Last week, Radar Online reported the shocking revelation, provided by eyewitnesses, that scenes from reality show "The Real Housewives of New York" were staged. That's right, the "real" housewives were made up, the "real" setting was specifically lit and the "real" dialogue was interrupted and restarted (and very likely rewritten).
"It was like something you would see on the set of a movie or scripted television show," an onlooker told Radar.
That someone in 2013 would be surprised that reality TV is not so real is, well, a bit surprising. That a media outlet such as Radar would present such a revelation as shocking is a bit unreal.
Besides, if it's one thing our reality shows need, it's good scripting.
Take one of my guilty pleasures: "Duck Dynasty."
I came late to "Duck Dynasty." Which may be surprising to some, seeing that I'm a Louisiana native and a man of questionable tastes. But as a Cajun from south Louisiana, I had little interest in watching a bunch of self-described rednecks from the less interesting half of the state (especially when reality TV offers, at last count, about 6 million other reality shows based in Louisiana).
But last year, I got hooked. Compared to the usual reality fare of "Women Threaten to Never Talk to One Another Again Yet NEVER Stop Talking to One Another Because Apparently Screaming All the Time Is Fun" or "Man Voluntarily Gets Stranded in the Woods and Drinks His Own Urine," the show is a charming family comedy. The Robertsons of Monroe, La., don't scream, threaten to reveal dark secrets (such as federal indictments or a history of pole-dancing) or roll around on the floor pulling hair. And while they do eat weird things found in the woods, those things are almost always cooked.
Rather, episodes deal with one or more of the following scenarios: the older "redneck" generation must do something about the younger "yuppified" generation; Jason gets a hare-brained idea that will drive Willie wild; Phil must do something slightly emasculating to make Miss Kaye happy (or else she will withhold in the bedroom); crazy Uncle Si does something crazy. Every episode ends with the family gathered around the dinner table thanking God for its blessings. And we're not talking some vague, politically correct, interfaith TV blessing, either.
On top of all this, the family is so obviously in on the jokes, you never get the dirty feeling that you're watching a bunch of un-self-aware, mouth-breathing buffoons from a certain state in the Northeast that is also the setting for a large number of reality shows.
It's no surprise that America loves the show. Indeed, this season saw record-breaking ratings.
But how long can it last? Other reality shows fall into the categories of drama ("Real Housewives") or competition ("Big Brother") or both ("Deadliest Catch"). Perhaps I'm biased, but those genres are easier to write—and sustain—than comedy. And writing is the lifeblood of a good sitcom.
Make no mistake, "Duck Dynasty" is a sitcom. It's just one that uses "real" people rather than trained actors. (Consider the setups and jokes, the multiple camera angles for dialogue and the complete absence of boom mics and camera men intruding on scenes.)
And the show's already burned through the sort of sitcom tricks we don't typically see until year four, like weird sidekicks that seem to come out of nowhere and stretch the limits of belief ("Mountain Man") and celebrity guest appearances (Nascar driver Clint Bowyer).
In the most recent season finale, the family vacationed in Hawaii (classic "Brady Bunch") and—I'm not making this up—one of the characters literally jumped over a shark. (It was an inflatable shark in a swimming pool and no one was dressed like Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli, but the point was made.)
But the shark jumping actually happened well before then. During the season premiere, Uncle Si whipped out a pistol and "fired" blindly into a log because he thought he'd heard a rat—something no responsible gun owner (or someone pretending to be a responsible gun owner) would ever do. (I say "fired" because it seemed like the gun wasn't actually shot and that sound-effects were added during editing.)
All of which is to say the Robertsons, in an attempt to stay interesting, risk ruining the brand. (Let's not even discuss the raft of show-themed products—from bandages to dog costumes.)
Viewers of the "Real Housewives" franchise would quickly tune out if the women started discussing fine literature or sitting peacefully through dinner. And viewers of "Duck Dynasty" may quickly lose patience if the characters are continually put into situations that are too obviously contrived or start to behave in manners inconsistent with the "reality" we expect.
Put another way, A&E might need to shake up the writer's room a bit.
But if the network is going to follow the time-honored traditions of sitcoms, we all know what has to happen next. Uncle Si needs his own spinoff.
Editor's note: Simon Dumenco is on vacation and will return next week.
Hear from Fortune 500 brands that have been forced to pivot as consumer preferences evolve, as well as entrepreneurs building brands from scratch to meet new consumer needs. This event peels apart the layers of brand building with a carefully crafted roster of top marketing, technology, and creative leaders.Learn more