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The Curse of Reality TV
  • August 25, 2011 : 20:08
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Reality-television producers and the networks that air their shows are conscious of their impact because the well-being of their cast members is, at the very least, good business. “Broadcast networks are incredibly conscious of weighing the risks,” producer Cowan tells me, describing “significant risk-management protocols,” including having mental health professionals on location. Cowan has produced shows such as Joe Millionaire and, most recently, Fox’s Mobbed—shows that involve some kind of deception, and from the moment a format is conceived, he says, “you deal with the potential consequences of whether or not you’re going to be injurious to somebody or exploit someone for the sake of entertainment. It’s a fine line.” It’s also flexible. Cowan says, “The cable world is more cavalier in what it’ll do and the chances it’ll take.”

Bravo created a new subgenre of reality TV when it debuted Project Runway in 2004. “We try to protect them and us every way we can before they wind up going on camera,” Andy Cohen, the cable network’s executive vice president, tells me. “Overwhelmingly, in the many, many seasons [of competitive reality shows that feature creative professionals], our success rate is very high when it comes to ensuring that we cast people who are able to handle the process.” He adds, “It is grueling; we all agree with that. It’s in our interest to showcase these people, because we’re invested in their success.”

The Real World creator Jonathan ­Murray says cast members are savvier now and “know what they’re getting themselves into,” though producers remind them that they have to “be prepared that anything in their life could end up on the show. We developed this application that was 28 pages long, which asked every intimate detail, and we said, ‘If you’re uncomfortable talking about any of this, you probably shouldn’t do this show.’ ” Murray adds, “You don’t know what’s going to happen.” Over the course of his show’s 25 seasons, real life has happened, from pregnancy to death.

Paxton actually cares about Senna. That’s despite the conflict brewing this morning in the empty space Senna has rented for an antiques arcade, where Paxton discovers a massive 30-foot, two-piece boardwalk horse-racing game in which players roll balls up ramps and into red, blue and yellow holes to make their plastic horses run, trot or walk to a stuffed animal or other prize. All 10 of Paxton’s day laborers, using dollies, are barely able to roll the 10,000-pound top half. It’s impossible to see how either of the two 30-foot pieces will make the S-turn and go down two short sets of stairs. Paxton says, “I started to get really mad at him. And then my labor guys said, ‘That guy’s crazy!’ I said, ‘Don’t call Randy crazy! That guy’s my man.’ I started sticking up for him.”

I ask if he thinks Senna is mentally ill. “Yes, Randy has a disease. Absolutely. He does not have the same brain as you and I,” Paxton says. “I think he was just weird and made fun of and never had a chance to make friends from a very early age.”

A full-fledged fight between friends develops when Paxton discovers Senna moved half the game by himself while the crew was at lunch. Senna leans on its end as the two men get more and more agitated. “You did not show me this or that monstrosity,” Paxton says, cameras hovering a few feet away.

“I described it all in the e-mails back and forth,” Senna insists. “But the bottom line is you didn’t hire professional people who are movers.”

The argument builds in intensity as it circles the same issues for more than 25 minutes. “I feel hurt and betrayed,” Senna says, choking up. He insists he did tell ­Paxton and thinks he’s being set up because five days of production have resulted in only a portion of his hoard being moved, and now Senna’s going to be humiliated on TV and have little work done.

Paxton is so pissed he yells at Chabaud when Barnes indicates the therapist should join in the conversation. “I want you to wait a second,” Paxton barks. “I need to talk. Both of you need to not talk. Randy, look at me. Please do not condescend to me.” ­Chabaud shuffles away. “You and I have made a commitment to each other, as friends, to finish this job. I will stay no matter what, except if you talk down to me,” Paxton says.

Senna knows this fight is the obvious climax of the episode: “This part of the show will ruin the show.”

Paxton disagrees. “People need to see that friends are able to argue and move forward,” he says.

Little of the fight will make it on the air, particularly Senna’s claims about his deal with producers, which Paxton attributes to Senna wanting to feel in control, common among hoarders. But it may actually have been therapeutic. Earlier Chabaud told me, “There are some situations where the person is so impervious to any kind of intervention that the camera actually serves as a tool to get them to come out because they may be really angry.” A lot of work for Hoarders, here and on other shoots, takes place off camera or never airs, including conversations among therapists, hoarders and their family members. As a result, Chabaud says, “I have never left a show without feeling there was some healing.”

Paxton echoes this. “I would not be doing this if we were not helping. If we didn’t offer that aftercare, this would absolutely be cruel, because then you’re not giving them the chance to get better.” Besides paying for the cleanup to alleviate whatever crisis exists and, if necessary, making emergency repairs, producers offer therapy and continued work with an organizer. The money can’t be used for anything else, though sometimes it pays for family members to get counseling. A dedicated staff member now coordinates aftercare, researching therapists and following up with the hoarder a few days after the cameras leave. The goal is to have therapy start immediately because, as series producer George Butts says, “it can be traumatic for them when the shows air.” He adds, “Unfortunately, we can’t force them to take mental health therapy.”

He estimates that fewer than half  actually do.

Senna expects to be among the majority of hoarders who reject aftercare. “I don’t believe in any way, shape or form I need therapy. There’s nothing wrong with me,” he says, his jacket flecked with sawdust from his lunchtime work yesterday, his black, graying hair unraveling from its wavy curls.

“I’m strong enough to deal with the emotional stress because, again, I knew this was going to happen when I went into it,” he says. He has, from the very beginning, expected the worst. “They blew that all out of proportion in order to create conflict,” he says. “I felt very betrayed, very hurt. I felt they were my friends, and they came in and literally put me in a corner, and I didn’t think that was fair.”

Senna takes a breath as his eyes dampen and his mouth quivers. “I’m more surprised that they sold me out, because I thought I had won them over. I’m not mentally ill, but I’m sure that will appear at the front of the show, that hoarding is a mental disorder. So they’re going to label me from the beginning.”

Senna is hopeful, though. “Maybe the producers will look at themselves and say, ‘Well, gee, maybe sometimes we’re doing more harm than we think.’ ” He brings up aftercare. “They know they’re causing emotional stress in these people’s lives. You’ve left these people in a clean house but in an emotionally empty spot.”

Senna, as Paxton constantly points out on camera and off, is most likely smarter than the rest of us, even rewiring the lift gate on the faulty truck Paxton rented. So why would Senna agree to this? Why expose himself to the world, to the pain, when he could have just hired professional movers himself? “Nobody in their right mind should sign that contract,” Senna says. “Nobody. And I am smart enough to know I shouldn’t have signed it, but.…”

“But you did,” I say.

While we talk upstairs, the production team gathers around a glass-covered game that holds boxes of bobbleheads. Team members are concerned about Senna and the public’s eventual perception of him—a remarkable conversation for a reality-TV crew to have. They ask, “How can we present Randy in a positive light today?” Chabaud tells me this outside Randyland’s front doors, where she’s wrapped in a full-length black coat and smoking a cigarette.

I ask about Senna’s concerns about how he’ll be portrayed. “That’s a responsibility he has to take: that he applied for a show that portrays mental illnesses,” she says. “Even if there’s a personal price they have to pay for seeing themselves on TV, they have to realize they’re doing something for the good, and I try to instill that before I leave.” Hoarders has brought the disease of hoarding to the attention of hoarders, family members and even mental-health professionals and has intervened in about 80 hoarders’ lives.

But can kids who appear on camera, victims of their parents’ illness, take that same responsibility? “I’m not trying to justify everything, but if I sense there’s something about that child that may cause them problems after the show, I work with them and give them some tools before I leave,” Chabaud says. “And I really think they have more tools after I leave than before I came. Many of them were teased anyway, but they didn’t have the tools to deal with it.”

As for the boy who cried when the crew left, he was filmed for a follow-up episode. Chabaud says, “After kids saw the show they teased him about sleeping in his mom’s bed. I said, ‘Well, how do you deal with that?’ He said, ‘I need to tell people out there that when you’re raised in a home that’s hoarded, sometimes you have to do things that are not normal, and kids need to know it’s not their fault.’ And that was—wow! That was so powerful. I almost cried. It’s not their fault.”

Upstairs, as our conversation ends, Senna pulls folded pieces of paper from his pocket and has me read aloud passages from an e-mail message that proves he was right and Paxton was wrong, which Paxton later readily admits. All that pushing, challenging, yelling—unnecessary but genuine. Minutes after I leave, Paxton smashes his hand in the freight elevator doors and goes to the hospital. In his absence Senna is forced to lead Paxton’s crew, and together they move the rest of the game down the stairs. Cameras roll, and soon editors will compress five days of footage into an episode that will be watched, discussed and judged by millions.

Forty years ago the Loud family let cameras into their lives for An American Family on PBS, showing us the possibilities and perils of turning life into entertainment. Despite the constructed nature of this kind of television, the entire production is usually invisible, which is both necessary for compelling TV and part of the overwhelming lack of transparency. Cast members on some shows have been told to restrict their comments during interviews to what has aired, even if that doesn’t reflect their reality. On CBS’s Big Brother, raw footage of an interview with a contestant leaked onto YouTube and showed a producer flirting heavily with a cast member, readying her for his questions; her answers would later be spliced into footage from events the contestant was discussing.

That’s why the media and critics often reduce the final product to oversimplified terms: Fake. Manipulated. But reality is messier. For a long time Ben Wade talked about how he created a character on ­Survivor so the person on TV wasn’t fully him. It wasn’t. It couldn’t possibly be. Watch YouTube to see how excruciatingly boring people are without editors. Entertainment takes skill, like that of the crew who will introduce Senna to the world.

“For people like myself and Dr. Chabaud, we really care. We’re here to help,” Paxton says. “A&E’s just there to make a TV show; it doesn’t really care either way what happens. Obviously it wants the person to get help, but its ultimate goal is to just film what happens. That’s a scary thing when you combine mental illness with entertainment.”

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read more: entertainment, Celebrities, magazine, tv, issue july 2011


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