For any halfway sensible TV viewer, “reality TV” is usually mentioned with a broad verbal wink, since the inference suggested by its very name is a kind of semantic gag that is presumed to tie viewers and the people who make it together in an agreed complicity. Simply put, the stuff is heavily staged, out of economic and dramatic necessity, and has been since the birth of the genre, which is either at the dawn of TV in 1948 with Allan Funt’s Candid Camera, or in early 1973 when PBS debuted the groundbreaking An American Family.
In either case, reality TV finally emerged from the swamp and walked erect after the 1988 Hollywood writers’ strike, when networks were desperate for content that didn’t overtly require plot or dialogue or gags produced by rooms of scribes; all of those things were still needed, however, only their procurement devolved to production staff given job descriptions like “researchers” or “story editors.” Reality shows openly advertise casting calls for extras and bit parts, and online fan forums are evenly split between viewers earnestly arguing the morality of decisions made onscreen by reality TV stars, or careful dissections of the layers of deceit required to stage each dramatic moment.
Reality TV is a permanent part of the TV landscape, but even now its genetic material is still easy to read, as almost every reality show is either a prurient game that puts a premium on humiliating its players – descendents of Candid Camera like Big Brother and Survivor – or comic dramas focused on families cast in the malleable mould of An American Family. The latter includes everything from Jon & Kate Plus 8 and the fecund Duggar clan of 19 Kids And Counting to celebrity family brands like the Osbournes, the Kardashians, and the tidy nuclear unit of rock star Gene Simmons.
The peculiar genius of Simmons’ A&E reality show, titled Gene Simmons Family Jewels with straining innuendo, is how he’s used reality TV to remake the wholesome family sitcoms that he probably watched growing up in Queens, New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s – programs like Blondie and The Danny Thomas Show, where the paterfamilias breadwinner is lovingly tolerated by his fetching housewife mate and wise children as he drags them on a series of comic misadventures. Simmons may have made his fortune with the cartoon glam band KISS, and his Canadian-born wife Shannon Tweed may be most notable for her stint as a Playboy centerfold, but their family life is revealed to be startlingly normal, and their children Nick and Sophie fill the roles of the show’s real emotional anchors.
Conservatives tentatively embraced the show for its surprisingly forthright family values, and despite the fact that Simmons stubbornly refused to marry Tweed, citing his conviction that marriage was hypocritical and male nature unsuited to fidelity, and that his relationship with Tweed had outlasted almost every marriage in their Hollywood milieu. It was a subject he was happy to expound on at every opportunity – I’ve been personally browbeaten by him on two different occasions – but given the couple’s apparent success with their children, Simmons’ adamant anti-drug stance and his outspoken political conservatism, he ended up with a permanent place on the sparsely populated right side of the celebrity political ledger, even after he admitted voting for Barack Obama. (A vote he later publicly regretted, alongside his friend and reality TV peer Donald Trump; this would be a fitting symbol of the fundamental unseriousness of the current American political cycle if it weren’t for the ongoing economic and foreign policy disasters.)
Things changed, however, with the start of the sixth season, still airing, which showed Tweed walking out on Simmons after he missed yet another family event for a business meeting and a photo-op with two blondes on his arm. The couple made a series of frosty and quarrelsome appearances on daytime TV to publicize the shows, which were presented by A&E like the “very special episodes” that once signalled a primetime hit was in ratings decline back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which inevitably featured a death, a divorce, or the solemn coming out of some gay uncle.
It’s hard not to cheer for Simmons and his show – episodes so far have seen him admitting that he was selfish and immature, that he humiliated Tweed, and set a poor example for his son and – especially – his daughter. Each episode has been a series of mea culpas, and one featured Simmons in Israel at the grave of his estranged father, sobbing that, in spite of all the mistakes he’s made, “I’ve been a good father.” At the same time it’s hard to ignore the staginess of it all, and the nagging feeling that it’s not normal to lay yourself bare like this, in front of cameras, with the expectation of ratings as a measure of your success, even if you’re a man who made his name dressing up like a kabuki jack-o-lantern.
I have a friend, a fan of the show and media-savvy as they come, who couldn’t bear to watch the “break-up” episodes, which is a sign, if nothing else, of our primal need for suspension of disbelief when we’ve invested in a story. Previews of the balance of this season of Simmons’ show feature a glimpse of him on his knees in front of Tweed, broadly setting up the anticipation of a proposal, and perhaps a seventh season built around a wedding. You want to believe it’s true, but it’s hard to smother a hot ember of suspicion that our convictions are being flattered, and that a cynical mechanism is in play that wants to churn our beliefs about family and fidelity and manhood into marketed demographics and ratings share. Even when you’re told you’re right, it’s hard not to suspect that you’re still being lied to.