AM

      I agree with you, Ethan. I think this evolution of celebreality–when we expect artifice and set-up and don’t expect a cinema verite glimpse at celebrity lives–is at its highest form in Joan & Melissa. In part, I think this is because of the position of J&M as producers–the artifice is made apparent–and in part, I think it’s due to Joan’s long career built on joke writing that makes the set-up feel, in a way, natural. (And I love her claim to count all purchases in terms of the number of jokes she’ll have to write to cover them.)