“Ken steepled his fingers and gazed thoughtfully up at the ceiling. ‘Dwarves have done very well for us in primetime … of course you never go wrong with pimps, sluts, hoes, and bitches.’ He winked at Kevin. ‘We don’t mean that in any kind of racist or sexist context, of course… Anyway, our best night of the week is our Sunday primetime lineup. We call it – for lack of a better term – our ‘freaks and losers’ block.’”
That’s an excerpt from “Reality Boulevard,” a new novel about the world of reality TV by two-time Emmy Award-winning writer, director, and producer Melissa Jo Peltier. While you might think that scene is satirical, it’s an almost word-for-word account taken from conversations between cable network executives in various meetings Melissa attended during her career.
After more than 20 years as an industry insider, she is certainly qualified to give readers a “reality check” about reality television, i.e. most of it isn’t real at all. Melissa says the people behind much of the programming hold an “extremely cynical view and derogatory view of their audience and of the people who are in it.” This makes it all too often akin to a circus sideshow. (Cue the Elephant Man.)
With so much moral ambiguity at play, what happens in front of the camera can’t hold a candle to the comedy and drama behind the camera. And that’s what you get in “Reality Boulevard.”
When I began reading the novel, I knew it would be good. After all, Melissa is the co-author of seven non-fiction books, five of which made the New York Times Bestseller list. I met her in 2011 after I wrote about the film, “White Irish Drinkers,” a feature that I loved. It turns out that Melissa produced it, and her husband, John Gray (“Ghost Whisperer“), wrote and directed it. Full disclosure: We became friends.
But Melissa’s writing in “Reality Boulevard” is beyond what even I expected. Her characterizations and descriptions, in particular, are original and visceral, and the book is simply a fun and engaging read.
For Melissa, pursuing a career in filmmaking and television was motivated by idealism. “I wanted to work in television because of the potential power of the medium to change lives, while entertaining people” she says. Her early work included the primetime documentary special, “Scared Silent: Exposing and Ending Child Abuse,” hosted by Oprah Winfrey, on which she served as director and co-writer.
One of her Emmy Awards (among more than 50 accolades over the years) was for writing the 1994 A&E four-hour special, “Titanic: Death of a Dream” and “Titanic: The Legend Lives On” (before the 1997 James Cameron film). At the time, it was the highest-rated show ever on A&E (she also directed and produced it). Those kinds of programs were meaningful to this woman who wanted to “change the world” with documentaries.
But then, the industry began to change. That’s when Melissa got the idea of writing a fictional account – based on truth – of a non-fiction television show facing cancellation in favor of new “reality” shows like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “Real Housewives.” In “Reality Boulevard, “ these characters try to survive in an industry where it’s suddenly very hard to tell what’s true and what isn’t, both on screen and off.
Melissa based her main character, Marty Maltzman, on her real life mentor, Arnold Shapiro. “He’s the guy who did ‘Scared Straight,’ and he came to television with that vision that you can do this on a larger scale in television,” she says. “There was a market for doing that kind of programming when I started.”
Arnold is well aware that Marty is based on him, and he has read the book. “He went nuts over it,” Melissa says. In fact, he said, “Can’t you make Marty more like me?” Marty is fictional, but “the heart of the character – that kind of endearing, quirky guy who really just wants to make good TV – is Arnold,” Melissa says.
At the time she and Arnold were working together, the FTC actually demanded public affairs television, but that’s a thing of the past. Melissa says the first wave of non-fiction TV consisted of shows like “That’s Incredible,” while the second wave included “Rescue 911,” “America’s Most Wanted,” and “Unsolved Mysteries.”
“They had good budgets, and they were done under the same union rules that all television was done,” she stresses. “You weren’t paid as much as you were paid on a drama, but you were paid fairly.”
Then, the changes began. “A couple of years later, you couldn’t get a documentary on network TV that was not made by a news department,” she explains. “Then, cable came, and we were all so excited because we had A&E and the History Channel.”
Next came the writers’ strike, and the cable channels produced their shows on a non-union basis, claiming they were “mom & pop” operations without the funds for union wages, which Melissa says are far from high. These channels continued to claim they couldn’t afford to shoot union shows even after they made record profits and left their “mom & pop” status far behind.
MTV’s “The Real World” kicked off this next phase of reality programming. At first, Melissa says, people in the industry believed these new shows would be cinéma verité like the documentaries she was accustomed to creating. In documentary making, they essentially know what they will be shooting each day, but they aren’t expected to create heightened dramatic conflict on a weekly basis.
Some reality shows do have formats that allow for real drama based on real events. On “Dog Whisperer,” a reality show created by MPH Entertainment (of which Melissa is a partner) and Emery/Sumner Productions, the production team created a show in which everything that happened on camera was real. “You couldn’t fake it with the dogs,” Melissa says.
Unfortunately, the people behind most of the shows in the most recent phase of non-fiction programming aren’t interested in cinéma verité.
“The problem with all reality TV is that you’re still constrained by real life,” Melissa says. “But today’s reality TV has decided that is no longer the case. To create drama every week, they do whatever they need to create drama. The only thing real about a lot of reality TV is some shred of a concept that starts real. Then, it’s cast just like a movie. It’s scripted in that it’s structured, and situations are set up. It’s directed in that the producers do everything from giving people alcohol so they can act crazy to setting up situations for so-and-so to talk to so-and-so’s husband to making up situations.”
In fact, when you pitch a reality show to a network these days, you have to plot the situations and scenes that will take place in several episodes. You can’t just leave it to chance and hope something interesting might happen to the people on camera.
Then, of course, the drama is created by people who are not dramatists. “It’s paint by numbers, crayon drama…,” Melissa says. “It’s so simplistic. It’s so unsubtle. It’s lower than first-year film student drama. It’s formulaic, and it’s all based on stereotypes.”
It’s the stereotypes and values perpetuated on the shows that Melissa finds most objectionable. She has seen how it affects the teenagers around her stepdaughter. “I don’t think I could have written this novel until I moved to a small town in New York and had a teenage stepdaughter and saw how these influences affect people outside of Hollywood…,” she says. “Reality show producers have never really taken the time to consider that an 8-year-old or a 12-year-old might watch their program and internalize the behavior, concluding that the behavior is acceptable.”
The Girl Scouts conducted a study that shows the effects of reality TV on girls. It teaches them to focus more on the value of their physical appearance and to see meanness and lying as ways to get ahead in life.
On the other hand, perhaps we can thank the plethora of reality programming for critically acclaimed shows like “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad.” “Maybe reality TV is partly what has given rise to all the exceptional drama on cable,” Melissa points out, “because good drama has to go somewhere.”
Yes, Melissa hopes that readers of “Reality Boulevard” will come away with a more accurate view of the unreality of reality TV. And if there’s a message in the novel, it’s that there’s more to life than fame.
Still, she says, “I don’t want to come across as a crusader against reality TV. Obviously, a lot of people seem to like it. Honestly, change happens, and you have to accept it. You can’t fight change or growth. But you can definitely shine a light on what certain types of change might mean.”
Mostly, she hopes people will simply enjoy reading the novel. “My original favorite author of all time was Charles Dickens, and he was a social novelist…,” she says. “What made the social novels work were that the characters were real people. You don’t necessarily come away from it with the moral at the forefront…. I hope people will look at television and how it affects the media and how it affects average people differently when they finish this book. But I hope that’s not at the forefront of their consciousness. I hope they just feel like, ‘Wow, these characters have had a spiritual journey. And some of them have had their karma come back to them, and some of them haven’t. And some of them have really grown and changed.’”
After all of her experiences in television, Melissa felt that the novel was something she “had to write.” “It just really poured out of me,” she says.
“Reality Boulevard” was published by Apostrophe Books and can be purchased in e-book format. Check out the mock website of the novel’s fictional reality show, Lights and Sirens, and watch Melissa read an excerpt from the book in the video below.