Sunday, April 17, 2011

Big Ant and Vyxsin and, Maybe, You By Jon CARAMANICA


 Reality television these days would make for a fantastic theme park. Start with a “Jersey Shore” nightclub, with nausea-inducing flashing lights, throbbing house music, and lessons from Snooki and Pauly D on how to properly fist-pump. Then stop off for some cooking demonstrations in the “Top Chef” pavilion, where Richard Blais freezes your favorite snack food with liquid nitrogen while Fabio Viviani rubs your shoulders. Over at the “Deadliest Catch” trawler, try guessing how many crabs are trapped in one of those big cages: come closest to the number and win a two-month sojourn on the Kodiak next winter.

                                                                                     Ann Summa for The New York Times
 Gunilla Persson and Erika, her daughter, wait to try out for a new reality show. They were among those who attended Reality Rocks, a conference in Los Angeles aimed at creators and potential subjects of reality television.

  It’s not so far-fetched. Think ComicCon or the Consumer Electronics Show, trade events and fan conventions turned into pop-up amusement parks. The Reality Rocks Expo, the first fan-focused conference for enthusiasts of the form, which took place last weekend here in one wing of the Los Angeles Convention Center, aspired to join that category.
 It certainly had the raw material to draw from. Reality is in full flower, both as a creative force and a business. Once there was a time when you could reasonably watch all the important reality shows, and most of the unimportant ones too, and still have a few hours left over for some scripted programming. Now that’s impossible — even if you sat all of the Gosselin and Duggar kids in front of separate televisions 24 hours a day, there would still be programs they miss.
 It’s a huge, fascinating universe, which is why Reality Rocks — about as frenzied as a Midwestern orthotics trade show, and perhaps less populated — was a failure of execution, not concept, a colossal misfire that couldn’t have been more out of step with the vitality of reality television right now.
 At its worst, it was a cesspool of almost-recognition, a miasma of angle-working. At almost every turn, a comedian or vegan chef or travelista was looking for a break, wanting to be noticed. Apart from a few big names, those assembled for the event, sitting in shabbily outfitted booths or signing autographs for not-very-long lines of fans, were minor blips. Talent, staff, fans: they all wondered openly about the event’s disorganization; often it appeared that there were more people there to be seen than people there to see them. Reality Rocks may have doomed itself from the get go with a catch-all tagline, “Reality. Unscripted. Docu. Factual”: each word a seeming apology for the one before it.
 This smacked of an era when reality was perceived as a scourge, a remora clinging to the underbelly of scripted television, feeding and feeding but never more than a dependent nuisance.
 This is never an opinion I shared. I once made a list, as critics do. It was of the best reality television shows of the 2000s. I stopped at 348.
 As scripted television became “a little sleepy in the ’90s” — as Jonathan Murray of Bunim/Murray Productions, a creator of “The Real World,” put it in an interview here — reality felt like a splash of bold, frenzied energy. Even now, it’s vital, and more inventive than scripted television, which still focuses heavily on cops and doctors and lawyers and semi-cool young single people on the make.
 Meanwhile, reality shows expand the thematic and geographic language of the medium, motivated by a belief that an Alaskan taxidermist or a car repossessor can be just as fruitful a protagonist as any McDreamy. Certainly, reality TV has its tropes — its barking housewives, its perky interior designers, its weeping rejected bachelorettes — but these stock characters are no worse than their counterparts in the Screen Actors Guild.
 “We are all seeking the ‘Breakfast Club’ stereotypes,” the casting director Doron Ofir said in one of the conference’s workshops aimed at aspirants. “I don’t believe anyone ever leaves high school.” Throughout the weekend, he had an employee handing out cards to attendees that read, “If we could make Snooki into a star, just imagine what we could do with you.”
 The sentiment was right, but anyone looking for hope of a Snookiesque breakthrough would have been severely disappointed. By and large, the big names were nowhere to be found — no Boston Rob, no Clay Aiken, not even a Mike Boogie. There wasn’t a Kardashian to be seen except for the ads flashing on the billboard across the street for Khloe’s new show, “Khloe & Lamar.” (Her mom and stepdad, Kris and Bruce Jenner, were in attendance, though, and Mr. Jenner noted that when the family was filming, they spent more time together than they otherwise would.)
 This was a place where Audrina Patridge — late of “The Hills” and now of “Audrina,” making its debut on VH1 on Sunday — was treated with papal reverence, a precious piece of porcelain not to be handled. Under the dismal fluorescent lighting in the hall, Tenley Molzahn, of “The Bachelor,” was a bright orange sunburst.
 Even here there was a hierarchy — strangely, performers, people with alleged talent, are low on the totem pole. Throughout both days, midlevel “American Idol” finalists performed on a pair of stages on the convention floor, to only a ripple of interest.
 Truthfully, in this ecosystem, they’re often the least compelling figures. They use television to reach their goals in another medium. Better are the masters of the form, those who chose to make television their life. “I thank the casting directors who allowed me to share my madness,” said Tanisha Thomas, who started out as a human haymaker on “Bad Girls Club” and now is working on her third show, and trying to mature all the while, ideally in front of the cameras: “It helps me understand myself.”
 Near the end of the second day, jackpot: Omarosa arrives. She’s the ur-reality star, a veteran of 37 shows (her count), and a heavy gravitational force in a weak galaxy of would-bes and wish-they-could-bes. “I’ve been all of those people,” she said, sighing.
 Reality TV fame, she said, was “a really bad boyfriend” who won’t leave you alone. She makes much of her income from speaking engagements and personal appearances based on her reality fame but still reminisces about her life before “The Apprentice” elevated her to single-name status: “I didn’t realize the value of being anonymous.”
 Maybe it takes 37 shows to learn that. Certainly most of the stars here, veterans of one or two shows, want nothing of the sort. Some, like Matt Hoffman of “Big Brother” and Johnny V from “Scott Baio is 45 ... and Single,” spent their time interviewing other reality stars; in those exchanges, it was unclear who had the lower hand.
 But in part, the expo acted as a support group meeting for people who, after their time on TV, probably hope not to return to their old lives. There was much griping about reality pay scales, much insistence on the fact that the TV cameras captured the truth. (Except on the part of the veterans: “All the stuff I do normally, it’s not good TV,” Christopher Knight, once of “The Brady Bunch,” admitted while speaking about gussying up drama for the cameras and how fatiguing it can be: “It’s easier sharing your talent than sharing your life.”)
 There were moments of surreal crossover: Big Ant from “Rescue Ink” talking to Shorty Rossi from “Pit Boss,” presumably to swap animal rescue tips; Dennis Luciani from “Average Joe,” in a sheer pink tulle skirt and with fake wound makeup applied to his forehead, asking to have his picture taken with a mildly galled Chet Cannon, from the Brooklyn season of “The Real World.” On both days, Kynt & Vyxsin, the mall-goths of “The Amazing Race,” worked the floor hard. “I remember not so long ago being in these people’s shoes,” Kynt said.
 Reality stars, often viewed as disposable, become versatile. Reality Rocks was a great place to learn about Blake Lewis’s parallel career as an anime voiceover artist, or Mikalah Gordon’s plans for a singing telegram service.
 It was also a place where you could learn how your pseudo-reality soup gets made. According to Jackie Pucci, the mouthy meter maid on “All Worked Up, many of her segments on the show are re-enactments, using actual people she’s ticketed in Venice, Calif. Sometimes, she said, people bark loudly hoping for the spotlight: “People are giving me hell, asking, ‘Where’s the camera?’ ”
 Those fame-seekers should have made the trip in from the beach for the convention: often there were more cameras than people to train them on. There was ample media in attendance, and booths where you could film auditions for various shows. Some flamboyantly dressed civilians spent both days merely walking around the convention floor, waiting to be stopped by someone who found them compelling. Others were there to try out for specific shows, including “Wipeout” and “Majors and Minors.”
 The complete tabloidization of celebrity culture has led to the death of mystery — famous people, living under a microscope, are becoming reality stars of a sort. That leaves an opening for actual reality stars, who begin their lives as open books; in a way, they have a head start. “The definition of celebrity is changing,” Mr. Ofir said. “Relatability will be the next wave of pop culture.”
 By the end of the conference’s second day, order had broken down; a few people had set up makeshift booths, and unbilled music groups were performing on the two stages. It was tough to tell where reality stopped, and where reality began.

© 2011nytimes.com


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