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The Rubes Are Wise To You: How Reality TV Stars Took On The TCAs

The Rubes Are Wise To You: How Reality TV Stars Took On The TCAs

The most complicatedly electrifying moment on my TCA summer press tour was when the Angry Ginger cried.

The Angry Ginger, aka CopperCab, is a young man from Georgia whose real name is Michael Kittrell, and who became YouTube famous for a video rant entitled “GINGERS DO HAVE SOULS!!” in which, to the scornful amusement of 34 million viewers and counting, he expressed his rage at a certain “South Park” episode’s treatment of people of a certain complexion and hair color. He was at the event courtesy of Reelz, a channel whose recent expansion into original programming includes a reality series about Michael and his family entitled “Hollywood Hillbillies.” The “reality sitcom” is about how the self-consciously “country” family, heavy accents, plus-sized figures and all, travel to Los Angeles to live large off Michael’s YouTube earnings and gawp at the locals while getting spa treatments.

The series is of that subgenre of unscripted fare, like “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” which invites audiences to look down on its subjects while playing up to class and cultural stereotypes, as the question of whom the joke is on becomes cringingly uncomfortable. (The panel before it was for “The Capones,” featuring a clan of Italian-American gangster descendants who run a restaurant, bicker loudly and act mysterious about the other businesses in which they participate.) And the family played their assigned cornpone roles, with Michael’s sister giggling “I just want to feed everybody. Everybody’s so skinny and their bellies are so flat and hard!” and his grandmother adding, “And they all have teeth and everything!” The crowd was not won over.

To backtrack briefly: The twice-yearly TCA press tours are organized by the Television Critics Association and are primarily a series of press conferences with network executives and the casts and producers of select series. They run for two weeks (Indiewire was there for the first half of the summer tour — our coverage is here) and offer an overarching perspective on the small screen that’s feels almost quaint in this age of niche programming.

All of TV, or at least the portion of it with something new to promote, is on view, from the big networks to the small spin-offs, from HBO to the Hallmark Channel. There’s something for everyone, which also means that everyone will at some point also be faced with shows or talent they have no particular mandate to cover. Indiewire doesn’t do much coverage of unscripted programming aside from docs and docuseries, so for me the blank spots generally meant reality fare — the panels for which actually tended to be fascinating, if often very uncomfortable.

Our relationships with reality stars are as often fueled by contempt as by fondness — audiences have cheerfully proven one doesn’t need to like a reality subject to invest in his or her series and that laughing at is just as fun as laughing with, and networks obviously know the value of and can prize a certain car-crash quality. It’s been a long journey from Pedro Zamora dealing with AIDS in “The Real World: San Francisco” to Nia Moore beating up a housemate with a hairdryer in “The Real World: Portland,” and the idea of documenting genuine experiences is rivaled and often eclipsed by the appeal of people acting wild, crazy, foolish and/or awful.

Which is why it can be so loaded when the participants in a new unscripted series greet the press — because the press is very aware that reality celebrity can be double-edged, a Faustian bargain and a magnet for compulsive exhibitionists, and searches for signs that the people on stage understand this as well. Acting is a career that’s pursued, that involves auditions and script and playing roles — it’s something you do. Being a reality star means turning over your life, or something vaguely like it, to be the stuff of a show — you participate in it. There was a clear desire in many of these panels to sound out how much pretense was involved in that process and how complicit those participants were.

Which is why, during that “Hollywood Hillbillies” session, someone raised a question that had been put to several other reality show participants — about how real the series was and why anyone would participate in something that seemed quite openly intended to mock its subjects.

It’s a question that had met with little success — no one allowed themselves to crack and acknowledge the tacit agreement with which, we perhaps like to hope, all reality shows of this ilk are made, which is that its subjects agree to play the buffoon via the small screen’s prescribed rules in exchange for attention, opportunity and income — that they know what they’re doing, and that there’s a real person underneath a reality persona. Obviously, Michael Kittrell and his family did not just spontaneously decide to reenact “The Beverly Hillbillies,” with cameras serendipitously happening to come along, but the kid stuck to his logline that this was just the natural next step in their lives — up until the end, when either the discomfort or the condescension in the room seemed to get to him.

“I just gotta say a few things,” he declared abruptly. “There’s a lot of fake stuff out here in California. But my family is not fake. This is the realest thing you’re going to get, because I’ve grown up with my family. They took me in when my mom went and my dad left me. I’m very blessed to have this opportunity to come out here with Reelz. And all the people can make fun of us, and that’s fine, okay? Because it only matters that we love each other, and we’re proud to be who we are. And people can judge and point their fingers and laugh, but we don’t give a damn. We’re proud to be who we are, and we’re proud to be where we’re at, and I’m glad that I’m coming out here to California. And I look forward to seeing all of you again in the future — because you will see me in the future.”

He was red-faced and in tears by the end, and had silenced the room. If what we long for in these exchanges is a reassuring look at a person underneath the caricature who’s aware of what he or she is getting into, the moment was all of that and far more, a ferocious declaration of hunger for fame and escape from a guy whose online celebrity has largely been based on incoherent bluster that, calculated or not, invites gleeful ridicule and speculation about when he’s going to kill himself. This? This was nothing — just a group of dismissive journalists looking past his family to ask an executive what shows like this mean to his network’s brand. If playing the Angry Ginger was going to be his path toward being someone, he was going to take it, and didn’t give a damn about our lofty inquiries into being exploited — his eyes were open, and he wasn’t about to be shamed.

While no one quite matched Kittrell’s outburst, there were plenty of other squirmy reality-show moments over the course of the first week of the TCAs. TLC offered up the four participants in the second season of “Secret Princes,” a series in which minor royals go undercover in America — to look for the love that their status prevents them from finding at home, supposedly, though as one journalist demanded, “How desperate are you?” Asked how real the relationships they pursued in the show were, the panelists looked to the network exec overseeing the session to advise them how to answer.

A survivalist whose efforts to build an honest-to-god castle with his grown children in National Geographic’s “Doomsday Castle” calmly explained to a roomful of raised eyebrows that he thought civilization was most likely to go down due to an electromagnetic pulse or solar flare. A girl seeking out her sperm-donor father and half siblings on MTV’s “Generation Cryo” dealt with some questions about privacy and ethics as well as some far less sensitive ones about how the journey had to have stemmed from an unhappy home life — because, apparently, why else would someone seek out one’s biological parent?

There are expectations in place for how we talk to actors and how they talk to us — engaging with press is part of the job, and the exchange being made is understood. What made the so much of the reality side of the TCAs so interesting is how clear it was that the rules were muddier and the motivations less understood. Do we approach these people as we would a performer, and in that case is that why we seem to feel a need to verify they’re indeed performing? As unscripted television has evolved, the idea of any fundamental “reality” and who’s shaping the story has become a complicated question. As these TCA panels demonstrated, journalists are struggling with ideas of authorship, awareness and the ethics of portrayal. And as the Angry Ginger might tell us, it’s unfair to just presume exploitation — just because someone’s playing a rube on TV doesn’t mean he or she really is one.

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