Thursday, January 19, 2006

Daniel Laikind and what reality TV COULD be

So Daniel Laikind has a new series about Lisa Loeb's attempts to find a man. It's called "#1 Single" and it's on E! (which may be the most worthless channel ever).

Now, reality dating shows and reality shows featuring washed-up celebrities are a dime a dozen. What makes this interesting to me is Laikind's involvement.

I'm not one of those people who blindly says, "All reality TV is bad!" but a LOT of reality TV is bad. Worse, a lot of it is boring. I mean, Survivor is very well filmed, competently done, etc., but how many variations on the rules can there be before it gets really, really dull (my answer is: not many)? The stuff that crowds up cable is even worse. VH1 at least had the weird train wreck that was Breaking Bonaduce, which proved that Americans really WILL watch anything, while MTV has Laguna Beach, which is, at best, an amusing antidote to the overly articulate teens in scripted entertainment (watching too much of it actually makes me want to give up TV for good -- I swear MY friends and I were more articulate than these sots. . .weren't we, guys?).

Where was I?

Oh yes. Laikind came over to TV series when he worked on Amish in the City, which naturally dovetailed with his film The Devil's Playground, about the Amish concept of rumspringa, where Amish teens get a chance to see how the rest of the world lives and understand all of its temptations. Devil's Playground was a fascinating look at being a part of a subculture and religious sacrifice. Amish in the City was supposed to be an exploitative reality show.

Except in the hands of Laikind and the other producers, it wasn't. It contrasted the respectful Amish with crass "city" teenagers. It showed just how hard it is to live in the most powerful country on Earth and still feel a world apart. It did a great many things reality TV almost never does. (To read more about the production philosophy behind the show, go here. You'll have to watch an ad.)

Laikind went on to do Family Bonds, which I confess I haven't seen, but my understanding is that it was one of the better "workplace" reality shows that became so popular a few years back (The Restaurant, The Casino, etc.).

Anyway, now he's turning his attention to the dating subgenre of reality. And I think his approach (he views the series as an eight-part documentary on the struggles of people looking for partners in their late 30s -- especially women, who are still frowned upon) is an intriguing one to bring to this subgenre.

But could it be brought to other subgenres. Could someone legitimately take the American Idol talent show format or the Survivor game show format and turn them into mini-documentaries?

Chuck Klosterman has written a very good essay about how reality TV (specifically in his essay The Real World) has made us all in to actors. In essence, we're all playing a reality TV "type." If I'm the sarcastic observer, then you're the sassy gay man and she's the mother figure and. . .on and on. While I don't know that that's true in real life as Klosterman says, it's certainly true of reality TV. What makes Laikind's work so interesting is that he finds people who aren't afraid to be real and not "play a part." His editing also goes out of its way to show the verite of the situation.

I don't think the Survivor-style shows should END, per se, but it would be nice to see more reality in them. To make them feel less heavily scripted and edited.

Like I said, I don't know how you can accomplish this, but the person who does will win brownie points from me if nothing else.

But just imagine what someone like Barbara Kopple or Errol Morris could do with a 13-episode narrative. You could tell the story of a whole town or a whole extended family or a whole experience.

The mind fairly boggles.

No comments: