Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Unreality of Reality TV Revealed in 90s Sitcom

The other day I came across a rerun of the "Our 15 Minutes" episode of the sitcom Mad About You (1995) that hilariously shows all the different ways cameras and the prospect of being broadcast affect our behavior--to the point where we get confused about what it even means to be real and honest.
Jamie can't get a word in to warn her sister about the cameras documenting her embarrassing behavior.
The episode presents an amazing opportunity to discuss what sort of "reality" can be represented on reality TV shows, how people act on camera (especially when they know lots of people might see them in that moment), and how we feel about living with cameras around us all the time and the possibility of others sharing moments in our lives whenever. The show plays with relationship humor around a newlywed white couple in New York City, Paul (Paul Reiser) and Jamie (Helen Hunt), a documentary filmmaker and a public relations specialist. The episode begins with Jamie returning to their apartment to find Paul setting up cameras in every room to record 15 minutes of their lives for a PBS special on ordinary New Yorkers, "Just our lives, that's all they want to see. 15 minutes...A slice of life." Needless to say, they can't just "be themselves" as comedy ensues from their efforts to be interesting, edgy, and smart while hiding the messiness and mundanity of their lives. Try keeping a list of all the ways the cameras influence the characters, and the ways that cameras make problems when characters act truthful and authentic. Got your columns set up? Okay...check it out!
After the jump, I'll share my list and some resources for organizing viewing (times, scenes, themes, notes) as well as discussion and activity ideas. It's amazing to think about how this episode hits on so many of the issues with authenticity in reality TV when the genre was about to blow up with popularity and prominence. "Our 15 Minutes" aired around the same time of the third season of MTV's The Real World just before its success opened the floodgates of reality shows that have become dominant in television today. It's a fascinating case to study with a media studies or English class talking about fiction/non-fiction or documentary/entertainment, especially in comparison to contemporary examples. It also makes a great text following reflection and discussion of our own feelings about how reality TV today portrays reality, and about the (omni)presence of cameras, and video-sharing, in our lives. That's where I would start with high school or college students (although frank talk about sex--mild by today's standards--ensues before the couple can warn Jamie's sister about the cameras, which may be a little racy for some high school groups--fair warning! Skip it if you must 15:30-17:30).

Before viewing with a group, I'd ask people to think of all the places where cameras might take video of them, and how people respond when they notice the cameras. Are we becoming used to cameras everywhere? Do we act differently when none are around? What conversations and behaviors are stifled by their presence? Next, I'd ask about reality TV. In what ways do people on reality shows "act" instead of just being natural? Questions of authenticity and identity tend to be very important to young people, especially. Some theories describe identity as performance, which changes with the social setting. So, what makes us feel authentic, and believe that others are being honest and performing their real selves? When, where and with whom do we feel most real? And how does that change in certain settings, especially as a result of being seen by others? Hip hop, punk and pop music all feature anthems with the refrain "We don't give a f@#k," or something to that effect, and tween and teen advice blogs on "How not to care what other people think" continue to be very popular (try searching either phrase). It's worth having a conversation about how not caring what other's think of you has become a version of authenticity or being real--but how "real" is that? And who are other people? I know I've heard the line "You're not other people, you're my friend/mom/teacher/etc" in sappy dramas before. So, who are the people whose opinions of us we do care about? Getting back to the show, the characters eventually get fed up with their lies and posing, turning to the camera in the final few minutes to tell the truth about embarrassing thing after thing--they arrive at "not caring what others think," for a moment, but then scramble to cut the scene and revert to their fake performances as the credits role. So, here's my list of the

Paul, a documentary filmmaker, and Jamie, a public relations specialist, newly married couple in NYC
Just our lives, that's all they want to see. 15 minutes... a slice of life

Part 1: "Preparing" to be Real [0-5:00]
Paul tells the dog to save his tricks for the camera.
Jamie steals flowers from the neighbors terrace.
Jamie "a little notice" to prepare for the documentary. "Why can't it be spontaneous with some warnings?"
She worries she's "too fat."
She thinks she "needs a haircut."
"Leave the socks [out]...for the film, a splash of color."
"I don't need the whole world to know we're's real."
"Fran is bringing over a painting to class up the joint."
"Since when do we read Scientific American?... /Do you want the whole world to know the only things we read are TV guide and the Victoria's Secret catalog?/ If it's honest, yes I do/ It's honest enough."
So, my list about cameras influencing behaviors includes:
  • trying to look interesting/cool (dog tricks)
  • worrying about personal appearance (too fat, haircut)
  • worrying about appearance of tidiness, beauty (flowers)
  • arranging life to look good on camera (socks, splash of color)
  • worrying about appearance of class (painting)
  • worrying about appearance of intelligence (magazines)

Part 2: Take 1: "We're just not interesting enough" [5:00-8:00]
"What do you want me to do?/Nothing. The only rule--Be Yourself. Be yourself for 15 minutes. Then I'm ready."
[1st take they talk haltingly about the weather. Cut]
"Maybe talking is the wrong way to go about this...Film is visual...What does that mean, dancing?/No. Doing. Doing. Doing whatever we do./What do we do?/We do stuff./I could work?/See that's honest/What are you going to do?/I'll do what I do."
[take 2, she sorts mail, reads mail. He reads a magazine. checks watch.]
"Sweetie, this is already the most boring movie ever made."
[between takes] "Maybe we're just not interesting enough/ We're plenty interesting. Otherwise, why would they have picked us?/ Who else did they pick?/Ken Burns [documentarian, Civil War, etc], Seymour Loocs, Andre Duquette, the Yee brothers/ So what do their wives do?/The Yee brothers? They're gay....They're not so much brothers./See, already, they're more interesting....Where do you get that Andre Duquette is more interesting than you?/He's French./ French Canadian./ Oh....What does his wife do?.../She's a junky./Hello!/They met in prison./how do you expect me to compete with that?/I don't expect you to compete; I just expect you to be yourself./But they're all so gay, or foreign, or gritty!"
So, I'm adding to my list about cameras influencing behaviors:
  • worrying about not being interesting enough
  • comparing to others who are more interesting (foreign, gay, gritty)
  • being self conscious about how interesting regular activities look (mail, reading)

Part 3: Take 2 "It's like two people in a kitchen, only it's us"[8:00-11:18]
"I need a cigarette./I was under the impression that you stopped smoking./ Well, there's a lot about me you don't know."
[makes up story about a biker bar, obvious lie...cousin Ira shows up, sees the cameras, and starts shilling for his sporting goods store as if it were casual conversation. Jamie tries to act like a hip cultural critic, smoking on the window sill, above the hustle of New York.]
"Cut! We're not doing a commercial. And you, we're not doing Barfly [A film by hard living cool poet Charles Bukowski starring the super cool bad boy Mickey Rourke]. Just go, [to cousin] we're trying to be real over here./I'm real...I got a suit made for this./...And excuse me, Courtney love over here, button up please./Excuse me for having a dark side./No dark side, dress regular. We're not doing dark side. We're not doing 'come on down'. We're people, just regular people. W're in a regular house, sitting on a regular couch."
A few more items for my list about cameras influencing behaviors:
  • trying to look cool, edgy, dark (cigarette, window pose, undone blouse)
  • trying to look disaffected, intellectual (culture critique)
  • advertising your business (cousin's pitch)
  • wearing special clothes to look classy (cousin's new suit)

Part 4: Take 3, Smile for the Camera  [11:18-13:50]
[Fran, Jamie's partner arrives with a painting, which Jamie lies about being for a charity drive, gestures to the camera. Fran becomes paralyzed, only able to smile blankly and giggle for the camera. Paul tries to make her seem interesting] "Something like this must be very hard for you, being a single mother in the 90s./Cut...becuase she looks like an idiot/ [Cut. Fran goes back to normal, leaves with cousin Ira]. "I'm hiring someone to play your wife/ For the documentary?/Yes/ For that very honest look at our lives./Yes...You keep talking about honesty, let's be honest. For the next 15 minutes wouldn't you rather be married to Uma Thurman or some hophead?..."
This last quote above is especially interesting, raising the question of what it means to be honest by splitting honesty into issues of representing our reality versus representing our desires. 
A few more items for my list about cameras influencing behaviors:
  • simply smiling for the camera (Fran)
  • lying to seem generous and hide worry about appearance of class (painting)
  • engaging conversation about sociological topic for audience (single mother in 90s)
Part 5: Take 4, "Straight through, No matter what happens." [13:50-21:55]
[Stiffly, the couple makes coffee, but there are no filters. Jaimie gets one from the trash, remembers the camera as she's rinsing it. Tries to cut. Paul refuses. Jamie plays it like a joke, decides not to have coffee. Dog enters with women's underwear that Jamie says is not hers; Paul embarrassed, tries to cut, but Jamie refuses. Jamie's sister Lisa shows up to return a videotape, talks frankly about sex, masturbation and a date with a meatpacker she had to cheat on her married boyfriend while Jamie and Paul fail to get a word in to warn her about the cameras. After mentioning her illegal sublet, she tells an anecdote breaking off the affair as she undresses completely and goes on about offering the guy prescription narcotics, from when their mother got a facelift, to ease his crying about their breakup, then the meatpacker shows up, jealous, so she lies that the other guy is her brother, and goes out with him, thinking he's hot, even if he has ties to the mob. She exits to meet him for brunch, still unaware of the cameras...Jamie finds a receipt for film equipment that shows Paul lied about having known the filming would take place for weeks without telling her, when he had told his brother and had even been teaching the dog tricks. She refuses to cut.]
"You keep talking about honesty; let's be honest.../Here's the truth, I didn't tell you because I knew you would get crazy and over prepared. I wanted this to be honest/ So you lied./I may have misrepresented..."
[The couple proceeds to compete about who can be the most honest: Jamie gives flowers back to the neighbor she stole them from, and Paul one-ups her admitting on camera that the ladies underwear is his, which he wears feel special. Jamie offers to show the painting. They begin talking to the camera directly through the end of the scene. Paul pulls a mess out of the closet admitting to his mom through the camera that "this is how we live." Jamie admits she does't read Scientific American. Paul says his teetch are capped. Jamie proclaims her middle name is Eunice. Paul tapes Bay Watch. Jamie has a tattoo. Paul once fell asleep in the middle of sex, jamie concurs as it doen't make her look good either. Paul directed Hooter Vacation under a pseudonym. Jamie lied to a client about working on a proposal this weekend. They turn on each other not Paul about Jamie's middle name he thought was Karen, Jamie about Hooter Vacation. They claim to feel better because of honesty, but end with noticing the camera again, scrambling to clean up the place and cutting to start again...during credits, the couple has another halting conversation about a fake sister from Connecticut. Ends with a cut.]
This scene shows the trouble we can get in by being honest on camera. 
  • revealing taboo desires, sexual information we usually share privately (Lisa's story, Paul's women's underwear)
  • showing our naked bodies (Lisa)
  • revealing secrets about illicit relationships, criminality (Lisa's affair, her date's mob ties)
There's more in there, but you get the idea. I'll leave the rest to you and yours. In the final two minutes, Paul and Jamie turn on each other with some cruelty and turn to the camera to prove their "honesty" by showing off embarrassing things and admitting their lies. The episode shows how living with the cameras transforms the characters into the familiar nastiness we see regularly from reality show personalities today along with the typical confessions attempting to establish their authenticity. So, which part of the show are the characters real, honest, or authentic? Or should we ask different questions altogether?

1 comment:

  1. “Mad About You” was one of the best shows from the 90s sitcom list. Helen Hunt won the Primetime Emmy Award four years in a row for her role as Jamie.