Re­al­ity TV Glows Up

The do­cuseries thrives by go­ing low

New York Magazine - - FEA­TURES - By Kathryn Van Aren­donk

there’s a scene in HBO’s NXIVM-cult do­cuseries, The Vow, that turned my ini­tial idle cu­rios­ity into ab­surd, all-con­sum­ing ob­ses­sion. At the end of the first episode, a for­mer cult mem­ber named Mark Vi­cente gets emo­tional in the mid­dle of a talk­ing-head in­ter­view as he de­scribes how NXIVM de­stroyed the early, ten­der part of his mar­riage. “I feel like my life with Bon­nie was stolen,” Vi­cente says. “Bon­nie got there first.” He’s re­fer­ring to her re­al­iza­tion that the or­ga­ni­za­tion they had de­voted their lives to was a cult. Then, with­out any warn­ing, the show skips back in time to an ear­lier mo­ment of rup­ture be­tween the cou­ple, when Bon­nie laid out her con­cerns about NXIVM to Mark. “There’s a lot of things I’m start­ing to see about the or­ga­ni­za­tion,” she tells him, while Mark tries to talk her off the ledge: “C’mon, boo. C’mon, c’mon.” “I think some things are go­ing to crum­ble,” Bon­nie says.

Cut to clos­ing cred­its.

I was so com­pelled I let my kids’ break­fast oat­meal con­geal in the pot be­hind me while I watched. This, I re­al­ized, is the way pro­duc­ers on The Bach­e­lor would have told this story. That sounds gross and bad! A thought­ful do­cuseries about hu­man vul­ner­a­bil­ity and the search for mean­ing be­ing re­duced to the megadrama of a re­al­ity dat­ing-com­pe­ti­tion show? That move, though—the talk­ing head and the cut to the scene as it un­furled with no de­mar­ca­tion be­tween them, fol­lowed by the punch of an episode end­ing—that’s a re­al­ity-TV clas­sic, a bread-and-but­ter edit for a Real Housewives melt­down. In its doc­u­men­tary sen­si­bil­ity, The Vow is part of a vi­tal, well-es­tab­lished school of fly-on-the-wall film­mak­ing. Its cre­ators, Karim Amer and Je­hane Nou­jaim, are award-win­ning di­rec­tors. But in its TV­ness, in its cliffhange­r de­lights, and in its sus­tained in­ti­macy over time, The Vow is re­al­ity TV pol­ished to a pres­tige shine, and

the qual­i­ties it shares with the form are key to why it’s so de­li­cious.

The Vow is just the lat­est to tap into the surge of pop­u­lar­ity for the do­cuseries for­mat, which was spurred by true-crime works like The Jinx and Mak­ing a Mur­derer (as well as the pod­cast Se­rial) and the cul­tural-his­tory se­ries O.J.: Made in Amer­ica. In re­cent years, the form has flour­ished. In crime and thrillers, there’s Wild Wild

Coun­try, The Keep­ers, and Er­rol Mor­ris’s Worm­wood. In food do­cuseries, on Net­flix alone, a pro­lif­er­a­tion: Chef ’s Ta­ble, Ugly De­li­cious, Salt Fat Acid Heat, Cooked, Street Food. In just 2020: the wildly pop­u­lar sports se­ries Cheer, the ex­cel­lent med­i­cal do­cuseries Lenox Hill, the true crime–cum– bi­og­ra­phy I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Chef ’s Ta­ble: BBQ, and, in­escapably, Tiger King.

Doc­u­men­taries have al­ways car­ried with them an air of le­git­i­macy and high­brow sheen. But the arc of the do­cuseries in the past five years—the way a show like Tiger King was able to con­sume all the cul­tural oxy­gen this spring—re­minds me of what hap­pened to TV dra­mas over the past two decades. The dis­tinc­tion be­tween a net­work drama and one made for a pre­mium-ca­ble out­let (called, var­i­ously, “pres­tige TV,” “qual­ity TV,” “TV that’s ac­tu­ally a movie,” and “TV that’s bet­ter be­cause it’s not re­ally TV”) came down to nar­rowly de­fined spe­cial­ness. The lat­ter was more ex­pen­sive, it of­ten em­ployed dense sto­ry­telling and play­ful cine­matog­ra­phy, it de­manded all of the viewer’s at­ten­tion, and there were fewer episodes. A sim­i­lar pat­tern un­der­lies the ex­plo­sion of the do­cuseries, which emerged from

the world of doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing but also from a tele­vi­sion land­scape primed by decades of re­al­ity TV.

The boom in true crime, for in­stance, stems largely from the in­flu­en­tial doc­u­men­tary film The Thin Blue Line (1988) and the do­cuseries The Stair­case (2004). But those works are also re­fined, more ex­pen­sive, in­depth it­er­a­tions of shows like Un­solved Mys­ter­ies, The FBI Files, Foren­sic Files, and the en­tire oeu­vre of Nancy Grace. The many culi­nary do­cuseries over the past sev­eral years, which show cook­ing in ha­gio­graphic slow mo­tion and treat food cul­ture as allse­ri­ous ethno­gra­phies, are cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a long-es­tab­lished au­di­ence for re­al­ity food TV, a genre big and mul­ti­fac­eted enough to fill its own cook­ery-com­pe­ti­tion uni­verse. Ex­am­ples like Deaf U, out this Oc­to­ber on Net­flix, are do­cuseries in­stan­ti­a­tions of shows from the large and lu­cra­tive world of in­su­lar-sub­cul­ture se­ries, like Keep­ing Up With the Kar­dashi­ans, 19 Kids and Count­ing, Duck Dy­nasty, and Tod­dlers & Tiaras,

and shows like Teen Mom, Jon & Kate Plus 8, and Lit­tle Peo­ple, Big World, about chal­leng­ing, of­ten un­usual life ex­pe­ri­ences. Fol­low­ing the TLC and MTV for­mat for re­al­ity shows, a do­cuseries like Tiger King takes charis­matic peo­ple in ab­nor­mal cir­cum­stances and turns their lives into ob­jects of sub­cul­ture tourism. They in­vite view­ers to tour un­fa­mil­iar worlds, the in­ner lives of ev­ery­one from po­lyg­a­mists, to peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, to—Can you imag­ine?—peo­ple

who live in the South.

An­glo-Amer­i­can cul­ture has yet to meet some­thing low­brow that it didn’t find a way to repack­age as classy and valu­able. (See bawdy Re­nais­sance plays, 19th-cen­tury se­rial fic­tion, soap op­eras.) And on the ma­jor net­works or on ca­ble chan­nels like TLC and A&E, most re­al­ity shows are trash. This is hardly a se­cret—many are proudly low­brow, and they’re treated by view­ers and net­work buy­ers alike as dis­pos­able. Some are junky, cheaply made se­ries that run for­ever, but even for a show with sky-high pro­duc­tion val­ues, like The Real Housewives,

they are un­re­servedly mucky in tone and story. They come with the added voyeuris­tic kick of be­ing real. Or re­al­ish. Real enough for that oomph of busy­body plea­sure.

There’s an im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween the way most re­al­ity shows are made and the foun­da­tional ethos of a do­cuseries. Re­al­ity shows are cast, tested, poked, prod­ded, of­ten prewrit­ten, and edited to shape sto­ries that would not oth­er­wise have ex­isted. Do­cuseries, for the most part, film their sub­jects as they are. There’s still op­por­tu­nity to mold the story that ap­pears on­screen—by chang­ing how it un­folds, whose per­spec­tives are pri­or­i­tized, which ex­cerpts to use out of many hours of filmed footage, whom to in­clude and whom to leave out. Still, the aim of doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing is typ­i­cally to ap­proach the sub­ject from a di­rec­tion that’s en­tirely in­verted from that of re­al­ity TV. Re­al­ity pro­duc­ers start with a story and find sub­jects to fit; do­cuseries pro­duc­ers start with sub­jects and wait to see what the story will be.

That dif­fer­ence is key to the le­git­imiz­ing link be­tween the two forms. By now, sev­eral decades into their life on TV, there’s an en­trenched un­der­stand­ing that re­al­ity shows are un­be­liev­able and, in some cases, eth­i­cally sus­pect. There have been eth­i­cal ques­tions about many do­cuseries, of course, and true crime as a genre comes with all kinds of con­cerns about ex­ploit­ing vic­tims for en­ter­tain­ment. But those ques­tions are dif­fer­ent than the in-your-face un­ease of an episode of, say, Be­low Deck, where a par­tic­i­pant who’s ob­vi­ously in the throes of a med­i­ca­tion cri­sis con­tin­ues to be on-cam­era in spite of their on­go­ing strug­gles. Do­cuseries,

An­glo-Amer­i­can cul­ture has yet to meet some­thing low­brow that it didn’t find a way to repack­age as classy.

made with a jour­nal­is­tic eye and with the (un­in­tox­i­cated) con­sent of their sub­jects, are san­i­tized ver­sions of re­al­ity-show messi­ness. If du­bi­ous ethics help de­fine re­al­ity TV’s low­brow trashi­ness, the per­cep­tion that a do­cuseries is less ma­nip­u­la­tive and less man­u­fac­tured helps se­cure its more dig­ni­fied sta­tus. That comes across in the pack­ag­ing, too. A se­ries like The Vow is beau­ti­ful, an art­ful vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence that turns scratchy phone record­ings into tense scenes and a sim­ple text ex­change into a hor­ror film. Its ti­tle cred­its are from the di­rec­tor who de­signed those of HBO’s True De­tec­tive, and The Vow’s many col­lab­o­ra­tors come from doc­u­men­tary film and TV. In its form and its style, The Vow screams “el­e­vated.”

Un­der­neath, though, I could feel my brain ping­ing in re­sponse to The Vow in the way it does to re­al­ity pro­gram­ming—to the voyeuris­tic close­ness of it. The same is true for long stretches of Net­flix’s col­lege-foot­ball do­cuseries, Last Chance U, and the en­tirety of Tiger King. Joe Ex­otic, the sub­ject of the lat­ter se­ries, had been try­ing to make a re­al­ity show about him­self fea­tur­ing much of the same ma­te­rial that ended up in the do­cuseries. But by fold­ing the re­al­ity-show pro­duc­tion into the do­cuseries nar­ra­tive,

Tiger King could take ad­van­tage of the ma­te­rial while hold­ing it­self at arm’s length. Be­ing about a re­al­ity show feels su­pe­rior to be­ing one. The cen­tral ap­peal of one of my fa­vorite do­cuseries from the past two years, Show­time’s Cou­ples Ther­apy, is that its di­rec­tors were able to cap­ture ther­apy as it hap­pened over the course of sev­eral months. It’s like be­ing in a room with cou­ples as they dis­cuss their most pri­vate thoughts. And while its art de­sign and eth­i­cal foun­da­tion are vastly dif­fer­ent, Cou­ples Ther­apy is so much like a re­al­ity-show premise that it was

the premise for a six-sea­son re­al­ity show on VH1 also called Cou­ples Ther­apy. Putting the two se­ries side by side is an un­canny il­lus­tra­tion of pres­tige glow-up. On one side, night-vi­sion footage of Fla­vor Flav storm­ing out of a bed­room in a man­sion where celebrity cou­ples have been se­questered to cre­ate re­al­ity-TV drama. On the other, a wood-pan­eled, neu­tral-toned ther­a­pist’s of­fice where a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist looks care­fully at the well-heeled cou­ple across from her on the sofa.

Do­cuseries have be­come so “in vogue,”

The Vow’s Karim Amer told me, that turn­ing a doc­u­men­tary-film pro­ject into a se­ries can be the eas­i­est way to get it made, even if that means stretch­ing it out un­nec­es­sar­ily into a se­ries-length for­mat. But the un­der­ly­ing fuel for the do­cuseries boom, Amer thinks, is that “we are liv­ing in a crazy time.” “Peo­ple want to go deeper,” he said. “The doc­u­men­tary se­ries is in many ways the new novel, [like] the way that Dick­ens would write long sto­ries. Peo­ple want to feel like they’re go­ing chap­ter by chap­ter into worlds.”

As I lis­tened to Amer dis­cuss the “nov­el­is­tic” el­e­ments of the do­cuseries, I thought about all the ways that com­par­i­son makes sense. One of the great in­no­va­tions of the Euro­pean novel was free in­di­rect dis­course. It of­fered new modes to ac­cess some­one else’s pri­vate self, cre­at­ing an al­most alarm­ing prox­im­ity with char­ac­ters by al­low­ing their in­te­ri­or­ity to slip into a nar­ra­tor’s voice. What bet­ter com­par­i­son to the over­whelm­ing in­ti­macy of The Vow? But in the same mo­ment, I thought about Charles McGrath an­nounc­ing that TV is the “prime-time novel” in a 1995 New York Times Mag­a­zine

es­say and how many times David Si­mon’s work has been com­pared with Dick­ens’s. How of­ten have I heard TV cre­atives de­scribe their pres­tige dra­mas as “nov­el­is­tic” and “Dick­en­sian”? Do­cuseries are the new­est con­ver­sa­tion-con­sum­ing form— adding a nod to Dick­ens is just the chef’s kiss of TV le­git­i­macy.

The VH1 re­al­ity se­ries Cou­ples Ther­apy, left, and the Show­time do­cuseries Cou­ples Ther­apy.

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