Brian Lowry

"Survivor" helped establish the modern template for reality TV in the U.S., so it's appropriate the CBS show -- with its 10th anniversary wrinkle, "Heroes vs. Villains" -- would contribute to the genre's creative "jump the shark" phase.

As reality TV becomes a mature category, it's being victimized by a chronic industry condition -- namely, sequelitis.

Any success in Hollywood demands a follow-up, just as anything with built-in equity can't simply be discarded. This has given birth to a growing herd of professional reality-TV contestants migrating from one show to the next -- just as "The Bachelor" begets the next "The Bachelorette," and so on.

Thinking back a decade in our fast-changing world can strain the old noggin, but honestly, it wasn't always meant to be this way. Part of unscripted TV's allure was seeing ordinary people thrust into extraordinary situations, allowing viewers to ponder how they would fare if marooned on an island -- a la the first "Survivor's" Richard and Rudy -- or forced to plead for their job in Donald Trump's boardroom.

Being a TV contestant, in other words, wasn't originally supposed to become a lifestyle. And while the ratings for many of these franchises remain sturdy, from a suspension-of-disbelief perspective the urge to replicate them has transformed participants into actors, or at least performers -- albeit less expensive ones than SAG card-carrying counterparts, as well as willing to work longer hours without (for the most part) grumbling about benefits.

For better and worse, MTV has often been at this wave's leading edge. Yet the channel's breakthrough with "Jersey Shore" owes much to the fact that show's characters have taken posturing for the camera to such audacious extremes -- so out-there and unburdened by self-awareness as to appear, however improbably, fresh and "real." Can the same crew return without being fundamentally altered by their sudden and overwhelming fame? It seems unlikely.

At the same time, MTV has also offered "My Life as Liz," whose precocious high-school protagonist states at the outset each week that the show's people and stories are "all real," which they clearly aren't. Closer to performance art than cinema verite, the network refers to the series as a "hybrid," which in terms of "reality" ought to be applicable only if a program gets inordinately good gas mileage.

What was thus intended to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience has morphed into something akin to the 1999 Ron Howard movie "EdTV," in which a regular Joe's life becomes considerably less ordinary -- and more orchestrated -- the longer he resides under the camera's glare.

Reality's creep has come in stages, beginning with techniques like "Frankenbiting" (using clips out of sequence and context) and shooting multiple takes of scenes. Such manipulations, however, are less sweeping than the decision to supplant run-of-the-mill folks with the famous and notorious on "The Apprentice," as if watching Andrew "Dice" Clay or former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich beg for further exposure (and charity!) is more innately entertaining than real people eager to work for the Trump Organization.

Moreover, the casual relationship between "reality" and quote-free reality has bled beyond TV into the documentary realm, as New York Times critic Manohla Dargis mused regarding the Sundance entries "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and "Catfish," which, she noted, "at times appear to take a relaxed attitude toward the truth."

As accomplices go, celebrity magazines have happily joined in the fiction, picturing reality players on their covers as frequently as movie stars. Although Kate Gosselin bears scant resemblance to the "working mom" label, her travails with Jon have become a viable substitute to Brad and Angelina.

"Reality TV is now a valid career choice," Time magazine's James Poniewozik wrote this month, likening that livelihood to the social-networking trend, where "You package yourself -- choose an avatar, pick a name, state your status -- not unlike a storyteller creating a character or a publicist positioning a client."

Maybe so, but creatively speaking, that simply doesn't work as drama -- an observation freely delivered as a belated valentine to writers and actors. Because when it comes to creating characters and telling stories, it's generally more satisfying -- and even convincing -- when the process is left to trained professionals.






Television - Recurring Reality's Faux Sheen