[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
At one point in “Insiders,” there’s a montage of people being told they’re being put through into the next “round” of a reality show casting process. Nearly every one of them asks if they can give a hug or kiss to the producer giving them the good news. (They only get handshakes.) It’s a sustained burst of happiness and relief from a group of individuals who don’t even realize that the show they think they’re auditioning for is well under way.
That’s the main hook for “Insiders,” a series that puts a dozen people through the paces of a “training” period, ostensibly to see which of them is cut out for being on a show that none of them know will never actually come. Instead, the minimalist practice living space that they’re all trapped in is the show, complete with hidden cameras and microphones picking up every bit of scheming and covert alliance-building that’s already in motion.
Like most reality competition shows, it’s all an elaborate social experiment under the guise of a bit of TV fame. And the audition ruse isn’t the only way that “Insiders” toys with the well-established formula. Host Najwa Nimri constantly teases the next new wrinkle, sometimes even segueing into a clip from a few days ahead along the timeline that shows how someone’s plan or principles will eventually change.
Condensing multiple weeks into seven hour-long episodes is necessarily going to lose a lot of the context around some of these interactions. Given the “nothing is as it seems” carrots dangled in front of the contestants, “Insiders” doesn’t go quite as diabolical in hiding key details from the audience watching them. But it’s still an interesting case study in reality-show strategy, particularly in the conversations that happen when the people involved don’t suspect they’re being recorded.
It’s another drop in the overall ethical murkiness of reality TV. It’s obviously not the same as if the show pulled in a houseful of strangers to watch them against their will, but there’s a distinct level of manipulation on display here that feels less like a game at points. There are segments that hinge on seeing people at a level of vulnerability that sometimes feels more invasive than the usual reality show idea.
With the permanent caveat that there’s always a question of emotional authenticity in this TV subgenre, the eliminations on “Insiders” really do feel like funerals. It’s a question for the audience to answer whether the amount of tears at each sendoff come from sadness at someone leaving, gratitude that they’re staying, or fear that they could be next. There are inevitably some massaged narratives that pop up throughout the season, but aside from highlighting some brewing rivalries and short tempers, this stays away from pinning a specific someone from this dozen as an outright “me against the world” villain.
Eventually, “Insiders” settles into a familiar groove, even though the show reserves a few extra surprises for the season’s dwindling moments. Those are less about grafting manufactured drama onto an already tense situation and more about making simple tweaks to an ongoing, developing situation. In a self-contained world of one-way mirrors and algorithmic personality biometrics, all it takes is a tiny pebble for the ripples to go through the entire group.
Spending as much time as you do with this group, without any outside trips or corporate brand tie-ins, you do get attuned to the rhythm of the show and how much difference one or two people can make. There will always be a barrier between the “real” person and who they are on screen, but this show goes a step further in trying to make that as thin as possible.
Pair It With: For a reality show, there are few better complements than the “Frenemies” episode of “This American Life.” Not only is there a lexicographic discussion of that word’s origins and one of the signature contributions from the late David Rakoff, it has the classic Rich Juzwiak breakdown of “I’m not here to make friends.”
And for an extra Netflix dose of people being unwittingly subjected to psychological conditions that they’re largely unaware of, try the Derren Brown special “The Push,” another example of TV looking at how suggestible people might be when they think no one else is paying attention.