Travels in Pseudoreality

From TV to Wikileaks, the Only Way is Fake

Text by Shumon Basar

Illustrations by Olivia Meier

"I can't imagine having real boobs again, can you?" The other girls in the Jacuzzi, sipping champagne, immersed in bubble bath, nod their heads in vigorous approval. No, like Chloe Sims (cup size: 34EE), they too can't, won't and never will have to experience what it means to bare breasts that are entirely their own. Chloe Sims - not of the virtual reality computer game The Sims, but the hit TV show The Only Way is Essex - isn't nostalgic for a former time where bodies were genuinely real. Authentic. Pure.

Chloe and her pneumatically prodigious, perma-tanned, hair-extensioned, Botox-baring best friends live their lives truthfully - on camera, for us to envy and disparage equally - with this mantra permanently in mind: the only way is fake.

The programme in which this scene so honestly unfolds cannot be as clearly categorised as the breasts under scrutiny - ie "fake". In fact, some of the most popular TV shows of the past couple of years in America and Britain - The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore, Made in Chelsea, Desperate Scousewives - have fuzzed the flimsy wall between real and fake, fact and fiction. They introduce a format capturing the audience's jaded attention spans today: pseudo-reality.

Ever since Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County aired in 2004, pseudo-reality programmes have given us a mash-up of documentary and soap opera. They proffer "real people" with "real names" (Whitney, Spencer, Chloe) whose lives pre-date the shows and continue to spill out into "real life" once the cameras stop rolling. Pseudo-reality programmes are full of "larger than life characters", but Whitney, Spencer and Chloe are not fabrications from a scriptwriter's keyboard. Life has delivered them to TV as ready-made chancers, seen on the E! channel, cascading down the steps of the Chateau Marmont in their off-screen time. Even the PR agents, skulking behind the bushes, are for real. Believe it.

Yet Whitney and Spence's daily machinations of love, betrayal and very big hair do not manifest on-screen in the garb of realist documentary film. Instead, these programmes have a slick, carefully crafted look akin to aspirational, MTV-friendly dramas such as The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Shot/reverse shot. Lingering close-ups. Cool fade-ins/outs of brightly coloured indie songs. No one in pseudo-reality ever fluffs a line, is ever lost for words, talks over each other, or has their back clumsily facing the cameras - facing us.

This is pseudo-reality's core capitulation: "real" people living hyper-real lives. Watching these programmes is like being in an ontological freefall sans metaphysical parachute.

In the 1960s, film director Jean-Luc Godard popularised a theatrical device academics like to term "Brechtian distanciation". Anna Karina would turn to Jean-Paul Belmondo, over a dead corpse, and inform him - and us - that "it's not blood. It's just red paint." Decades later, and the UK comedy Peep Show is filmed entirely in direct address - towards us. Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt, or "alienation effect", was described by himself as "stripping an event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about [it]."

This tactic told you what you were seeing was not really a reality but something staged, constructed, scripted. Life-size quote marks. However, the pretext in cinema and theatre is already clearly signposted for us: we are observing fiction. What else are stages, screens, costumes and strange character names for, if not to transport us elsewhere? To alert us to the artificiality of the artificial is a neat, even cute conceit in these safe contexts and only truly disturbing if you think that cinema and theatre are, in the first place, a presentation of "the real".

Tony Wood, creative director of Lime Pictures, which makes The Only Way is Essex, pitched the format to ITV as "Big Brother without the walls".

An example of this occurs in an episode of Made in Chelsea when Ollie dumps Gabriella on the deck of a Thames pleasure cruiser, lit up by fairy light pathos. Daran Little, story producer on the show and The Only Way is Essex, said that Ollie had called the production team and informed them he was about to end things with his girlfriend. The shot and setting were swiftly orchestrated (cue fairy lights) by the production team. In the scene broadcast on TV, Gabriella seemed genuinely upset by the news. There were actual tears, in fact, and disbelief. But how much is set up, how much is sincere?

All of this probably sounds like the next evolutionary step in the interminable future of entertainment froth, but, seen from an even broader meta-perspective, it insinuates much about that fragile delineation between so-called fiction and so-called fact in our own off-screen lives.

Big Brother without the walls. It is a very neat equation. A perfect pitch for a pilot. One that describes contemporary reality as a whole. Think about it. Think back to Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, who believed he lived in authentic, suburban bliss, only to find out his reality had been meticulously constructed for the viewing pleasure of millions around the world. Millions who paid to watch him laugh, love and cry. In our own pseudo-reality, of course, there is no huge, Buckminster Fuller-type dome covering us, as there is in Truman's town Seahaven, rigged as it is with theatrical lighting, 5,000 cameras and switch-controlled weather. In our pseudo-reality, there may not be a "backstage" as such, but there  are control rooms, directors, producers and scriptwriters we don't know about and most definitely do not see.

Theirs is a one-way mirror upon us.

When WikiLeaks burst the information dams and the crusading antics of Anonymous exposed fragile corporate firewalls, we entered a new climate of super-structure exposé. WikiLeaks made the walls in international politics disappear so that real-reality seeps out into constructed reality. Or is it vice versa? That all this myth busting happened to happen the same time that pseudo-reality TV topped viewers' preferences is all part of the pseudo-real plan.

Here's a question. What was the most shocking thing about WikiLeaks' various cables concerning Saudi Arabia, Iran, America and Europe? Answer: it was how unshocking most of it was. Unlike Gabriella when she was spurned by Ollie, we didn't feel alarmed by what was revealed in diplomatic communiqués. It affirmed what we already knew but couldn't, or wouldn't, accept. Not unlike when watching The Hills or Desperate Scousewives,  we refuse to acknowledge that the whole thing is staged. Why?

The "shock" of the global economic crisis played out in eerily reminiscent fashion. We discovered that capitalism has engineered fictional frontiers of virtual money, and that this fiction cannot go on forever. The crisis is a sensational season-ending episode to 20th-century economics where the world's "richest" countries are also the ones with the greatest deficits. Money, the ultimate pseudo-real invention.

The falsehood of reality has been an ongoing pet favourite of philosophers from time immemorial. Think Plato's Theory of Forms and the shifty shadows in the Timeas' cave. Descartes could only guarantee that our mind exists and that is only because it is able to think. Everything else? Big question mark. More recently, Baudrillard continued with this theme, focusing on the society of spectacle in which we drink the "simulacrum" of Coke rather than the real thing. You pay to be cheated.

Of The Only Way is Essex, Tony Wood has said: "At the heart [of what we do is] always a desire to put in the audience's mind: 'Is this real? Are they acting? Is it scripted? Is it not?'" And to leave  that as an open question for them.

Duplicity, paranoia and uncertainty: the pseudo-real building blocks of philosophy, politics and popular TV. Perhaps computer image specialists Hany Farid and Eric Kee at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire can help. They have invented a technique that measures how much a digital image has been manipulated. How someone's eyes have been lightened, their crow's feet removed, wrinkles removed, skin unsagged, and freckles, blemishes and unwanted hairs zapped away by Photoshop. This new software winds back the "impossible human beings" presented to us as fetishistic gloss, and shows us the "actual human beings". The ones like you and me.

To alert us to the artificiality of the artificial is a neat conceit in these safe contexts and only truly disturbing if you think that cinema and theatre are, in the first place, a presentation of "the real".

To rewind to Chloe Sims' rejection of the real, surrounded as she was by double-E implants, we may need to  heed her insight. For perhaps, like Descartes or Baudrillard, she can see through the nostalgia for authenticity.

The "real" was always just an iteration of the pseudo-real. More than ever, there is no uncorrupted core to aspire to, no loss to lament. If there is one thing we can take away after we have switched the TV off, it is that these programmes do not fictionalise reality in a duplicitous way. It is reality that fictionalises itself all the time. §


  • Travels in Pseudoreality