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An alternate reality

High school cafeterias are cesspools for gossip. Between bites of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and curious prods of the day’s mystery meat, guys and girls alike share who’s dating whom, who’s breaking up with whom and who should be avoided at all costs. This penchant for swapping secrets doesn’t end when people get their diplomas, however, and stations such as MTV are capitalizing on this. Thanks to a new lineup of reality TV shows – such as Maui Fever and Dance Life – lunchtime drama has now graduated to primetime.

In the latest incarnation of reality programming, the focus has shifted from groups of people competing for a grand prize to simply chronicling people’s everyday interactions. Television networks are concerned with ratings, though, so that doesn’t mean any average Joe can have a camera crew follow him around while he clips his toenails and takes out the trash. Reality TV shows must adhere to a certain degree of lawlessness that allows them to compete with their fully scripted counterparts.

As the genre of reality TV expands, however, it seems like the shows are starting to look increasingly like staged dramas, leading many to wonder just how ‘real’ these series are.

When Blender magazine asked whether MTV producers ever encouraged her to show more skin on Laguna Beach, the show’s star, Kristin Cavallari, responded with: “I’ll tell you this: No one’s life is that interesting. And I don’t think it was portrayed accurately at all.”

Laguna Beach is centered around a revolving cast of about 10 moderately wealthy teenagers and their real-life relationship woes. The show opens with a disclaimer, stating that, “the following program was shot over an eight-month period in the city of Laguna Beach, California. The people, the locations and the drama … are real.” No mention is made about how ‘encouraged’ or ‘played-up’ a situation may be, though.

During the filming and editing process, a team of people must look at hours of footage and determine what can be squeezed into each half-hour episode. Like the childhood game of telephone, where people line up and tell a story from person-to-person, by the time the plot is unveiled to the masses, its message can become warped to the point that it only somewhat resembles life as the show’s stars see it. Many different perspectives come into play – including what will nab the highest ratings – which filter the show’s final product.

In the season premiere of My Super Sweet 16 – where spoiled teens throw birthday parties costing $100,000 or more – the birthday girl, Allison, travels in a Bentley to hand out party invitations with former child star Emmanuel Lewis. When asked to divulge details about her party, the camera cuts to a scene of Lewis falling asleep while the audio of Allison’s response is played. This gives the impression that Allison talked for so long about herself – and her party – that she bored Lewis to sleep. While this may have happened, a closer look at the editing suggests that it was spliced together to make the scene more interesting.

Meanwhile, with an average of 3.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, Laguna Beach’s popularity has since spawned an entire season of reality TV even more polished than its predecessor.

Gary Auerbach, a producer for Laguna Beach, defined this new genre to as a “dramality … (a) hybrid animal that’s in between the drama that people are used to watching, and reality shows.”

What really set the series apart from other people-watching reality shows such as Big Brother and The Real World was its high-gloss appearance. Scenes are shot from multiple camera angles and the show lacks the once-reality-TV-requisite “confessional booth.” This way, scenes are never broken up by characters staring straight into the camera and rehashing events, making Laguna Beach more closely resemble a scripted TV show.

While Laguna films its fourth season, MTV has already filled its absence with three similarly styled shows: Dance Life, The Hills and Maui Fever.

Of the trio, The Hills is the most believably “reality.” I’m not saying that The Hills is in any way realistic to the average person’s life, but that it’s the easiest to watch without pausing the show to announce how incredibly staged a scene seems. This may be because the show is actually a Laguna Beach spin-off, featuring Lauren Conrad’s quest to become – a fashion editor? A fashion designer? Well, something involving fashion – in the glamorously cutthroat fantasyland known as Hollywood.

Since it’s set in an area saturated by all forms of media, it makes sense that nobody outside of the show seems to flinch or take notice of a camera crew following the cast around. On the red carpet outside of a club, dining at a trendy restaurant oft mentioned in celebrity tabloids – these are all places where camera crews are part of the norm, so it’s no wonder that nobody questions their appearance. Too bad I can’t say the same for Dance Life.

Though the premise of Dance Life seems earnest enough – six 20somethings fight to become professional dancers under the guidance of Jennifer Lopez – a sense of overall cheesiness permeates the show. In last Monday’s premiere episode, dancers are “surprised” by phone calls asking them to audition at Millennium Dance Studio in front of “Jenny from the Block” herself.

What makes this seem rather unsurprising, however, is the fact that these people are being filmed as they go about their daily routine, including the aforementioned call. It seems a little odd for the show’s characters to be completely oblivious to the fact that they’re being professionally filmed.

Even if the characters were re-enacting the scene where they found out that they were invited to audition, that makes the scenes where a character’s car breaks down and another has to ask to leave work early to audition seem even more forced and awkward. It creates a sense of pseudo-reality that tears the viewer away from the plotline as he or she questions the reality of certain scenes.

Maui Fever suffers from the same affliction. In this Laguna-esque show, more privileged, beach-dwelling teenagers live in a world with minimal rules – and clothing. The primary difference is that while Laguna Beach filmed its cast members almost exclusively, Maui Fever includes a bevy of nameless supporting characters – particularly tourist girls on whom the show’s lead males prey. This also causes the viewer to stop and question the show. I mean, how come every time a news anchor reports on location there’s at least one person vying to wave and shout “Hi Mom!” in the background, but these crews can weave through crowded beaches without a single head turned?

In addition to a certain kitsch factor, the show also has a sleazy, cast-could-double-as-the-Jerry-Springer-audience feel to it. Maui Fever seems to focus on the local males’ constant pursuit of tourists who will sleep with them and disappear back home before they can entangle the guys in steady relationships. This isn’t an allusion the show makes through careful editing though – it’s a sort of mentality promoted by Maui’s main characters.

As the lines between reality and scripted television begin to blur, I begin to question the future of entertainment. “Dramality” TV may be adolescents’ guilty pleasure – myself included – but it also represents a society that warmly embraces gossip and extravagance. Hopefully the lines between virtue and vice won’t blur as well.