“This is just a show… isn’t it?”
You can hear someone asking that question in the trailer of Siberia, a new scripted drama about a reality TV show. (It premieres on NBC tonight, but you can watch the pilot early here.) The answer? Yeah, it’s just a show. But what reality TV program isn’t? Siberia proves that it’s getting harder to tell the difference between a “real” show and a scripted one. But maybe it’s fitting that NBC is combining fiction and reality at a time when so many unscripted events have blurred the lines between dramatic television and real-life tragedy.
When Siberia begins, it looks a lot like Survivor. Sixteen contestants are dropped off in the middle of nowhere, somewhere in Siberia, and each is trying to survive longer than the others without any equipment or food in the remote territory of Tunguska. Their host, Jonathon Buckley (played by the real-life Jonathon Buckley, former host of Lifetime’s 2012 reality competition Love for Sail) informs them that they need to make their way to the remains of a primitive trading outpost that was found abandoned in 1908. The fires were still burning and the food was still cooking on the stoves in this settlement, but all the inhabitants had disappeared. After the contestants race to the settlement, the last man and woman to arrive are eliminated, and the others are left to try to build fires, hunt for mushrooms… and avoid whatever is making the creepy sound in the forest. Rest assured: By the end of the first episode, something will go terribly, horribly wrong.
You’ll recognize Siberia’s character types from any other reality TV show: the flirt, the arrogant tough guy, the self-appointed leader who’s bound to get eliminated early, the nerd who’s going to last longer than you’d think. Australian model Esther (Esther Anderson) seduces her way into sharing a bed with another contestant. Competitive bull rider Johnny (Johnny Wactor) thinks he can win without any help from anyone else. Rugby player Neeko (Omar “Neeko” Skervin) wants to take charge of the group. Skinny Minnesotan geek Daniel (Daniel Sutton) gets hurt early, but when he uses his glasses to start a fire, it looks like he might have the intelligence it takes to be the John Cochran of the group. Now, cliches found on reality TV are sometimes interesting: it’s always fascinating to understand why a real human being would want to portray herself as a total stereotype on television. But cliches that are scripted are just cliches: there’s no psychology to analyze. So you’ll notice that the producers of Siberia did something smart to raise the stakes: the characters are named after the actors who play them, and some of the details of their bios are the same. Anderson’s IMDB page lists her as a model from Sydney, and Sutton’s says he’s from Minnesota. The bio for Johnny—which is filed under “contestants,” not “cast,” as if the background information is about the character, not the actor—lists Wactor’s real-life role on Army Wives. All of which begs the question: Are these roles commenting on the type of stock casting you find on reality TV shows? Or are they just imitating them?
Obviously, by now, we know that reality isn’t all that real even when it’s not scripted. We understand that producers guide the plots of the Real Housewives, that true crime “documentaries” are often sensationalized to the point where they’re not “based on a true story” but rather “inspired by” one, and that even the news doesn’t necessarily report “just the facts” anymore. (All you had to do was watch continuing coverage of the Boston marathon bombings, with anchors constantly reporting and retracting their findings, to confirm that idea.) But somehow, it’s still hard for many of us to accept that reality TV stars aren’t just playing into their reputations, they’re literally professional actors. A few weeks ago, I found myself drawn to another series where actors play reality TV stars: ABC’s Whodunnit, which is billed as a reality TV competition. Contestants are invited to a mysterious mansion in order to solve mysteries. But it’s hard to see why it’s any different from Siberia. Only a few minutes into the first episode, one contestant is found “dead” on the ground, with a fish tank broken over her head and a cut wire sparking by the water. She’s shaking on the floor, as if she’s being electrocuted. Later, when another contestant fails to solve her murder, some unseen killer supposedly lights him on fire, and he’s shown running out of the mansion, with flames rising from his entire body. Obviously, we know that this guy’s not really burning to death. (Well, at least some of us do.) So, did he really fail to solve the other woman’s murder? Was he ever competing, or had the show written him off as the loser from the beginning? And more important, does it matter?
The premise of Siberia might sound like the extreme version of Whodunnit: here, the contestants actually die, no flame-retardant suit necessary. But then, that’s not such a shock. We always believe that producers won’t let any harm come to reality TV contestants. But we already know that’s not the case. These shows don’t get cancelled when marriages get strained to the point of divorce. Cameramen stand by and keep shooting while young people get punched in the face. As for leaving regular people in the Tunguskian woods to battle what appear to be bloodthirsty creatures, well, the networks’ lawyers might stop short of that. So maybe Siberia isn’t real, but the fact that its premise doesn’t feel totally ridiculous does make the story more compelling. One day, I fully expect to see Jeff Probst competing in his own reality TV version of The Most Dangerous Game. Until then, it’s much easier to watch Esther from Sydney fight for her life in the forest, and wait for the day when we can watch America’s Next Top Model do the same thing.
Melissa Maerz on Twitter: @MsMelissaMaerz