Embracing the Reality of Mark Burnett’s America

After the debacle of Trump's debate performance, we need to examine where the reality TV impresario failed the real world.
President Donald Trump talks with television producer Mark Burnett during the National Prayer Breakfast, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump and Mark Burnett during the National Prayer Breakfast in 2017.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci

In the wake of the first 2020 Presidential Election debate, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow seemed flummoxed. She explained that she’d devoted weeks, days, hours to prepping for the debate. Precious time devoted to educating herself on platforms and policies to better prepare herself to fact-check whatever President Donald J. Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden claimed from the debate stage.

“But what happened on that debate stage was unlike anything that’s ever happened on a Presidential debate stage ever before,” Maddow told viewers, laying out how the choice presented that evening was clearly one between politics as we know it, where candidates participate in candid, sometimes argumentative debate governed by mutually agreed upon rules and “a monstrous, unintelligible display of logorrhea which has nothing to do with civic discourse.”

And while, like Maddow, many political pundits were surprised by this turn of events, those of us schooled in the ways of reality TV know that the debate was merely a live reaction show; still fake, but a realer kind of fake than the foolishness we’d been served over the last few years.

There are many people to blame for the cataclysm that has been the Trump presidency, but few not bearing the family name should shoulder the burden more heavily than revered reality TV producer and Trump image revitalizer Mark Burnett. When he built a reality series around the idea that Trump was a wealthy, successful, savvy businessman, Burnett codified this aura around the real estate magnate — despite it having long been debunked.

Then, of course, NBC’s “The Apprentice” ended up being a hugely successful series, proof of concept for a concept that had always been, well, trumped up. Trump played a successful businessman on a reality TV show. The show was successful with Trump playing that role, ergo, Trump must be a successful businessman.

The problem was, of course, that once “The Apprentice” found success, thanks to his 50 percent stake in the series, Trump actually was again a successful businessman. Recent reporting by the New York Times revealed that in the first year of the series, the president made nearly $12 million off the show, with the number ballooning to almost $48 million in 2005. For the first time in ages, Trump found himself owing federal income taxes after years of business losses had insulated the purported millionaire from this indignity that plagues common people.

SEPTEMBER 28th 2020: According to a report in The New York Times, Donald Trump paid $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017. - File Photo by: zz/KGC-375/STAR MAX/IPx 2019 6/5/19 President of The United States Donald Trump joined dignitaries and military veterans in Portsmouth, England to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion in June of 1944 during World War II. (Portsmouth, England, UK)
Donald Trumpzz/KGC-375/STAR MAX/IPx

In fact, the New York Times report seem to confirm what some have long suspected about Trump: That he is only successful at failing, manufacturing tax windfalls from depreciation and shoddy investments to keep himself afloat. Perhaps Burnett should have called the show “The Biggest Loser,” rather than “The Apprentice.”

Again, this is not a new concept for those versed in reality TV, a genre so misnamed it might as well be called global warming. (It’s climate change. That’s why you’re getting three feet of snow in April. Don’t be so literal.)

Sitting down to watch a reality series is largely the same as sitting down to watch a fictional series  — typically, one might say “scripted series” but this overlooks that many, if not most, reality series are, by and large, scripted. A viewer comes to reality TV looking to engage with whatever story producers are looking to tell.

At least, that’s how viewers should approach reality TV. Too often people will consciously overlook leading editorial choices and convoluted narrative, believing that if they saw it with their own two eyes, it must be the unvarnished truth.

This is, of course, the goal of any storytelling. You want it to feel real. You want people to emotionally invest. You want people to believe the lie.

Much has been made over the last four years about how the world has collectively lost its grasp on concepts including truth or facts. The reality of the situation is that this breakdown in communication has been ramping up for years. It’s been 17 years since Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” on the debut episode of “The Colbert Report,” a concept that he later described to the A.V. Club as such: “Truthiness is ‘What I say is right, and [nothing] anyone else says could possibly be true.’ It’s not only that I feel it to be true, but that I feel it to be true. There’s not only an emotional quality, but there’s a selfish quality.”

But truthiness only truly came into its own in the Trump era, where inconvenient truths were labeled “fake news” and disputed with “alternative facts,” or as the rest of the world likes to call them: lies. Truthiness also underlies anything that carries the moniker of reality TV, where all narrative is filmed through a veneer of realism, winding up to be just as authentic as an elaborately photoshopped selfie.

Don’t overlook the magnitude of what Burnett has done by taking a gilded-toilet buffoon and dressing him up like a legitimate businessman. For as much as people blame former President Barack Obama’s pointed White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner speech in 2011 for giving Trump a political axe to grind, the only reason he was taken seriously enough to be a joke is because of his increased cultural cache from “The Apprentice.”

Mark Burnett, “The Voice”ABC

The president is Burnett’s monster but the “Shark Tank” creator doesn’t appear to have even half the moral compass of Victor Frankenstein, who at least had the courtesy of attempting to stop his monster. (Who, for the record, killed three people. Burnett’s creature has far more blood on his hands.)

Reportedly, Burnett used to boast that for each hour of “The Apprentice” that aired, his crews taped 300 hours of footage. Even rounding down and averaging out for exaggeration, with 14 seasons of Trump, Burnett likely has more than 20,000 hours of footage of Trump being Trump. There have been numerous reports of the president being crude and belligerent while on-set and accusations of racist and sexist language bandied about.

If those tapes of Trump’s behavior do exist, Burnett could release them, or he could talk candidly about the atmosphere on set. It wouldn’t have a huge effect on things at this juncture, given how people who support Trump will seemingly do so even as their family dies around them. Literally. But it would go a long way to suggest that Burnett still has a soul worth saving, that he recognizes his own culpability and has reckoned with his own existence as a modern day P.T. Barnum. (IndieWire reached out to Burnett for comment.)

But as evidenced in the presidential debate, reality — true reality, not a post-produced patina of the real world — is beginning to reveal itself again, further eliminating the need for tapes, real or otherwise. A reality TV president can sense his dropping ratings and in response, he grows ever more desperate and unhinged. It makes for terrible TV. It’s ugly and cruel and needlessly combative. It’s racist and sexist and anti-American. This is who Donald Trump is. You thought you were buying the Brooklyn Bridge, but Burnett sold you the White House instead.

You believed the lie. Now embrace reality.

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