Rehearsals part 2: TV Trials & Consumptive Complicity

When the latest Emmy nominations were announced two weeks ago the lineup mostly comprised the usual suspects of buzzy TV titles that have dominated online discourse over the past year. However, one nominee stood out to me precisely because it had been entirely absent from my media awareness radar: something called Jury Duty, which apparently streams on Amazon’s free-with-ads platform, was nominated for best comedy series. Further investigation indicated that this was not a new scripted series but rather a sort of prank show, part of the “reality TV hoax” genre where an unsuspecting everyperson is inserted into an elaborately engineered scenario otherwise populated entirely by actors. In this case a common citizen reports for what they believe is routine jury service, when in actuality the court case and all other participants are a put-on.

I’m a big fan of elaborate prank programs, whether the hidden camera variety (Scare Tactics is an all-time favorite, and the recent Neflix knock-off Prank Encounters scratched a similar itch without quite recapturing the same magic) or the less common faux reality show (back in 2003 I tuned in to Spike TV for every installment of The Joe Schmo Show, in which a pasty Pittsburgher participated in a fake reality show competition). So my interest in the genre prompted me to place Jury Duty in my watch-if-I-get-around-to-it queue. But the show jumped to the top of my watchlist after I saw a Reddit post with the provocative title: “Jury Duty is a dangerous next step in entertainment and the producers of the show are not very good people.”

Several aspects of this post and the ensuing discussion thread sparked my interest. First was the original poster’s invocation of The Truman Show as “a warning about where reality TV was heading”. I have a particular love for The Truman Show, and interpretations of the film as a cautionary tale of the nascent new media age have always rankled me as overly reductive and superficial. When The Truman Show was released in 1998 the reality TV paradigm as we know it had yet to emerge: shows like MTV’s The Real World perhaps epitomized the form throughout the 90s with its documentary-style voyeurism into contemporary youth culture, but the reality TV boom really got underway in 2000 with the first season of the U.S. version of Survivor. Reading The Truman Show as primarily a prescient parable of mainstream media culture overlooks the film’s more incisive elements, such as its dramatization of a comprehensively mediatized social world à la the Debordian society of the spectacle, or – perhaps most significantly – one of the most nakedly Gnostic allegories ever presented in a Hollywood movie.

A second salient component of the Reddit discussion emerged out of the replies: one commenter asserted that Jury Duty was doubly fake, a faux phony where the con’s ostensible mark was clearly “a paid actor” given away by his too-perfect reactions and “excellent comedic timing.” This sort of skepticism often crops up in conversations about reality TV, and has been a perennial feature of reactions to Nathan Fielder’s various offerings. Discussions of both Nathan for You and Fielder’s current program The Rehearsal routinely include charges of chicanery and scrutiny over how much of what is presented to the audience seems authentic versus scripted. While I understand the impulse toward incredulity – which I think can be attributed to an emergent audience savviness and media literacy, as well as correlated with a more generalized suspicion of purported truth that characterizes our contemporary “choose-your-own-reality” multiverse of information overload – these reflexive reactions rely on an assumed cynical stance that is already accounted for and incorporated within the broader ideological apparatus sustaining the mediasphere. And as with much conspiracy theorizing, these efforts to outsmart the media manipulators by scrutinizing smaller details to ferret out clandestine clues have the tendency to completely take for granted the big picture con jobs taking place right before our eyes everyday of our lives.

One element that I think the questioning of the “too perfect” reactions of participants in these shows glosses over in particular is the degree to which our collective media saturation has conditioned certain “camera ready” responses. For instance, if you watch early examples of “man on the street” TV news interviews from the 1960s, passerby are often flummoxed by having a stranger thrust a microphone toward them and are persistently distracted by the presence of the camera, continually staring directly down the lens. Today we all understand the necessary etiquette for an on-the-street media interview, knowing to maintain eye contact with the interviewer rather than looking at the camera. A reporter hardly even needs to provide prompting questions: simply holding out a microphone can be enough to elicit a media-friendly soundbite from a random member of the public. Even the soundbites themselves have become routine, as the monotonous drive-by media coverage of increasingly recurrent tragedies has established a repertoire of stock phrases to be diligently recited on cue (“It sounded like firecrackers,” “I never thought something like this could happen here,” etc.). In this sense the incredulity toward the “perfect” responses of the supposedly unaware participants in these faux reality shows evinces a deeper suspicion regarding the (im)possibility of an authentic response that is not a priori conditioned or pre-mediated. This underlying anxiety perfectly reflects our current moment where even “genuine” “reactions” to media content have become fertile fodder for further media consumption and a distinct genre in the contemporary content stream.

The third (and arguably defining) theme I took away from this Reddit thread concerns questions of ethics. The title of the post was grounded in moral judgments, acclaiming that Jury Duty was “dangerous” and that the creators were “not very good people.” Commenters responding to this judgmental framing offered varying replies. Many named examples of other reality show projects that they considered either even more ethically dubious or “not as bad” as Jury Duty (naturally The Rehearsal gets named several times as representing either side of this spectrum). Others argued that Jury Duty elides moral condemnation because the producers went out of their way to present the duped subject in a positive light rather than making a mockery at their expense. Still others pointed to the $100,000 prize that the subject received in the finale as incontrovertible evidence that the production was beyond reproach. Among the more nuanced ethical arguments presented in the thread were those that highlighted the framing of the ruse as a courtroom proceeding: by depicting a legal case overseen by judges, lawyers, and bailiffs – these commenters argued – the unknowing subject was unethically compelled to participate out of deference to the (fraudulent) presence of legal authority and presumed fear of possible criminal repercussions.

It does seem significant that Jury Duty couches its central hoax in the trappings of a court case.  When The Joe Schmo Show first aired nearly twenty years ago the false reality presented to the subject took the form of a reality TV show competition. As viewers we could presume that the titular “schmo” was choosing to participate of their own volition, and we could readily understand their motivation for doing so, be it the allure of temporary celebrity status or the promise of the ultimate prize money. In contrast, the issues of autonomy, incentive, and coercion in Jury Duty are much murkier (the show’s final episode offers only tantalizing hints of the precise manner in which this project was pitched to potential participants; viewers are never explicitly informed of the subject’s understanding of the nature of this heavily documented court proceeding, nor of any incentive he may have been promised in exchange for his participation).

This crucial distinction between the two productions is most significantly illustrated by their respective climaxes, when the true nature of the hoax is finally revealed to the participant. In Joe Schmo this revelation takes place during the final voting ceremony of the fake reality show; the ruse is slowly explained to “Joe” before he is presented with an oversized check representing the prize money he has won and confetti drops from the ceiling. In Jury Duty the reveal takes place immediately after the verdict in the fake trial has been read; the subject is then called to the witness box under the pretense of a final formality, and it is as they sit in this (vulnerable) position at the head of a courtroom that they are finally informed of the unreality of the entire situation. Strangely, the actor playing the “judge” tells the blindsided subject that, although the court case they have just overseen was completely fake, there has in fact been a real trial underway all along: through a procession of “challenges, responsibilities, and ethical dilemmas” faced by the participant, the character of the subject has been tested with the determination that he is “a hero.”

This double-framing of Jury Duty as a trial – first as the fictional court case staged for the subject, and secondly as an evaluation of the subject himself – accounts for multiple levels of perspectives implicated in the hoax (those of the participant, the actors playing all the other roles, and the production crew of the show), while leaving an implied final perspective unacknowledged: that of the viewing audience. What is left unstated in the “judge’s” closing remarks, but can be inferred obliquely, is that we the audience have also been observing the proceedings and have been making judgments not only about the character of the subject but also about the production itself. A selection of these judgments is offered in the aforementioned Reddit comment thread, in which the ethical dimensions of the show were debated. Even the comments that merely questioned the veracity of the hoax as presented can be situated within this dynamic of judgment and guilt. From this perspective the skepticism espoused by some audience members can be seen as a disavowal that creates a cynical distance between viewer and show, absolving the spectator of any potential guilt that may stem from consuming an ethically dubious program and avoiding any of sense of having been complicit in the experiment through having watched it.

My own experience watching Jury Duty led me to reflect on how the issue of complicity (both of creator and audience) has been addressed in recent reality or documentary media. The Rehearsal, a series that I appreciated even though I ultimately found it disappointing, seemed to confront the question of complicity at multiple points (with the final episode offering the most sustained consideration). I found most of these confrontations to be only disingenuous flirtations with the production’s broader implications. However, in what I considered the series’ most electrifying sequence, show creator Nathan Fielder staged a roleplaying exercise wherein he had to defend the merits of the entire project against cutting criticisms levied by an actor portraying his fake TV “wife” Angela. Attempting to justify his experimental filmmaking methods that involve non-actor participants in elaborate simulated scenarios, Fielder offers his perspective: “It’s silly and it’s serious; life is complicated, it can be more than one thing.” The ersatz “Angela” responds: “Are you really trying to help me, or am I the ‘silly’ part that you talk about? Is my life the joke?” Fielder replies: “No one’s the joke; the situations are funny, but interesting, too.” For all the talk about meta-reflexivity that predominated in discussions about The Rehearsal this scene for me represented the absolute peak. It also was the “realest” the show ever felt in terms of the actual Nathan (as opposed to the “Nathan” character he has been cultivating since his previous series) voicing his creative vision and addressing his complicity as creator of reality-blurring media product.

Recently it has seemed en vogue for media creators to call attention to their own complicity in contributing to the wider cultural phenomena in which they participate. While visiting my parents over the holidays last December my mom and I watched the Hulu miniseries Captive Audience (my mom is a commendably game media omnivore, so these visits typically involve a wide array of viewing experiences). Captive Audience is a true crime series that foregrounds its ambitions to also engage with the genre of true crime media itself (as well as signposting its intent to interrogate the public’s obsession with true crime content). There are some compelling sequences where the director stages readings of interview transcripts from police investigations using actors who portrayed the actual victims in an early 90s TV movie, and the final installment begins by asking one of the real life family members whether she consumes true crime media (she enthusiastically replies in the affirmative). After raising some tantalizing questions, including the place of such media as the series itself in contributing to a culture of media exploitation and commodification of tragedy, the series fails to offer any substantive judgments.

While I appreciated the ambition of Captive Audience in considering multiple levels of the mediation of real stories into circulating consumable content (the inclusion of audio recordings that allow us to listen to the screenwriter of the 90s TV movie figure out how to turn this true life tragedy into an appropriately “dramatic” narrative is a particular highlight), it ultimately was unable (or unwilling) to follow-through on these threads in any satisfying or coherent manner. The creators begin to turn the spotlight on their own production in a way that almost feels subversive, but they end up letting themselves off the hook in a way that makes the initial dalliance with self-examination seem self-serving. During this same holiday watchathon my mom and I also watched the controversial and widely reviled Casey Anthony miniseries where she finally gets a platform to tell her story in her own words. I can understand the popular backlash and was unable to finish the first episode. Ironically this series served as a stronger statement on (and even condemnation of) our present preoccupation with true crime television than Captive Audience was able to muster.

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