Tuesday, August 11, 2009

No Phones, No Lights, No Motorcars – At Home!

One of the worst things you can probably say about a TV series may be that it is derivative. Everyone wants their show to stand out as original, or if not original then as the best of the type. I think that's why CSI and The West Wing became such huge hits when they debuted. They were original; they weren't derivative (of course the fact that the shows treated their audiences like intelligent human beings not only didn't hurt but helped). And maybe that's why there are so few reality shows that really pop. Most of the reality shows out there, particularly the summer reality shows, are as derivative as hell. A few years ago there was a deluge of The Apprentice clones, and only one of them worked. That was Hell's Kitchen, and it works not because of what is similar to The Apprentice but because of what is different. Unlike Trump, and the hosts of virtually all of the clones, Gordon Ramsay has his eyes on the donkey's every working minute of the process. Ramsay is very much a part of the process, and his personality – or at least the part of his personality that comes out when dealing with a crew of what are essentially novices that he is trying to mould into a team – is an essential part of the show, even more than Trump's personality shows up in The Apprentice. (Anyone who has ever seen Ramsay's big British show, The F Word, will have seen a different aspect of his personality; of course that show would never sell on FOX.)

In the new CBS show There Goes The Neighborhood the show being cloned is Survivor, with some Big Brother thrown in for good measure. Call this Survivor: Family Edition if you want to and you wouldn't be far wrong. Of course you can't whisk kids – some as young as 6 years old – off to a tropical hellhole paradise, so the show instead tries to replicate the tropical hellhole paradise atmosphere in their own homes. This is accomplished by erecting a concrete wall around eight houses in an Atlanta neighbourhood (it looks like the Berlin Wall without homey touches like the guard towers), and then cutting the power to the neighbourhood. The loss of power not only means no TV, no video games, no chargers for cell phones but also no electric stoves, no refrigerators, no hot water and no air conditioning. And they're in Atlanta. That makes it the next best (?) thing to a tropical hellhole paradise but without the poisonous snakes and man-eating fish. Of course in Survivor (and Big Brother) the real threat isn't from those things but from the people that you're competing with and on this show that makes things more than a bit complicated.

Casting in a reality show is essential of course. That's complicated in this case because they're actually casting a neighbourhood with both pre-existing relationships and pre-existing groups. It's not like they can bring people in to fill some real or imagined quota system that requires a certain number of each group. That said, the producers managed to find a street to do this show on that is almost surprisingly diverse, both demographically and interms of human interest stories, which is another aspect of reality show casting. There's a mixed race family (the Upshaws), a mixed faith family (the Schindlers – the father is Jewish, the mother is Christian – they go to temple and celebrate Christian holidays), a same sex couple (listed as the Mullenix family), a single parent family (Laurie Southey and her daughter), a family consisting of three generations (the Bussieres), and another where the wife's niece is living with them while going to school (the Johnstons). The human interest stories are there as well. Clarissa "Chris" Mullenix has her own son from her previous marriage and adopted her two nephews after her brother and sister-in-law were killed in a freak accident (only one of the nephews is participating in the show). When Susan Bussiere suffered a stroke in 2008 her mother moved in to help the family out and has stayed. David Schindler is a workaholic whose kids often don't see him as much as they'd like, and when they do see him he usually has his phone glued to his ear. The participants on the show range from 5 to 74 (Jake Bussiere and his grandmother Marcia Flerra, with most of the "adults" being in their 40s.

As you might expect most of the first episode deals with the players getting used to their new situation and throwing in the various twists – like the power going out – before the game part of the game really gets going. Losing the power, is a big thing of course. The children and teenagers primarily think about playing their video games, using the computer to communicate with their friends and being able to charge their cell phones. For adults of course the worries are more basic questions of survival; storing food (think how much of it goes into the refrigerator), cooking it, staying cool (think of how dependent all of us are on air conditioning), and even being able to do things after dark. It is very much like being on the island in Survivor. And of course that's where competitions come into play.

The competition in the first episode required one player from each team to wear a T-shirt covered in mud and another player from the team to unravel a tangled fire hose and use it to wash the mud off the shirt, revealing three numbers printed on the shirt (water supplied by a fire engine on the other side of The Wall). Once the numbers were revealed the two team members had to run to a box locked with a combination lock – the three numbers on the T-shirt were the combination to the lock, but they had to be put into the correct order to open the lock. It was a close race, but in the end it was won by the Nelsons, the self-described "Southern Family." They became "Kings of the Neighbourhood, which carried both a Reward a Responsibility. The Reward in this case was a refrigerator full of food powered by generator, probably on "the outside." There's also a plentiful supply of food, and of course the Nelsons are expected to share with their neighbours. The Responsibility is to nominate two families one of which will be removed from the game. The Nelsons choose the DeGirolamo family (a competitive but overweight poker player) and the Mullenix Family. Chris Nelson (the father of the family) has some rather interesting logic in making his selections. He believes that the neighbours will see the Mullenixes as being weak competitively – he sees Chris Mullenix as being a bit of an emotional basket case – so that they will vote to keep them and eliminate the "strong" team," the DeGirolamos. After the nominations are made, the other families adjourn to their homes to talk about which of the families they wanted to keep. Voting was done by handing in photos of the family they wanted to keep. As Chris Nelson predicted all but one of the teams – probably the Southeys – elected to keep the Mullenixes.

I'm not entirely sure what to think about There Goes The Neighborhood. On the surface it seems like a rather ordinary reality-competition show, a reworking of an older, superior, format that manages to rise slightly above the level of most such reworkings of originals. It's not on the same level as Hell's Kitchen when it turned the format of The Apprentice on its ear, creating – in my opinion at least – a product that is in some ways superior to the original (or maybe I just like Gordon Ramsay's personality better than I like Donald Trump's – Ramsay would have appreciated Annie Duke over Joan Rivers in a second). On the other hand the show is much better than that ersatz version of The Amazing Race that NBC put on the air called The Great American Road Trip. Quite frankly, as viewers we basically know what to expect from There Goes The Neighborhood; there will be competition and interpersonal conflicts and from a purely detached point of view there's nothing really to object to. The show isn't cheaply done or badly thought out. It is, in its own way, as comfortable for the viewers as an old boot.

My problem with this show isn't with the show as television, it is with the concept itself. In most reality-competition shows the relationships are transitory. With relatively few exceptions the people who appear on these shows have no previous exposure to each other, no bonds to be tested, and after the event they will have as much or as little connection as they wish with each other. Famously, Rob & Amber got married after their time together on Survivor: All Stars (and in July of this year became parents of a daughter, Lucia Rose), but I have no idea of how close Amber is with her fellow Survivor: Australian Outback competitor Elisabeth Hasselbeck. These are, by their nature mostly transitory relationships so that the disagreements and battles and other relationship stressors cease to matter outside of the context of the game. A major exception is The Amazing Race in which team members have pre-existing relationships, but the teams are competing against people with they don't have a history. That's different in There Goes The Neighborhood. There are pre-existing relationships, friendships or at least acquaintances. Chris Nelson was able to make the strategic move that he did because he knew his neighbours, both the ones he nominated and those who would be doing the voting. That's where the show seems somehow unsavoury. There will come a time when, despite the fact that everyone knows that it's just a game and that what goes on in the game stays in the game, feelings are going to be hurt in a way that goes beyond the game, and that after the game things aren't going to be the same. I find it vaguely unsettling that the production company was willing to take that chance with people's lives. I find it even more unsettling that the producers were able to find eight families willing to risk their friendships.

As a detached TV viewer I find There Goes The Neighborhood to be an competently executed, if not particularly compelling, summer reality-competition; the sort of thing that will hold your interest for a while but which you won't particularly miss when it's gone or care about when it's not back next year. But part of me is disturbed by the voyeuristic aspects of this show. It's one thing to see people who don't know each other brought together in a highly stressful environment and watch how they interact because they know that once they're done with this show they don't necessarily have to see each other again. It's quite another thing to watch the possible disintegration of existing relationships. Somehow it makes me feel just a little unclean. But maybe that's just me.

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