Watch the real Joan Rivers in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, not her fake, awful, renewed WE tv series

Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best, the badly staged and poorly acted “reality” series on WE tv, ends its first season tonight having just been renewed for a second season. Its hour-long episodes are unwatchable, which is striking because a recent documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, is incredibly humanizing and entertaining. Comparing the two gives us an excellent example about why artificial reality TV is worthless, even as empty entertainment.

On the reality show, on which Joan moves in with Melissa, which it is painfully obvious that she did not actually do, it’s amateur hour, from the production values to the conceit. The problem is that the show wants to pretend it’s real, even though you can basically see people standing and waiting off-camera to make their entrances like a bad high school play.

The acting is horrific, especially from those in Joan’s life, but including from Joan. About the only time she does well is when she’s riffing on something, or interacting with her grandson (he and his friends seem to have fun getting to act insane at the direction of the producers). Even in her interviews, it’s clear Joan isn’t speaking off the cuff—which she’s good at in her comedy—but hitting points she’s been asked to hit.

I feel bad criticizing her acting here, because in the documentary, which was released last year, she is devastated by bad reviews for her play, and tells the camera, “I know I’m an actress. It’s all about acting. My career is an actress’ career. And I play a comedian. So, it’s over. It’s over. No one will ever take me seriously as an actress.”

It’s one of many moments at which we see her at her lowest and rawest, and that’s one of the many reasons why Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which debuted at Sundance last year and had a limited theatrical run before being released on DVD late last year, is so successful.

Joan is probably incapable of not performing, and we see that as she shows us around her house or talks about all the jokes she’s ever written. But there are lots of moments where the camera just observes her, which is the product of the filmmakers, Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg, spending a year with her instead of just setting up fake scenes and letting everyone act them out before they break for lunch.

In the film, there’s also some great behind-the-scenes Celebrity Apprentice footage, such as Joan and Melissa talking after Melissa’s spectacular meltdown after she was fired. Joan admits she did the show because “it’s face time on NBC,” and her manager says, “I thought it was F-class people, but it is face time, prime-time network.” Before the finale, Joan tells the documentary filmmakers, “If I win, I’m back. … I’m back, you bastards.”

For her part, Melissa isn’t in the documentary much, but she does come off better than she did on the NBC reality series. In one particularly insightful comment, she discusses her mother and other comedians and says, “They’re all very damaged, and they need that reassurance. It’s all a cover.”

Besides that message, the film’s real argument seems to be that success from fame is both fleeting and destructive, which may horrify people who seek fame or even continued success in show business. It’s brutal. Even someone who’s considered a successful icon like Joan Rivers struggles, and those struggles are painfully documented here. One reason the documentary works is that it captures her on stage, in performance mode in her daily life, and in moments where she breaks the veil—and I don’t just mean after she’s had botox and looks horrible—to show us the consequences of her chosen career.

Compare that to the WE tv show, where it is not only the opposite of that kind of genuinely raw moment, but both Joan and Melissa, but especially Melissa, keep up the conceit that it is just a documentary even outside of the show. That’s insulting. In an interview with The Futon Critic, Melissa said, “I think more than anything for me I wanted to dispel a lot of preconceived notions about who I am and what I’m like and we would go in and it had to be warts and all. It’s really the first real examination of the mother-daughter dynamic. Also, with all the stuff with [Bernie] Madoff and all the banks, a lot of parents had to move in with their kids so it’s a very timely situation that people are living through at the same time.”

There’s no way this show does any of that; not even close. At best it’s a vehicle for her mother to make jokes, but even that doesn’t work because it’s so contrived and easy, it’s like watching an amazing baseball player hit balls off a tee.

I resent and get pissed off at producers and networks who air this kind of shit because it’s so unnecessary and pointless. The set-ups are barely funny and all of the real joy and fun is sucked out of them because they’re so obviously fake. Even suspending disbelief doesn’t work here because it’s so poorly constructed. And why should we do that when there’s really great material in real life?

In the documentary (watch the trailer), we see a fascinatingly complex person who’s sometimes funny, sometimes awful, always entertaining even when she’s unlikeable. That’s what Stern and Sundberg, the directors of the documentary, know: their star can be trusted to entertain us. If only reality TV producers and network executives would do the same.

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