How do you be real but not boring? How do you write what would (or could) happen but not make it a mind-numbing, contrived story? And finally, is it okay to lie when you think you’re fighting for a larger issue of something that is true?
These are all questions that surfaced this week when watching the return of NBC’s “The Voice,” the premiere of the new TV series “Smash” and the public relations nightmare of the Susan B. Komen Foundation, a charity that, among other things, has raised multi-millions of dollars for breast cancer research and awards still more millions of dollars in grant money to organizations that support women’s health.
Do these seem unrelated? Not really. One is actual life (Komen), one is total fiction (“Smash”) and the third is a hybrid of both – a television “reality” show (“The Voice”). The question is – which is the most real to you and in turn is the reality that, on any given day, you are going to choose to live in. (Obvious Note: the most real is not necessarily where you are choosing to live).
Relax. I haven’t found you out – we all live in some non-reality. And it’s not really a weighty question. But these days it is a relevant one. Because you need to be aware of the rules of the reality you’re living in to navigate it properly, even if the world you’re choosing isn’t real at all.
Let’s start with what is the most real– the Komen Foundation – which in a way is being anything but real this week. It’s particularly on my mind because my Mom died of breast cancer in 1999 and one of the first positive healing steps I took for myself in her memory was to do the Komen 10K “Run for the Cure” to raise money to fight breast cancer and pressure, guilt or cajole friends and acquaintances to donate money in my mother’s name. If I couldn’t bring her back, I figured at least I could help in the fight to prevent any other women from enduring the 7 years of cancer treatments my Mom had to deal with prior to her death. It was a good step. On several counts. The run helped me more than I imagined and I also imagine that the money, or my participation, helped someone else in some very small way I will probably never know.
Needless to say I and many other runners, judging from the public outcry, were more than disappointed – okay, royally pissed off – when we found out this week that Komen some time ago hired this woman named Karen Handel to be its senior VP. Turns out Ms. Handel is a virulent right wing Christian who ran for governor of Georgia a few years ago on a campaign spearheaded by a crusade to shut down and de-finance Planned Parenthood, and was accused of secretly continuing to do so in 2012 with Komen grants to PP due to the belief that PP was advocating abortion rather than just providing women education and legal health alternatives. Meanwhile, Komen founder Nancy Brinker went on television and publicly denied Ms. Handel had anything to do with Komen’s decision to deny millions of future dollars to PP. But her story was quickly contradicted by Ms. Handel a day later when she admitted she was instructed by the group (Komen) to find ways to back away from PP. Still others in Komen came forward to state that the plan it came up with to change its bylaws was indeed an attempt to distance itself from an organization that had took a public stance against anything like pro-life views.
If this sounds like the plot of a bad episode of a Lifetime TV series (or miniseries) – it is. You can just see – Dana Delaney as the right wing Handel, Debra Winger as Komen founder Nancy Brinker, and perhaps Viola Davis (before she broke through in “The Help”) playing the poor woman who has breast cancer but whose treatments are defunded, who is also mother of a teenage girl (Willow Smith’s first starring role) that Planned Parenthood was last week able to help but this week, well – not anymore!
However, this isn’t a TV movie – this is real life. And even though in real life these things don’t end happily, like in a TV movie, in this case it sort of did. Social media quickly exposed the scam and within days Komen not only reversed its policy but Ms. Handel resigned (or was given her walking papers) in a big cloud of black smoke, fueled by tens of thousands of very, very outraged liberals and even non-liberals who had raised money for the foundation all these years. (Note: Word is that the foundation is covering up more grant giving prejudice and its integrity might be permanently lost in the future).
The point is (and yes, I have one –- ) a choice was made in real life by the Komen Foundation to not be real – to sort of fake it and/or cover up truth for political or personal beliefs – and not come clean. Things being what they are these days, enough people didn’t believe their story and uncovered the sort of truth. See, in real life, the powers-that-be always had primary control of the narrative, like writers and documentarians do. But that balance seems to be shifting thanks to the immediacy of You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and —- ? Beware the 2 or 3 readers of this blog who find and will find themselves among the power ranks. The dreaded, consciously evil Internet might actually force manipulators of the real truth to be more real in the future. Or conversely, they might find more intricate ways to bend the truth so craftily than not even You TubeTumblrTwitterfaceBook can stop them. Only time, and perhaps a future Lifetime TV movie, will tell who comes down on the winning side.
Of course, real is certainly not the primary agenda of most television series (Lifetime or otherwise). It is more just the mere evocation of something that can pass for some better, more entertaining version of real. That certainly seems to be the agenda of the new NBC show, “Smash.” But curiously it’s lead-in on NBC, a singing competition called “The Voice,” which features budding singers in the familiar reality of a reality show, feels infinitely more real AND true and (for my money) is actually much more entertaining than anything being pushed by the expert entertainers behind “Smash” (which include Steven Spielberg).
You don’t ever know what artists are going for when they create a TV show, aside from ratings, but if we are to believe the promos and interviews, the creators of “Smash” really believe they are taking their audience inside the making of a Broadway musical. There is no reason to doubt it since many of its creators, writers and performers have actually worked on Broadway musicals.
Having known a few people over the years from the NY the-a-tre who have actually been on Broadway, it’s hard to imagine any of them saying lines like: “I don’t know why I expect people to be civil in this terrible business,” or to sum up Marilyn Monroe with thoughts like “Marilyn wasn’t about sex, she was all about love.” But it especially feels unreal to think they would get someone to finance and jump on the bandwagon to make a Broadway musical about an iconic person who was the subject of a previously grand flop of a Broadway musical some decades before (“Marilyn: An American Fable”). Nor is it easy to accept they’d be tempted to do so because they have the singular temptation to perform and write a single musical number about, of all things, baseball (!) in a show about the sexiest movie star who ever lived. (Note: Yankee Clipper baseball hero Joe DiMaggio was at one time married to said movie star).
All of this happens in “Smash” – and more. Or perhaps, less. Certainly, less reality. Okay, you can’t judge a show by solely a pilot. And, I mean, does it have to be real? Well, not if it’s objective is to entertain. But can it be entertaining if it evokes little reality to a situation? Not unless it’s really really bad like “Showgirls” or even moderately mediocre like last year’s “Burlesque.” “Smash” is neither of those. It evokes none of the nuance, rough edges or full reality of 2012 New York but its clichés and circus-like atmosphere aren’t quite campy enough either. It exists more in a nether land of, well – oddness. As it unfolds it can either be that a) in this case full reality is not preferred or that, b) clichéd reality is much more entertaining because c) we know it, d) we want to escape, and e) hell, it does have a few toe-tapping fun songs to disrupt us from the slow economic recovery and international crises that have become our true reality.
Except – except – if we want to truly escape reality – why has reality TV become a genre all its own and why is the most popular series program on the major networks this week a reality TV show that serves as the lead in — (that means it airs right before it in industry speak) to “Smash.” I’m talking about a sublime show called “The Voice” that yes, on paper should be contrived and cliché as “Smash” can be and as manipulative and perhaps dishonest as the Komen Foundation has been on the national stage. On the reality honesty meter, “The Voice” should come in third place to Komen and “Smash” but the truth, according to my Chairmeter, is that it leaves them both in the dust. Far, far in the dust. In fact, in our ratings (and the Nielsen’s) it is #1.
That’s because “The Voice” knows what it is – and doesn’t try it hide it. It’s a reality show fantasy with feel good endings. But like all good entertainment it traffics in the real by using actual real life people who tell their own stories, often a bit more unvarnished than we are used to from talent competition shows like “American Idol” or fictional shows that present the making of a Broadway musical. (Certainly more real than some real life charity organizations). “The Voice” features singers who are 40, even 50, men and women who are not always attractive, young and older people who are openly gay and bring their
spouses partners, performers who perform in pairs, vocalists who sing everything from opera to down and dirty soul, and famous pop/rock/country star judges who actually must face some (but not all) of the same rejection as the contestants. Is that why it’s a ratings bonanza? Partly. But also because it uses real, often times very experienced actual singers who are real life tested and entertaining. The fact they haven’t yet become stars feels like the only odd and made up thing here since one can imagine hearing the voice of any of the contestants on their iPod right now – the 50 year old Black Diva; the preppy male opera singer with the Josh Groban range; the sweet voiced but 37 year old undiscovered country singer.
“The Voice” evens the odds at a time when getting a break seems impossible in today’s economy while “Smash” feels like a piece of fantasy that puts the 99.9% of us who are in the majority out of the running – not exactly an appealing scenario right now.
Unlike Komen ,“The Voice” takes us from the reality to a real life that is possible. And unlike “Smash” it knows how far to stray before we find its stories ridiculous. And unlike all of our all too real lives, it can be counted on to always give us a believable happy ending, despite whatever adverse circumstances its hero comes up against.
If only real life could indeed be counted on to be just like that. Then we could all keep running forever – both alive and happy.