When fired Storage Wars star Dave Hester ("Yuuup!") filed suit in December against A&E and Original Productions, accusing them of rigging the show by planting valuable items in some storage units, he reignited an old debate questioning how "real" reality TV actually is. Other series, like TLC's Breaking Amish, have weathered criticism that participants' backgrounds were embellished. And it's now widely accepted that docusoaps like MTV's The Hills were heavily scripted.
But despite these concerns over the veracity of reality TV — which has mostly elicited yawns from fans — new programs like Spike TV's Joe Schmo Show (which returned Jan. 8 after a nine-year hiatus), BET's Real Husbands of Hollywood (premiering Jan.15) and Science channel's Stuff You Should Know (debuting Jan. 19) are emphasizing their fakeness.
"We call it the 'fakest reality show ever,'" says Real Husbands creator and star Kevin Hart, who developed the series out of a BET Awards sketch that parodied Bravo's Real Housewives franchise. "This show can be ground breaking."
Hart, Nick Cannon, JB Smoove, Boris Kodjoe and Robin Thicke star as heightened versions of themselves: As in real life, Hart is adjusting to divorce; Thicke shows what it's like to be married to actress Paula Patton; and Cannon interacts with wife Mariah Carey (who has a cameo). "He brought things from his personal life," Hart says of Cannon. "He wanted us to incorporate things about him and Mariah in the show because it's things people have said about him for so long."
The situations are "all false," Hart says, yet, "the real reality comes from us playing ourselves. We're making fun of ourselves." But ultimately a semi-scripted, semi-improvised show like Real Husbands is not that much different from celebrity-driven reality shows that feature stars reacting to manufactured situations.
Joe Schmo, a scripted parody of reality competitions, takes on the bounty hunter genre this season. It centers on a contestant who thinks he's competing for a cash prize and a job as a big-time bounty hunter. Little does he know that his fellow competitors (mostly unknowns, but including Lorenzo Lamas as himself and the return of Ralph Garman as host) are actors, and the focus is on his reactions to the crazy stunts going on around him.
"We approached it when we were writing [like] a sitcom where you just don't know what one character is going to do," says executive producer J. Holland Moore.
Fellow executive producer John Stevens says Joe Schmo is actually more legit than some regular reality shows. "There was no way to make it constructed reality," Stevens says. "With a lot of shows you have the ability to manipulate things. But you only had one shot with this. We had a script but were rarely able to stick with it, because we were never able to figure out what this guy would do next."
Because reality TV has become so absurd, producers now found it tougher to parody the genre compared to Schmo's original run a decade ago. "It's gotten so crazy over the years," Moore says. "To go over the top on that, that was even more difficult."
On Science, Stuff You Should Know is adapted from a popular podcast hosted by Discovery Communications employees Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant. But while the podcast is real — and filled with bona fide science tidbits — the TV version will be set in a fictional world. In the show, the guys are seen hosting a podcast and experimenting with actual facts. But the actual workplace is a semi-scripted comedy.
"We wanted to create the idealized version of what our jobs would be," Bryant says. "We could have done a reality show and followed us around and shown us researching on the Internet all day, but that's not too fun. [This version] is definitely more interesting than the real thing."
Fans of unscripted TV know that most shows are somewhat mapped out, but there's still plenty of reality in how people react to the situations they're put into. The most "real" reality show on TV may be the granddaddy of them all, Fox's Cops. That show, now entering its 25th season, continues to follow police officers for days until they get some compelling footage — no manipulation needed.
Cops executive producer Morgan Langley says other reality shows have gone down the rabbit hole of manufactured reality because otherwise, footage of real-life events is usually quite dull. "I think that evolution into faux reality happened by necessity, as it is very difficult to shoot a show like Cops," he says. "There are only so many areas of human life that are compelling enough, that are inherently dramatic, to shoot in true documentary style."
His father, Cops exec producer John Langley, agrees: "Our motto is, 'Keep it real.' Other people's motto seems to be 'Look real.'"