While perhaps the reality show is slowly becoming passé on network TV (and seemingly gravitating more to cable), we may start getting fictional shows about reality shows as an ironical twist. Yes, some people will easily quip that reality shows were already fiction from the start or at least half truth. But while reality is consistently stranger than fiction, actually employing writers to depict what goes on within the midst of those reality shows could be somewhere close to being a winning formula. ABC is going to give it a try during the 2009-2010 season with a promising new show called “Modern Family” that will depict a documentarian following three disparate families in the 21st century.
Possible hit-worthiness and originality aside, a similar concept was done exactly 30 years ago by the underappreciated comedian/director Albert Brooks.
In 1979, a movie about a documentary filmmaker trying to create an important documentary about the American family was generally considered to be mostly irrelevant for the time period. When Brooks decided to make his debut feature film (“Real Life”) with a plot like this, it’s a wonder he was allowed to make any more films after it. Well, we all know he did, yet “Real Life” only did modest box office for the obvious reason that it was far ahead of its time.
Of course, “Real Life” was really being made as a satire on the classic 1973 PBS series “An American Family” that’s now considered the first reality TV show ever done. What people missed, however, was Brooks’ brilliant look into the future of reality TV and providing prescience in how directors and producers could potentially manipulate situations in a documentary. It’s too bad that he didn’t make “Real Life” as a look into a future TV show (as say 1976’s forward-looking “Network” might have done) outside of nobody being that prescient then to how TV would turn out. In those days, the documentary seen in a movie house was really where filmed reality was and was presumed to stay.
It was Brooks himself who cast himself under his real name as the director who starts out wanting to document a family in Phoenix, Arizona for the sake of showing the truths of an average American family in the 70’s. Once reality becomes too boring for Brooks, art takes top priority over anything and he starts giving suggestions to the family to make the documentary more interesting. When things start going awry in the process, Brooks grows manic and starts taking his ideas further and further before completely losing his sanity by the end. If you’ve ever seen the ending of “Real Life”, you’d know how disturbing it was while deftly managing to meet tragedy with comedy.
This ending turned off a lot of people who perhaps, up until then, were hopping aboard the cerebral comedy train Brooks always conjured in all his films. Even today, when we see everything Brooks predicted in “Real Life” coming true, the film still doesn’t receive enough recognition. That makes it inevitable then that network execs would take a similar idea and make it into a new TV show.
We shouldn’t necessarily consider ABC’s “Modern Family” to be derivative. Compared to what else will be on the fall schedule next year, it could be one of the most original concepts we’ve seen on TV in a long time. In this show, we’ll be seeing a fictitious documentarian filming three disparate families in an unknown U.S. state for an unknown future documentary. All of the families are some of the most common you’ll see in America today: Nuclear traditional, a gay couple with children, and an older person married to a younger spouse. With this, we have a chance to spin the irony on the reality show genre and bring reality to fiction…if you follow where I’m going.
Moreover, this show has a chance to berate the reality show so it doesn’t look all that attractive any more. Despite mounds of evidence that reality shows fabricate scenes for the sake of entertainment, some viewers still seem to believe what they’re seeing is reality television. Sometimes that means the use of entertainment in order to make a strong point sink in–and because ABC execs loved the concept of this new show, it may just work that way. It seems to give indication that even network execs are trying to find a way to steer us away from reality shows when they’re all becoming derivative of one another.
While “Modern Family” will speak to us in understanding the modern family and the age of the reality show, we’ll have to keep going back to Albert Brooks’ “Real Life” next year to see how much is mined from that movie. The movie is available on DVD, despite being a good bet most copies are gathering dust at your local Blockbuster. When I found it and rented it close to ten years ago (back in the last of the VHS days), it was sitting all by its lonesome on the shelf. Other than a few exceptions, most of Brooks’ movies are now that way–as are most of Woody Allen’s comedies of the intellect.
Out of all of Brooks’ comedic insights and predictions, the one in “Real Life” still has alarming veracity where it’s really only a pipe dream to think that reality shows are completely finished. Since many are moving to cable (think the devolving universe of TV Land), we’ll still be watching famous or ordinary people having meltdowns on those shows and realizing that it’s all being directed by an overzealous producer to inflate ratings. Because certain segments of the American populace are abjectly drawn to them, they’ll likely survive into the coming decade on TV in ever-increasing shocking and titillating forms.
Once one of them goes the route of “Real Life’s” horrific ending (rent or buy the movie to see it for yourself), Albert Brooks’ vision will have been made complete. Or, if ABC’s “Modern Family” ends its run in a similar fashion, we can safely say that TV is more than derivative and insidiously mining for ideas in movies and TV shows thought to be long forgotten by the masses…