Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word? – A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup


Trust in Reality TV: A Four-Letter Word?

A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup

[Since I find blogging about shows like Top Chef, Project Runway and Survivor: Samoa individually somewhat inconvenient, but often nonetheless have things to say about them, I figure we’d lump the three mid-week reality shows together in what we shall now refer to as Cultural Learnings’ Reality Roundup. Enjoy!]

Trust is perhaps the central tenet of reality television.

I don’t mean so much within the game itself, although clearly in a game like Survivor (whose 19th season, Survivor: Samoa, started this week) there is an element of trust between individual players. Rather, I speak of the trust relationship between the show and the viewer. Viewers hope that they can trust the judges on Top Chef and Project Runway to make the right decisions, and they hope they can trust the losing Survivor tribe to vote out the person who is making the new season nigh on unwatchable.

It is a highly tenuous sense of trust, of course: half of the dramatic value of reality television is having that trust violated, and the growing frustration as villains or talentless individuals remain while others go home instead. And, of course, that trust is forever complicated by the existence of editors, learning that the trust you want to experience is being manipulated at every turn.

So, what I find fascinating about this week’s trio of reality shows is that in each instance we are reminded of this trust relationship, and that the “worst Survivor villain of all time” is in fact perhaps the most trustworthy reality character (from a viewer/series perspective) the show has ever seen.

Survivor Samoa’s Russell (H) is, without a question, a snake. He sabotages his fellow contestants (dumping out their canteens, burning someone’s socks), he starts an alliance with just about everybody, and he does absolutely no work around camp. When one of his many secret alliance members (one of the “Dumb Girls,” Marisa) has the gall to suggest that he’s talking to more than one person, he mounts a campaign to have her eliminated that works like a charm. He interviews that he’s an oil tycoon (which is such a fitting stereotype), and thus has no need of the money, but is instead just here to play the game. And, do you know what the scary thing is? I trust him.

Of course, this trust only goes for the relationship between me as a viewer and he as a player, a unique window that we get as an audience that the players themselves don’t receive. However, while there are some Survivor villains who back down from their tactics or appear to soften with time (Boston Rob being a fine example of this, certainly capable of plotting but also a genuine team player in some respects), Russell is not backing down from any of it. While normally I question whether the editors are exaggerating Survivor contestants, or that they’re hiding a soft side, I have absolutely no question that Russell is as bad as he says he is, and that he will continue to be this way as long as it works.

And, let’s face it, it really did work in this episode. While all of his behaviour was juvenile and pathetic, note how we never see the team question why the canteens were all empty, and Jaison’s search for socks is apparently successful (likely someone gave up their own) since he was wearing some during the Immunity Challenge. But everything he did was the kind of thing which could be chalked up to a small animal, or to simply misremembering how much water was in your canteen when you went to bed (sleepless nights would tend to do that to you). Russell’s strategy of getting rid of Marisa was petulant, sure, but his tribe was so quick to take his word for it (some of them gleefully, hating Marisa for being not quite all there) that we’re left incredulous.

What Survivor has lucked into is a situation where the audience is yelling at their televisions, as this isn’t just a snake in the grass but a snake in the wide open plain with a giant sign on its back saying “I’m a snake! Don’t trust me!” And, at this point, Russell is actually the only person we can trust in the Foa Foa tribe as an audience, because everyone else is either too scared of sticking their neck out (everyone who voted for Marisa) or skeptical but in no position to really do anything about it (Betsy and Mick). The tension now is in we as an audience waiting impatiently for when the tribe will figure it all out, and when Betsy will be able to give more reason than a woman’s intuition as to why they shouldn’t trust Survivor’s most reprehensible villain.

Now, of course, it can’t last forever: the same qualities that make viewers desperately want Russell eliminated will eventually turn into frustration with the show for having cast someone so purely evil. And, personally, I’d bet money on Russell leaving the game early: the show is heavily promoting his villainy up front, which leads me to believe that they know the jig will soon be up and want his comeuppance to connect with audiences as much as possible. So, I guess we still can’t entirely trust the producers, but it’s making for an intriguing and somewhat unique (Richard Hatch is perhaps a comparison, but early on during Survivor viewers didn’t have a set expectation for how the game was edited or played) start to the season.

For Top Chef and Project Runway, the trust relationship is between the viewers and the people who have the power, the judges. While every Survivor contestant has a sense of agency, control over who goes home and who stays, Top Chef and Project Runway contestants are there to cook or sew, and while they can let viewers down it’s the judges who control who goes home and who are there to balance out past performance with present performance and growth potential and everything else.

However, for Top Chef, there is an not only a perceived objectivity to the judging but also a particular subjectivity. While we are able to see the clothes on Project Runway and judge their aesthetic appearance, on Top Chef we aren’t able to taste the food, which is ultimately the most important judging criteria. The show does an admirable job of letting the judges describe what was good or bad about the food, and for those with a strong palette you are able to watch the show and know which flavours would work and which ones wouldn’t. However, when two people create a fundamentally poor dish (like this week with Robin’s rotten seafood and Mattin’s ceviches), we’re left to trust the judges that one of them tasted worse than the other one. It’s not that we didn’t expect the food that Tom Colicchio actually refused to finish eating (tossing it into the sand) to be from the eliminated contestant, but we know that these are qualified individuals who can judge in a way that we cannot.

However, with the past two weeks of Project Runway, there’s been a problem. First and foremost, viewers are able to more clearly judge what has been put in front of them because everyone has an opinion about what “looks” good whether we know anything about fashion or not. Secondly, the show has abandoned its traditional judging panel for “Heidi Klum and Friends,” swapping out both Nina Garcia and Michael Kors for (this week) another editor from Marie Claire magazine and Tommy Hilfiger, along with guest judge Eva Longoria Parker. In theory, this is a star-studded panel that the designers are really excited about, but there’s a problem: they’re not the judges we’ve come to know and trust, and their decisions are as a result subject to some serious scrutiny.

This is primarily because they made no sense. One of the things I enjoy about Project Runway Australia is how careful they are with “The Brief,” or the challenge description. In this instance, the challenge was “make a garment out of newspaper.” There was no other descriptor, which means that the criteria is entirely open to the judges’ interpretation. And since these are not the judges we know and love, their decisions are immediately questionable, and on further inspection deservedly so. Chris and Irina had no business being in the top of this challenge if it was being judged on fashion: Irina’s trenchcoat was a gimmicky mess, and Chris’ dress was an arts and crafts project. Their criteria for being in the top of the challenge (outside of Althea, whose dress was successful) was that they did something gimmicky with newspaper that “Wowed” the judges.

Whereas Logan, Carol Hannah and (somehow) Bottom Three dweller Gordana all made garments out of paper which didn’t look like paper, which moved and looked as if they were in fact fabric. Gordana was quite surprised to be in the Bottom Three, but was enormously classy about it: she just pointed out that she thought the challenge was to make something wearable out of paper, and that was her mistake. Except that it wasn’t a mistake: Tim Gunn loved what she was doing, and I think a majority of viewers thought she was headed for the top and Irina to the bottom. I’m not entirely sure what the judges were smoking: to me, the more impressive feat in this challenge isn’t cutting up newspaper into a bunch of feathers or creating fake fur with newspaper, but rather creating fashion that doesn’t call attention to the fact that it’s made of paper.

And the problem is that, when it’s not our familiar judges in those chairs, we have this inherent sense of distrust in their observations, which was quite justified in this instance. Of course, in the end, the show restored some element of that trust when it went against what the critiques seemed to indicate to eliminate Johnny, who fabricated an enormous lie to avoid telling his model or the judges that he had torn up his first dress when Tim Gunn had called it a Kindergarten project. “SteamerGate,” as I’ll call it, was fundamentally ridiculous: you can’t get away with lying on reality television, and although Nicolas can be a bit of a tool I’m glad he stepped forward when he did so as to air it out on the Runway. When Tim, after calmly asking Johnny to pack up his things and waiting for him to leave the room, let loose with his utter horror at Johnny’s fictitious ramblings, it was a reminder that even if we can’t trust the judges we can always trust Tim Gunn.

This is, of course, what keeps us watching reality television: even in all the chaos, there is some trustworthy element of the familiar that keeps us coming back for more, albeit it unique ways for every show.

Cultural Observations

  • Survivor
    • Interesting to see them designating leaders, which humorously end up being Doctor and Lawyer – however, while Russell is treating it like a Business Leadership Seminar and creating cheers for everyone, Mick is helpless as Russell runs roughshod over the group.
    • The cast is overall pretty solid, and I thought the “stereotyping” in the opening was a fine way to play around with expectations. Russell might have dominated the premiere, but I felt the episode was well designed to provide some drama anyways.
    • Full disclosure: I was as shocked Jaison to see him get picked as the swimmer. I know, terrible person, etc.
  • Top Chef
    • Interesting to see Ashley come into her own. She had a few rough weeks, but she took to this challenge well. Still, though, I don’t foresee her really being able to hold her own against the other big names.
    • Fascinating to see Michael (I believe) indicate that he, Bryan and Mike were the only real contenders – how he managed to leave Jennifer and Kevin out of that list makes one wonder what they’re seeing that we’re not, or vice versa.
    • Dear Tim Love: button up your shirt.
  • Project Runway
    • I was really hoping that the show would take a page from the Project Runway Canada playbook on this one. PRC did a challenge where the contestants had to use umbrellas, but after they collected them introduced a twist where they had to incorporate every single umbrella into their outfit. That would have been amazing here with everyone taking giant stacks of paper (which eventually allowed them to test and troubleshoot, valuable but kind of cheating).
    • Annoying and bubbly as she is, still have a crush on Shirin – she might be talkative, but she’s been cranking out some decent garments, which is more than we can say for Nicolas.
    • I’ve officially given up watching Models of the Runway – just not even close to being worth it.

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Filed under Project Runway, Survivor, Top Chef

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