One of MTV’s newest series, My Life as Liz, concludes its first season tonight at 10:30 p.m. ET, and has generated some conversation about how real it is. The opening both addresses and mocks that, as Liz says in a voice-over, “This is so stupid,” and then types, “The people, places, and stories you are about to see are all real…at least the way I see it.” She then adds, “Whatever. MTV made me do this.”
MTV and its producers obviously made her do a lot: writing dialogue for her to deliver in cutaway segments and voice-over narration, staging scenes, and heavily editing her life into a show that is as genre-bending as Laguna Beach was, although it seems to take the genre even further toward fiction. Yet it’s weird enough to be compelling. (If you’ve missed it, full episodes are online, and you can watch the first episode below.)
Let’s get the reality question out of the way first: A lot of My Life as Liz is admittedly not real. Executive producer Marshall Eisen told the Los Angeles Times, “The rule was, when Liz is around other people, we played that as straight as we could. When she’s alone, that’s when we were able to stylize things more.” He said that there’s no defined balance between real versus fake–I mean, “stylized”–and said, “I couldn’t tell you a percentage. It probably varies from show to show,” but he said that for some scenes, they had “extensive preproduction” and “a lot of cameras in a lot of these places.”
Liz acknowledged to the paper that some scenes are recreated by insisting that some weren’t (“There was never a re-creation of a moment with Cori, ever. I couldn’t take it more than once”), and MTV executive Dave Sirulnick told the paper, “We didn’t set out to confuse people. We don’t look at it as just a reality show — that doesn’t capture it. We weren’t going to call it a sitcom, because it’s not.”
There may not be a proper term yet for what it is, but it’s definitely a hybrid of reality and fiction, like The Hills, though this is far more active. Instead of music filling in all of the awkward silence, there are cutaways, extreme close-ups, and segments that resemble music videos (which become even more like that thanks to on-screen identification of the actual song).
Many shots, but particularly those in Liz’s room, are reminiscent of The Office because of the way cameras should be visible when alternate perspectives are shown, but they’re not. That makes sense in a mockumentary like The Office, but not in a reality series. In other words, whole scenes have been heavily produced, like a fictional film. Yet the actually work sometimes, even though they’re obviously fake. I never quite bought into The Hills, in part because of the way nothing happens, but also because it seemed very disconnected from reality. Here, it feels like we’re getting an illustration of reality, rather than alternate version of it.
Scenes filmed at Liz’s (real) high school–producers discovered the school and Liz while scouting locations for a second season of MTV’s The Paper–sometimes seem real, although it’s obvious even the people in the hallways are clearly aware of the cameras. That’s one level of reality that’s probably gone forever: People react to cameras now in a way they didn’t before, and that’s not to say they’re acting, though they may be reacting to them.
On the opposite end, Liz and her friends are terrifyingly bad actors in some of the staged scenes, which contrast oddly with the moments that actually seem genuine. It’s in those moments when I can’t understand why a show would use real people when actors would do a better job. In his review, The Kansas City Star’s Aaron Barnhart compared the series to two previous MTV shows: “Like her MTV ancestor, Daria Morgendorffer, Liz Lee might as well be a cartoon,” he wrote, adding later, “A better title is ‘My So-Called Life as Liz,’ not only because of the sardonic POV of its protagonist but because, like that 1990s show, it is more fiction than not.”
I’m tempted to agree, because I’m not quite sure why heavily manipulated reality is preferable to fiction. Then again, on My Life as Liz, the heavy hand makes sense. If this was just a cinema verite version of Liz’s life, it’d be a hell of a lot less interesting. Hearing what Liz is thinking, or what producers want us to think she was thinking, is far more interesting than watching Spencer and Heidi look at each other.
Judge for yourself; watch the full first episode, or this clip from it: