“Our clothing line has been doing really well.” “Beauty, surf, and rehabs.” “Chattanooga is the most beautiful city in the world.” “Are you happy that you invited Deb to Fashion Week?” “That’s my whole life you’ve been on something. My whole life.” “When I was on RuPaul’s Drag Race…”
That’s a random burst of dialogue overheard on a recent episode of Teen Mom OG, mothership incarnation of MTV’s longrunning reality franchise. Almost a decade after their appearances on 16 & Pregnant, moms Amber, Catelynn, Farrah, and Maci continue to live on television. Their kids have become walking, talking little humans. (That’s what happens to babies eventually, duh, but there’s some grace in how the show has tracked these children — and the practically-children who birthed them — over the years.) There are complicated family dynamics, sensitive portraits of the struggles with shared parenting.
And there are the familiar telltale signs of living within the Reality Industrial Complex. People have t-shirt lines, people travel to red carpet events. One Teen Mom goes to Fashion Week, two more go to the Video Music Awards. There is crossover continuity with greater Cinematic Universe of Reality TV. One Mom, Amber, met her new dude on Marriage Boot Camp. And there was that fashion expert from Drag Race. And deep down, isn’t everyone on television auditioning for Dancing With the Stars?
It’s a complex charm, occasional celebrity glitz sprinkled over living-room naturalism. You get a pleasant feeling for places that the media can ignore. (Chattanooga does look cool.) And then there will be a trips to New York and Los Angeles, hotel rooms, makeup artists, selfie-begging fans, stock footage of the Venice Skate Park. One of the Dads, Gary, walks the carpet outside the VMAs. A journalist asks him: “Anything you can hint about Teen Mom?” Careful not to spoil the show that is his life, he defers to a nondescript tease, a four-word plot summary of human existence: “Relationships begin, relationships end.”
If people live on reality TV for long enough, they will become famous. Their lives change. They may become more attractive; you hope they get some money; you worry they lose themselves. This was true on television before reality came along. With any long-running sitcom, it’s a good bet the cast looks better in season 7 than in season 2. Diets, personal trainers, Malibu sun (or Malibu rehabs).
I can’t claim any deep knowledge of Teen Mom history. I watched it a little bit at the start of this decade, back when it was possible to watch a bit of everything. (I am now the person who sits on the couch next to our home’s resident Teen Mom expert.) The evolution of the cast’s lives is interesting, but Teen Mom has evolved in another, more crucial way: The show has stopped hiding the fact that it is a show. The producers are onscreen, frequently, talking to the cast about their lives, prompting them to express their feelings. A typical scene might run like this:
TEEN MOM: [wearing pajamas, reclining on a couch] Hello, friend.
TEEN MOM’S FRIEND: [wearing shorts and a t-shirt, reclining on other end of couch] Hi, Teen Mom.
PRODUCER: [wearing a cool t-shirt, five layers of audio equipment, and a face that says “I care”] So, Teen Mom, how do you feel about the end of your recent traumatic relationship? How does it affect your child? Describe, in single words, only the good things that come to your mind about your mother.
Even in parody form, this sounds invasive. But it feels natural—the producers are just there, in the corner of the room, clothed like creative-class professionals. And I know it sounds like I’m making fun of this, but it’s a fascinating effect. A reality TV show about teen mothers is now—sometimes—a reality TV show about living on a reality TV show.
The producers themselves have become familiar figures. Patient David, who never looks disappointed but always looks concerned…
…Jeni, with the no-nonsense cheer of a White House Press Corps lifer, asking questions she knows nobody will dare to answer…
…Kristen, earning her hazard pay with the Mom one can only safely describe as “a handful” …
…and Kerthy, one of the coolest people I’ve ever seen on a reality show, like right next to Ted Allen from Queer Eye and the ride-pimpers from Pimp My Ride and the people who never stop lying on Big Brother.
Their appearance onscreen—which started back in 2015—should be a subtle change. After all, the “docusoap” reality genre depends on artifice, which can be implicit but is always obvious. In a typical docusoap—your Hills, your Housewives, your Kardashians—the people onscreen don’t acknowledge the cameras following them. And they often construct their conversations around in-world recaps—Wait, So What Happened With You And Scott?—providing connective material for subplots.
Once you know the tricks, you see the producers even when you don’t see the producers. So this Teen Mom change could just be a way to cut corners, making the editors’ lives easier. No need to hide the cameras anymore, gang:
And anyhow, many of the Teen Mom stars became public figures years ago. Tabloids, Instagram, one adult film career. It would’ve been fake to pretend that they weren’t being followed. Catelynn and Maci (and their respective husbands) have launched clothing lines, the kind of celebpreneur work that can monetize even a little fame. (And good for them! Bigger celebrities have made worse clothes.) Their normal isn’t our normal. More real to acknowledge the unreality.
But the role that the producers play on Teen Mom OG is surreal, almost spiritual. They are like psychiatrists on a perpetual house call. They remind me of the Watchers from the Marvel Universe, the race of omniscient baldies with cameras pointed everywhere, blessed with the chance to see everything and cursed with the promise to never interfere.
Sometimes the Teen Mom producers resemble the eerie observers from the Black Mirror episode “White Bear,” silent sentries holding cameras high. Farrah took her daughter for a surfing lesson—what a fun life event!—and then you saw the crew of people following her. This could make for a weird childhood—but the modern paranoiac would say that every kid should grow up feeling like they’re always being watched.
When the producers are onscreen, the power dynamic is unsettling. The cast members are the “stars,” but they don’t control the cameras, or the edit. Teen Mom OG is, on some level, the producers’ version of the events. (Who picks the mood music?) So bringing them onscreen recasts Teen Mom OG as a spiritual sibling to UnReal, where producers like Shiri Appleby’s Rachel coaxes eerie entertainment out of the people in front of the camera.
And then sometimes the producers are…like, us? When Amber started dating a new man, Andrew, “we” met him via a couple producers, who swung by Amber’s house to hear all about their meeting. This was the couple who met on the set of Marriage Boot Camp. Andrew was on the Boot Camp camera crew, and his description of how he met Amber is quite something:
I got to learn about her on the show. It was the first day of filming. I was in the interview room with her. That’s when I learned the most. [to Amber] I’d try and place myself in the house where you were, to hear more. Because I wanted to know even more.
Debate amongst yourselves whether this is a postmodern true romance or something much stranger. (Their relationship has evolved quite a bit; google for spoilers.) What I remember is the reaction shot onto Co-Executive Producer Kiki’s face. It’s like she’s thinking everything I’m thinking, and I’m thinking this sounds fishy:
I don’t want to ignore the more explicitly personal plotlines, which can be moving. Much of the main cast started appearing on MTV when they were teenagers, and so their mere functionality as adult humans is a special kind of triumph. You can watch Teen Mom OG for the sincere emotions—or, sometimes, for the eerie trainwreckitude.
But the producers make a strange presence. And, in one corner, the producer-castmate tension has exploded. There were rumblings of issues between Farrah and her producer Kristen earlier in the season. On that surf trip to the beach, Kristen asked Farrah some questions about her life: “How are you feeling about going to Omaha tomorrow?” and “Are you nervous about anything?” You recognize the prompting, can even see the direction Farrah’s being produced towards. (Farrah’s in a recent/eternal feud with her mom; the details are Shakespearean and Lohanish.) Farrah snapped: “Kristen, I don’t look at my life upside down and s— on it, okay? I’m going to have a good day today.”
It was a weird moment, and echoed Farrah’s history of sparring with producers. And on this week’s episode, Farrah lashed out at Kristen again. There was some sort of confusion—her mom was left waiting in a car for half an hour while Farrah got ready for yet another media-ish event. When Farrah appeared, she unloaded on Kristen:
I know I don’t like you, and I know I don’t even want to f—ing look at you, so when you have my mom wait here for 30 f—ing minutes, don’t f—ing do that anymore. And if you can’t get along with anyone, or try to, and get in my f—ing way of how I live my life, then do not work with me.
Kristen said something like “I’m really not trying to get in your way.” Farrah concluded: “F— you and your excuses!”
You could call this a “meltdown,” not Farrah’s first. Her Teen Mom future is uncertain, and much about her seems indefensible. But you’re also aware that the producers are building up Farrah’s meltdown as a story point. Onscreen, Kristen looked confused and exhausted by the encounter. But on some level, you have to figure that she knew this was gold. So the producers freak me out, too: Are they guiding the cast, or trapping them?
There’s only one solution, really. Pull the curtain back even further: Show the crew in their production meetings, in the editing room, while they’re prepping for interview, making a list of all the emerging subplots (“Farrah’s Mom” always written in bold text on top.) Answer at long last the eternal question: Who produces the producers?