Since the genre's template, MTV's "The Real World," debuted in 1992 and single-handedly invented reality TV as we know it, hundreds of spinoffs, remakes, retreads and rip-offs have cropped up to render the prototype nearly irrelevant. Moreover, post-"Real World" reality shows -- be they dating, competition or situation-based -- have become so formulaic that identifying each subgenre's stereotypical cast of characters could be a parlor game.
That's why the New York Reality TV School, which opened for enrollment on June 21 at a small studio near Manhattan's Gramercy Park, seems like a no-brainer that came almost too late. Founder and instructor Robert Galinsky, a veteran casting director, actor and producer, started the school only after helping one of his students, Jorge Bendersky, make it to the top three on Animal Planet's dog-grooming reality series "Groomer Has It" earlier this year.
"When he first came to me, he said, 'I have no idea what I'm doing.' And after he went on the show he called me and said, 'Everything you went over came into play,'" Mr. Galinsky told me. "A light bulb went off at that moment."
So far, more than 50 students have graduated from the school, believed to be the first of its kind. A one-night, three-hour workshop costs $139, and thus far has been more popular than the more extensive five-week course, which consists of five 90-minute classes and costs $299. Students enrolled in the one-night workshop receive a crash course in the essentials of reality TV.
You learn how to survive a reality "perp walk," in which your classmates boisterously berate or congratulate you based on a prompt shouted out by Mr. Galinsky ("OK, this girl just stole your grandma's purse and shoved her in front of a moving car. You're angry! Let her hear it!"). You learn how to compress your basic pitch to reality producers into 30 seconds or less ("Hi, I'm Juliette, I'm 19 ... and I'm bisexual"). You even learn how to react to "moles," or reality castmates who have been strategically planted for the sake of shaking up the drama and adding an extra dose of "reality" to the situation (more on those later).
So perhaps it's both a credit to the New York Reality TV School and a testament to the truly manufactured nature of reality TV casting that I wasn't able to immediately peg the stereotypes of each of my 20-some classmates.
Eager for stardom
Cody-Ann Palmer, one of the first students I spoke with, was something of a tough read. A soft-spoken African-American girl in her early 20s, Ms. Palmer told me she was a big reality TV fan, specifically of "The Real World" and "Big Brother," the shows most cited by students as their goal, still the genre's standard-bearers as they enter their 20th and 10th seasons, respectively.
A more unusual case was Leo Fernekes, a 40-something Brooklyn-based tech entrepreneur who signed up for the class to improve his public speaking skills. "This is the form of PR for the 21st century CEO -- to be media savvy," he told me.
Perhaps the only student who represented the quintessential modern reality star was Juliette Depaola, the aforementioned 19-year-old bisexual who was immediately singled out by the school's in-house casting director Robert Russell as being a good fit for a show along the lines of "Big Brother" or "A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila."
This is revisited later during "On the Grill With Phil," a rapid-fire on-camera casting session with Philip Galinsky, Robert's brother, who rattles off existing or in-development reality shows and invites the most qualified students to audition on the spot. He mentions "Tila Tequila," and Juliette promptly steps forward and says to the camera, "We're both 4-foot-11. She's Asian and beautiful. ... I love your tattoos and your hard impression and I would love to date you, Tila."
Moments later, Ms. Palmer, who had been a mostly passive presence throughout the class, volunteers to give a mock audition for a show called "Who Do You Look Like?" She enters the circle of students and begins to stammer. "OK, people always tell me I look like, umm, that girl from that one movie ..." She snaps her fingers and puts her hands on her head to jog her memory.
Phil shouts back, "Come on! Why did you volunteer if you can't even think of the name? Come prepared!"
"Stop yelling at me!" Ms. Palmer retorts, getting visibly emotional. "I didn't come here to get humiliated!" She then shields her face with her hand, in true reality diva fashion, to block the camera crews from Ad Age, Fuji Television in Japan, BBC International Radio and the U.K.'s "Good Morning Television" that have been documenting the class in its entirety.
Philip moves on to another student, who angrily testifies for a show called "Who Owes You Money?" before revisiting Ms. Palmer to see if she can give her audition another shot.
"Who do you look like?" he asks. "I look like the Incredible Hulk. Ahhhh!" she screams to the camera, before storming out of the classroom. "F you! F this stupid school!"
Instantly, there are two things about her sudden, dramatic reaction that strike me as a bit off. One, who actually says "F you" when they're truly mad? And two, where did this attitude come from? Sure, Ms. Palmer told me she saw "Real World" as her dream show, but nothing from our two brief interviews suggested she could fly off the handle so easily.
A few of my classmates are taken aback, but most are either unfazed or don't register her reaction at all. Considering any given night of programming on VH1 features women spitting, defecating on or punching their fellow castmates, this outburst seemed pretty tame. Expected, even.
Who would have guessed?
It should come as no surprise, then, that at the culmination of the class Ms. Palmer is revealed to be the token "mole," hired by the school to overreact and shake things up a bit. I, of course, totally saw this plot twist coming, but secretly hoped it wasn't true for the sake of maintaining the "reality" of the proceedings. Then I remembered that I boycott "The Hills" for the same faux-reality reasons and quickly snapped out of it.
Nevertheless, as my name got called to receive my "diploma," or printed piece of white paper with a frame straight out of a Microsoft Word template and Mr. Galinsky's hastily squiggled signature at the bottom, I began to realize how fleetingly accomplished I'd become in the last three hours. Not only could I spot a mole, I knew how to compress my story and qualifications into a snappy 15-second bio, do a reality perp walk without batting an eye and even dance on camera without fear of looking foolish. Perhaps I could score a meeting with MTV pitching myself as the host of an advertising-based version of their high-school journalism docu-series "The Paper"?
Mr. Russell, the school's casting director, said he books 30 jobs a day for reality shows (NYCasting.com, which co-sponsors the school, and RealityWanted.com. are two resources) and added: "I would go to somebody that was in our school before I go to somebody else." Several students, he said, are auditioning for "American Idol" this week, and he got another student on "Deal or No Deal."
But what I really learned from my visit to New York Reality TV School was how desperately the genre needs to change -- even those in the industry seem to be growing weary of it. Mr. Galinsky told me he's already pitching the school as its own reality show, a concept so meta I contemplated writing this article as a Q&A with myself about my trip through the emotional gantlet that is reality TV stardom.
"But wouldn't that force the formula to reinvent itself?" I asked Mr. Galinsky of the proposed reality series, both out of curiosity and desperate, wide-eyed hope. "It would certainly pull the curtain back behind the wizard. But I wouldn't mind it having an impact on the genre. It's getting tired," he said.
Leave your dignity at the door
Mr. Fernekes' response was even more telling. "Reality TV stars basically whore themselves out to the very core for the media. You'd have to be a very strong person to come out with some vestige of integrity. It can make you into an idiot. ... Reality TV is the decay of civilization," he told me in a tone of academic authority.
"But you're a part of it now, right?" I asked.
He jumped down on one knee and made rock-star symbols with his hands. "Yeah!" he cried.