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Whose reality is it anyway?

Fiction that's truer than 'reality'


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001

"Reality TV'' may need redefining, as scripted, fictional TV shows describe the life viewers find relevant more accurately than do unscripted scenes of survivors eating grubs.

"Reality TV" may need redefining, as scripted, fictional TV shows describe the life viewers find relevant more accurately than do unscripted scenes of survivors eating grubs.

There's little doubt this year's fall TV lineup will go down in history as the Season of Reality.

The obvious reason: There are more than a dozen new, unscripted "reality TV" shows among the 39 new programs making their debuts this fall, including two shows featuring contestants racing around the world, four shows about dating or relationships, two shows about people eluding professional trackers and two Survivor-style shows about enduring unpleasant environments.

But putting aside the question of rigged reality that has dogged shows such as UPN's Manhunt and CBS's Survivor, another bizarre trend has emerged in the fall TV season:

Often, the fake (i.e., traditionally scripted) shows seem more real than any so-called "reality" programs.

Go to Times Chat at 1:30 p.m. Thursday to chat with Times TV critic Eric Deggans.
"Reality TV is unreal and often downright fake . . . reverse escapism, (where viewers are) fleeing their good life for something much tougher," writes analyst John Rash, a senior vice president at the Minneapolis advertising firm Campbell Mithun.

In an age where CNN and other cable news channels can bring real stories of survival to our living rooms from around the world, isn't it ironic that couch potatoes are instead seeking out manufactured reality scenarios where missing out on fame and a big jackpot is the only real down side?

No wonder, then, that Kim Delaney's overworked defense attorney in ABC's Philly, the posturing college freshman in Fox's Undeclared and Bernie Mac's overwhelmed father figure in The Bernie Mac Show feel more genuine than over-the-top "reality TV" exhibitionists such as Survivor's Richard Hatch.

Indeed, the new fictional shows coming this month and next present a wealth of strong women, bumbling dads, stalwart cops and struggling families, often mirroring the challenges average citizens face every day.

Let's see the cast of Big Brother 2 handle something that complex.

Reality 1: Spy vs. Spy

Ask TV veteran Shaun Cassidy why there are three new TV shows about CIA-type spy agencies this season -- ABC's Alias, Fox's 24 and CBS' The Agency -- and he'll give you a simple answer, firmly grounded in reality.

"Some years it's doctors, some years it's lawyers . . . this year, it's the CIA," said Cassidy, onetime teen idol and star of The Hardy Boys Mysteries, who is an executive producer on The Agency.

"The dramatic juice of our show really is about . . . how far you go in the name of national security," added Cassidy, who worked with film director Wolfgang Petersen (Air Force One, The Perfect Storm) to craft the series. "If we try to portray these people as Boy Scouts or . . . as the characters in Three Days of the Condor, we're going to mislead on both counts. So we're shooting for the gray area."

It's just as likely that TV -- which often takes years to copy an entertainment trend pioneered in movies -- saw the success of espionage films such as Mission Impossible 2 and realized something important:

Nobody has done a good spy TV show in a good while.

Both 24 and The Agency try to offer some elements of reality -- The Agency even films some scenes in the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters with real agents as extras. But Alias doesn't even try sugarcoating its preposterous premise about a beautiful female college graduate student who doubles as a secret agent.

"My goal was to do a show that's sort of a comic book," said J.J. Abrams (Felicity, co-writer Armageddon), Alias creator. "I so loved (the film) Run, Lola Run . . . it was exciting to build a show around a young woman who had experienced loss . . . and had complex emotional relationships apart from the typical genre spy show."

Alias' Sydney Bristow (played by Felicity co-star Jennifer Garner) also heralds a small growth in an important TV character: the physically aggressive heroine.

Along with Alias' karate-kicking hero, ABC's Thieves features Aussie sex symbol Melissa George as Rita, the enforcer half of a male-female team of thieves forced to work for the government after a high-profile bust. NBC's lackluster crime drama UC: Undercover also features a female character who can get physical when needed.

[Photo: ABC]
Melissa George stars with John Stamos in ABC’s Thieves as master thieves coerced into stealing on behalf of the U.S. government.
They're part of a proud tradition of butt-kicking young ladies that goes back to Emma Peel from The Avengers, through Charlie's Angels to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dark Angel most recently.

"It's where women are heading -- it's about time that women get to express not only their vulnerability, but also their strength," said George. She nabbed roles in two American TV shows that never aired -- Hollyweird and L.A. Confidential -- before finally landing a part viewers might see on Thieves. "But for Rita, that's a small part of her . . . If she doesn't get what she wants, she's going to (fight). But she's equally emotionally fragile . . . which I love playing."

Some experts might decry shows depicting women solving problems with the same violence associated with male action stars. But University of South Florida professor Elizabeth Bell, a specialist in performance studies and feminism, said the trend might not be all bad.

"It's never a good message to show people being violent," she said. "But if a woman is shown as physically able to not only defend herself but attack someone, then I'm for that. Because it counters the image of women as prey."

Reality 2: Father rarely knows best

Dads take a bit of a drubbing during this year's new fall shows, with eight series featuring fathers in various stages of incompetence, including ABC's According to Jim and Bob Patterson, Fox's The Bernie Mac Show, UPN's One on One, CBS' Danny and The Education of Max Bickford and the WB's Reba and Raising Dad.

Of course, no one connected with any of the shows will admit to dissing dads overtly. But there are some patterns: the father who is too fun-loving to deal well with the responsibility of parenting (One on One, According to Jim, Reba and Bernie Mac), the dumpy-looking dad with the knockout wife (According to Jim's Jim Belushi and Courtney Thorne-Smith), the single dad making do without a mom (Max Bickford, One on One, Raising Dad).

Producers say such shows reflect the growing reality of non-nuclear families in the 21st century. And stars say it's just about getting some dramatic truths about families on screen.

[Photo: Fox]
Bernie Mac finds himselfis the guardian of his sister's three young children in Fox’s The Bernie Mac Show. Clockwise from left, Jeremy Suarez, Kellita Smith, Mac, Dee Dee Davis, Camille Winbush.
"Single parents . . . it's just the formula that has always worked . . . it's a formula for men trying to (show) their feminine side," said Raising Dad star Bob Saget, who also starred as a single dad in ABC's hit sitcom Full House.

"There's so many crappy fathers in the world . . . that's why you do a single parent show," added Saget, who now plays a high school teacher working at the school his daughter attends. "Without realizing it, you're teaching men to be a parent and not do what a lot of fathers do -- which is just send money."

For Max Bickford star Richard Dreyfuss, his character's problems in raising a daughter and son alone are only part of a larger unraveling the 53-year-old American studies professor must face. He's watching a younger woman, once his student and his lover (played by fellow Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden), take a prestigious job he wanted.

[Times photo: ]
Richard Dreyfuss stars as a college professor going through a midlife crisis in CBS’s The Education of Max Bickford. The women in Max's life are played by, from left, Marcia Gay Harden, Helen Shaver, Regina Taylor and Katee Sackhoff.
"I wanted to do a story about a midlife crisis . . . (because) I have been going through one," said Dreyfuss, whose TV show is the first to feature two Oscar winners. "I've found it to be unutterably fascinating . . . my uncertainty that used to be certainty. There is a lot of stuff . . . that's fascinating about being a man in this world when you are 53 and there's more hair on the floor than there is on your head."

Watching the WB's Maybe It's Me, an absurdist comedy about a bright girl coming of age in the world's weirdest suburban family, can feel like a roller-coaster ride: pop-up text, fantasy sequences and oddball behavior come flying at an MTV-fast pace.

Still, creator Suzanne Martin swears the show's most bizarre moments -- including scenes showing a grandmother who hides raw meat around the house and a mom who saves money by urging the dentist to avoid using Novocaine on her kids -- are drawn from her own life.

"I didn't know you could get Novocaine until a kid said, "Don't you hate when they do that needle?' and I thought, "I hate it when they drill, and it really hurts,' " said Martin. The former writer for Frasier and Ellen developed Maybe It's Me as a cross between a traditional sitcom and the syndicated show Blind Date.

"I've just gotten bored with sitcoms," added Martin, echoing sentiments from producers of other new quirky comedies such as NBC's Scrubs and Fox's The Bernie Mac Show. "When I hear that canned laughter coming from another room and you don't know what show it is and they all sound the same. . . . it's boring."

Reality 3: Gays and lesbians

Although racial and ethnic diversity are still lacking onscreen, network TV is making strides in other areas, including its first openly transgender character: professor Erica Bettis on Max Bickford.

Back when she was named Steve, Bettis, played by TV and film veteran Helen Shaver (The Color of Money), was Bickford's best friend. In the series' pilot, Bickford sorts through conflicted feelings about his pal's sex change while struggling with his own midlife crisis.

"CBS was very enthusiastic about us going down (this) road," said Dawn Prestwich, one of Max Bickford's executive producers, formerly of the CBS hit Judging Amy. "She's sort of a character who's made the big choice to be happy in life, and it's the choice Max doesn't understand and has a hard time making himself."

To help struggling TV critics better describe Bettis, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has mailed 500 journalists a handy glossary and advisory of the appropriate language to use.

Some examples: DO use female pronouns when referring to Bettis; DO use the term "transgender woman"; DON'T use the terms transvestite (that's a man who likes dressing as a woman) or cross-dresser (inaccurate and derogatory).

"We wanted to prevent any misuse of pronouns that could be construed as (making) them look subhuman," said Scott Seomin, GLAAD entertainment media director, noting that Newsweek's fall TV preview implied the Bettis character was "kinky" and got her sexual reassignment surgery over summer break.

"You don't spend your summer vacation getting sexual reassignment surgery . . . it's a long process," noted Seomin, whose office has even coached Shaver on how to handle questions about her character.

Seomin also notes that for the first time, this fall there will be more gay and lesbian characters in dramas than comedies this year (25 lead and supporting characters in all). "Producers are saying, we've laughed at the gay community long enough . . . let's see how they really live," he added.

One comic who will be extra careful about such issues is the woman who helped make all this happen in the first place: Ellen DeGeneres.

Chastened by the cancellation of her ABC sitcom after she and the character she played revealed their homosexuality in 1997, DeGeneres swears the focus of her new series, CBS' The Ellen Show, will be the humor alone.

Besides, she notes, her new series is more like NBC shows such as Providence and Crossing Jordan -- centered on a yuppie dot-com executive who decides to move back to her rural hometown (she conveniently forgot last year's Normal, Ohio, a Fox sitcom starring John Goodman as a gay man who moves back to his rural hometown).

"I thought we came up with a good idea until I saw Ed," she added, referring to yet another NBC show about a yuppie who moves back to a quirky hometown. "Maybe we're all longing for that kind of . . . to slow down a little bit. Sometimes (on TV) it seems everything has been done (before)."

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