truTV’s series Adam Ruins Everything is not an unscripted show, but it is nonfiction presented in an entertaining package. Host Adam Conover’s takedowns are quite amusing but also include on-screen sources to back up his claims.
Having binge-watched the first season—or the first part of season one, since truTV is calling this a mid-season premiere, despite almost nine months having passed since the last episode aired—I was ready for more.
But a preview I saw at TCA terrified me: In it, Adam called reality TV “hella fake.” Specifically, in last night’s episode, he said these two things:
“Everything in them is fake”
“Everything in reality shows is hella fake”
Everything? In all reality shows? That’s such a grossly exaggerated statement, and from a show that’s about dismantling gross exaggerations and misconceptions, that’s not a good sign.
Things started off okay, though. Adam Ruins Everything presented its arguments about reality TV with a cute fictional reality show, The Real Ruiners of LA, and presented an effective example of frankenbiting, the process of taking pieces of dialogue and (unethically) re-assembling them into new sentences.
Later, Adam introduced Mike Kopplin as “a veteran reality show head writer,” though Mike corrected his title to be “supervising story producer.” Mike talked about how many shows have to outline what a season will look like, because “we have to prove to the network before the shoot day that we’re going to get usable footage, because a perfect three-act story doesn’t just fall into our laps.”
These are both critical problems in this genre and industry. Frankenbiting is out of control, and is frequently done so poorly and ineptly you can hear the cuts as the audio levels and quality changes dramatically in the same sentence. And this network-level insistence on knowing what’s going to happen on a reality show before it actually happens is ludicrous for shows that derive their true entertainment from the unexpected.
So these were good points and a good start to a deconstruction of reality TV. But Adam Ruins Everything wasn’t done.
Adam Ruins Everything’s reality TV hyperbole
Besides an editor who works on Adam Ruins Everything, the only on-screen expert who creates television was Kopplin, whose public credits only include a handful of shows I’d call reality TV, including Bridezillas and a show from truTV’s era of fake nonsense, Hardcore Pawn: Chicago. He admitted that one of his shows reshot and faked scenes: “on Bridezillas, for instance, we would go out and reshoot the bride if she was too nice.”
During Adam’s conversation with Kopplin, the scene that was unfolding was of writers creating dialogue for reality show participants, with one person even saying, “I’ll hand out scripts.” Adam says, “Some reality shows are so scripted, they’ve actually been unionized by the Writers Guild of America.”
Except: No. That conjures up images of writers typing away and then handing scripts to actors. The reality of writing on some reality shows is a lot more complicated—and interesting. The WGA’s own fact sheet says that its unionization includes “all types of written material including stories, teleplays, dialogue, adaptations, treatments, scenarios, continuities, sketch- es, plot outlines, narratives synopses, routines, and narration can be covered.”
That’s a lot of different kinds of writing. Even the most raw documentary needs people to craft that footage into narratives, and those have to be written down. Having story producers shape narratives doesn’t mean the people being filmed were handed scripts or even outlines.
Where were the producers from documentaries to talk about the nuance of their work? Or the producers who don’t script everything but can articulate why that’s different than having to produce a show? A producer who worked on two small cable shows was the best and only expert witness Adam Ruins Everything could find? I suppose there aren’t many reality producers around Hollywood, nor are there any journalists or critics who’ve written about this for more than 16 years.
The show did use Vanderpump Rules cast member Ariana Madix in a scene, and she did offer some surprising nuance:
“Vanderpump Rules is actually really real. We’re all really friends, we all get in tons of fights, and I actually do work at the restaurant. But that tough conversation I have to have with my boyfriend, I know where it’s going to take place because that table is surrounded by cameras and lights. Much like a lot of Hollywood, it’s real and it’s produced, as long as you know the difference.”
That makes a good point, that there can be actual reality inside produced parameters, but it seemed weird to have Ariana say/read those lines after Adam Ruins Everything had just spent several minutes attempting to argue that reality shows were as fake and scripted as sitcoms. It’s like the show said, Yes, every reality show is totally fake and scripted, except just not this one show whose cast member Bravo allowed to appear on our show.
Bad evidence in Adam Ruins Everything
Near the end of the segment on reality TV, Adam Conover rattled off a list of fake shows. Let’s look at those and break down the evidence, using the sources provided by the show. (It is terrific that there are sources provided on screen and on the show’s web site.)
“Alaskan Bush People actually live in Seattle.”
Park, Andrea. “Alaskan Bush People Stars Plead Guilty to Lying About Living In Alaska to Collect Oil Revenue Checks.”People. Time Inc., 20 Nov. 2015. Web.
This is plainly bad evidence because the story does not say that.
As People article clearly states, two cast members—only two—admitted to lying about living in Alaska from 2009 to 2012. The Discovery Channel series debuted in 2014, two years later. And an Alaska Dispatch News story linked in the People article clearly states that they admitted to “leaving Alaska in October 2009 and not returning until August 2012.”
In other words, they returned to Alaska two years before their reality show debuted.
“Bachelor producers plan all the dates and tell the Bachelor who to send home when.”
Fedotowsky, Ali. “Behind-the-Scenes Secrets You Need to Know About the First Rose Ceremony!”E! News. NBC Universal, 7 Jan. 2014. Web.
This article’s evidence does not match the claim, either.
In the E! piece, Ali, who was The Bachelorette, answers a question from a reader who asks, “Do the producers ever suggest to the Bachelor which girls to choose on the first night to make the season interesting?”
Her answer is the opposite of what Adam said: “Not really.” However, she writes this, too: “I think I chose the majority of the guys who stayed the 1st night, but after that I couldn’t really distinguish the last couple so I had the producer ‘help’ me pick, and I’m sure they would suggest I can’t get rid of the ‘interesting’ ones.”
The bachelorette asking producers to help pick through the guys she doesn’t know and doesn’t care about is not the same thing as “tell[ing] the Bachelor who to send home when.”
And as to the first part of Adam’s claim, even the most delusional Bachelor viewers must be aware that these dates are producer orchestrated.
“On house-hunting shows they’ve already bought one of the houses, and just removed all the furniture to make it look vacant.”
Friedman, Marcelle. “Why It Matters That House Hunters Is Fake.” Slate. Graham Holdings Company, 14 Jun. 2012. Web.
This is partially true. The claim involves “house-hunting shows,” but the article is about just one show, HGTV’s House Hunters—which, yes, is guilty of a lot of pretending.
Why didn’t Adam just say “House Hunters”? The evidence, after all, isn’t for every single house-hunting show, just one.
“Food competition shows let contestants re-cook fresh plates of food.”
Sietsema, Robert. “Iron Chef Boyardee.” Village Voice. Voice Media Group, 19 Feb. 2008. Web.
This piece of evidence has the same problem.
I actually wrote about this exact article, calling Iron Chef “fake” as a result of all the behind-the-scenes things that aren’t admitted on camera, including that the secret ingredient isn’t all that secret. But I didn’t say that every cooking show was fake, because this is one show.
Here’s the real problem with the reality TV segments of Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Hollywood” episode. Instead of making individual claims about artificiality and fakery, which is perfectly fine and something I have done for more than 16 years right here in these electronic pages, the show keeps jumping to hyperbole, extrapolating incorrectly instead of just making smaller claims.
I’m tempted to say that the show’s failure with evidence here has ruined the show for me, to write that Adam Ruins Everything lies and uses bad evidence. But that would be doing exactly what the show has unfairly done to reality television.
Update, Aug. 30: Read Adam Conover’s response to this story.