The Verité of Reality Television

When I was asked by a documentary production company to make a sizzle reel to pitch a reality series about two gay men trying to live an ordinary family life with their three adopted black children in a posh white area of Washington DC, I couldn’t believe my luck. This was a subject I could believe in. On the back of Obama’s victory and all the hope for change he inspired, I felt sure this had a chance of becoming the definitive icon for the new, all-American family.

“Adopt local,” John said, holding baby Ella in his arms. Ella was the fifth newborn abandoned by her mother. “It’s better to buy food locally; why not adopt close to home?”

John’s partner Josh was a tall, Hugh Grant lookalike, with the demeanor of a 1930s movie star making courteous rounds at a cocktail party. John was rugged and earthy, with a passion for the outdoors and partying. I knew the minute I met these two that their lives, filled with plotlines and subplots, could drive a reality series for years to come. Their sprawling colonial house was not just home to John, Josh, Marcus (8), Noah (7) and Ella (6 months). Here in the nation’s capital amidst politicians, diplomats, lawmakers and judges, lived John’s geriatric monkey, two ostriches, a giant Schnauzer, a parrot, several ducks, doves, pigeons, rabbits and an exotic range of chickens. John’s idea of bliss was living a Dr. Doolittle kind of life. With business ventures ranging from antique shops to home makeovers to planning themed parties with surprise flourishes for embassies and politicians, his work-life alone was a reality producer’s dream. By contrast, Josh’s idea of bliss was spending an entire weekend in a white room.

“Let them all go to Maine,” he’d say about John’s annual summer trip where he’d show the boys how to jump off bridges and cliffs. “I love peace and quiet and I love peace of mind.” Josh ended every comment with a smile. But he claimed to have no interest in fostering John’s producers of stink, feathers, fur, tracks, vomit, pee and feces. All of these, he claimed, brought down the quality of his life.

Paradoxically, Josh’s livelihood revolved around other peoples’ pets. As the holder of five hundred keys for his high-end, dog-walking business called Puppy Love, Josh coped unflappably with pet dramas: dogs having nervous breakdowns; dog-walkers setting off burglar alarms; dogs convulsing with allergic reactions. While Josh walked his charges along Georgetown’s red brick streets with the straight-backed precision of Monsieur Hulot, John gave his beasts as much free reign as his neighbors would tolerate.

With plenty of engaging material, everyone deemed the promo a success. There was nothing left to do but wait while Phil, the Executive Producer who brought me in on the job, pitched it to various broadcasters. With the marriage of TLC’s ‘Jon and Kate Plus Eight’ on the rocks, a fuzzy, family replacement show would definitely be needed.

“It’s about time reality television took on a controversial subject,” I said to John and Josh. But secretly, I knew reality television had no interest in promoting social awareness or adoption laws.

Three months later TLC greenlit the series. We were to call it ‘Dad and Pop’. We’d start with a pilot hour and if all went well on broadcast, we’d immediately roll it into the series. Never having done a reality series, I assumed my years of making provocative, verité-style documentaries about characters with compelling stories and unfolding dramas, would come in useful. But reality television pushed verité – which means truth – into a risk-averse zone. Production was overseen by efficiency experts whose job it seemed, was to take everything intuitive, natural, or imbued with narrative meaning and subject it to the production equivalent of a vegetable grinder.

“They loved the sizzle reel but they don’t know why,” I said to Phil, when we congratulated each other on our success. “It’s like taking all the freshest ingredients out of a recipe and replacing them with tinned or dried food.” In addition to Phil, the committee for Dad and Pop included two executive producers and one show-runner from the production company; and three Vice Presidents, two Executive Producers and the Development Producer from TLC. There were meetings with three categories of finance people. At the top of the food chain was TLC’s marketing department who invested in shows that promised to meet the sales quotas of Viagra, Caribbean cruise lines and debt relief schemes.

Instead of leaving room for spontaneity, the show runner and I plotted out each scene and what people would be expected to say as a pay off. For the animal theme, John would be filmed secretly buying a miniature horse. The payoff would be Josh’s horror and the kids’ enchantment. John planned to tattoo a wedding ring around his finger to celebrate a milestone in Ella’s upcoming adoption, and Josh promised access to an eye-popping pair of dogs who inexplicably leapt around in fits of psychotic madness. As for Noah and Marcus, they would be filmed on an all night camping trip in their backyard, staking out the predator who ate one of their bunnies. I called this scene their Big Safari Adventure.

At one point when I pulled up to the house to shoot a reconstruction of Josh on the phone with a cranky dog owner, I found John on the front lawn bathing the giant Schnauzer, tendrils of suds oozing down Bart’s coal black fur.  Our reality show had begun to resemble very little of the family’s real lives. Despite needing the phone scene with Josh, I told the cameraman to film John and Bart. Like the sizzle reel I’d made, this unscripted moment had an easy, compelling quality.  While John scrubbed, he opened up about how much Bart had brought them together, even though Josh wanted nothing to do with Bart from the moment he appeared on Valentine’s Day.

Two thirds through the filming an unexpected crisis arose that no one could resolve. TLC had a sudden gap in their broadcast schedule and insisted on moving the airdate for Dad and Pop forward by several months. When we reminded TLC that baby Ella’s face could not be shown on screen for nearly another year – until her adoption was finalized – the executive producers and vice presidents had a melt down. Apparently they’d forgotten this detail. Suddenly the consuming issue was not Noah and Marcus’s Big Safari Adventure. Instead, I was asked to phone the Attorney General and ask if they could make an exception to the law requiring Ella’s absent birth mother to consent to us using her baby’s image in public, prior to the adoption. I spoke to the office of the adoption judge who’d let me film Ella’s ongoing case in her courtroom, and outlined the problem to the Senior Attorney at the Children’s Law Center. Everyone agreed ‘Dad and Pop’ would cast a positive light on DC’s adoption laws, but no one had a solution on how to speed the process along in a way that made it work out for everyone involved.

Months passed. TLC replaced ‘Jon and Kate Plus Eight’ with ‘Cake Boss’ and ‘Cupcake Wars.’

“I never believed this series would really happen,” said Josh after the production was finally cancelled.

“I definitely want to try again,” said John. “Even though I now know reality television couldn’t care less about adopting local.”

By now, the plotlines have multiplied. John gave in to Josh’s demands to get the animals away, and bought forty acres with a farmhouse in need of a total makeover. Consulting the ‘Dummies Guide to Farming,’ his animal world has expanded to include goats, sheep, horses, pigs and peacocks. He’s become an expert at neutering cows and capturing runaway ostriches with the help of local farmers.

“Sometimes I miss my old life of urban debauchery,” said John with a note of irony, “but I’m finally living my dream.” Every weekend Josh and the boys visit John and Ella who stay on the farm most weekdays.

The next series about John and Josh will be far from Obama’s stronghold. The story of this gay, mixed-race family living in rural West Virginia is better than any strand of reality invention. I’m sure ‘My Family and Other Animals,’ will be the first reality series that’s totally verité.

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