The world of reality television is loaded with many shows that stretch the word “reality” to its very limits. But, what if you knew the show you were watching was staged?
The Joe Schmo Show is a “reality show” that is almost entirely staged and the audience is in on the ruse. A real person is cast as the “Joe” while all of the other contestants are actors. The show is meant to be ridiculous so as to always keep the “Joe” wondering if what they are seeing is real or fake. On this season of the show, the fake reality show that the producers have concocted is called The Full Bounty and is supposedly going to find the next great American bounty hunter. The premise is so insane and potentially grounds for so many lawsuits that you would have to be a bit nuts to buy it in the first place but no matter because television (more on that later). This season the show surrounds a guy named Chase who is clearly good-hearted but also isn’t above getting his hands dirty to do well on the show.
Let me start by saying that I have loved all iterations of The Joe Schmo Show. I love that in order to work, it has to find someone who is at once gullible but not so entirely naïve to the world of reality television – and I love that the producers of this show has found that person, more than once. I love that the show treats that person like the coolest kid in school (a huge saving grace in what could otherwise be a really mean prank). I also love that they allow for the possibility that the “Joe” will find out about the ruse, as happened in Season 2. I think The Joe Schmo Show does a lot of things right but I often get hung up on its failings. The Joe Schmo Show doesn’t claim to be a parody of reality shows but, in essence, that’s what it is. The difference here is that one person isn’t in on the joke. However, as a parody, it gets as much wrong about reality shows as it gets right.
For one, like most reality shows, it is far too long. Because it is a fake show, it can’t sustain its hour-long run time. The only thing that the audience really cares about is, will the “Joe” find out. All of the episodes begin with a lengthy “last time on” which explains everything that was hardly important on the previous episode. The same point would be made if the announcer simply said “last time on Joe Schmo: Joe didn’t figure it out”.
The Joe Schmo Show, even with its ingenious idea and brilliant main character casting, seems dated. When it debuted in 2003 the show felt like a perfect skewering of the personalities and premises that reality television constantly throws at its audience. Now, ten years later, we are so aware of these archetypes and have seen much, much more from reality television that it’s not so cutting. And, unfortunate as it may be, because the audience knows so much of reality television is fake in the first place, there are fewer stakes. The Joe Schmo Show had two seasons and then an incredibly lengthy (8 year) hiatus and seems like it was resurrected from the dead. And in that sense, the rigor mortis is lingering. Whether or not Chase actually buys into the premise is less important than our own entertainment. It would truly be amazing if Chase were playing the show that was playing him, but I don’t see this happening. The Joe Schmo Show is dated because, when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t matter that it’s all fake.
People want desperately to be on television and although Chase doesn’t seem like an attention whore, he also doesn’t seem desperate to be a bounty hunter either. I’m more inclined to believe he is the former than the latter. None of the other characters seem like their life long dream was a job as a bounty hunter either (is that really anyone’s dream, save maybe guys named Dog?), and that is where the premise suffers. Additionally, Chase is the only person on the show who seems to be taking the show as seriously as the premise demands. Because it’s all a joke, the actors can’t seem to find the right rhythm in making their characters believable.
The thing that is most entertaining about all reality shows – and The Joe Schmo Show is no exception – is the unexpected. This is why the best reality shows are more like sports than scripted television. When things happen that are off script drama is bound to unfold. Many unexpected things have happened on The Joe Schmo Show (a fire mishap with a prop torch, Chase seeing crew members casually walking around after a “prisoner” has escaped); the issue is that these are not the things that are the focus of the show. Instead, manufactured drama is the norm. Someone steals “the Jerk’s” dead dog’s ashes – and then poops in them. One of the characters is deaf, has a translator, and also does a routine with a ventriloquist dummy. It is outlandish and meant to strain credibility. How far can the producers dare push the content before the “Joe” begins to second-guess everything that is going on? This is interesting, sure, but only to a point. The show can’t seem to wait for things to unfold naturally – rather they have to keep throwing things at Chase so that he is always kept guessing. But does anyone and should anyone care if the show is fake? All reality shows are highly designed constructs and the audience, at least a good portion of it, knows this.
Burning Love is a scripted parody of the Bachelor-style reality shows where one “lucky” person gets to live in a mansion with a slew of love-starved contestants in hopes of finding the “one”. This really isn’t that much less insane than crowning someone the next great bounty hunter, when you think about it. In its second season, the show surrounds a woman this time, one of the contestants from the previous season, which is a thing that the Bachelor/ette seems to do a lot. It stars a bunch of people who should be in WAY more things all of the time. It’s like, if I had a choice and could hire only people from a single show to be on all television, the cast of Burning Love would be those people (people like all 4 male leads from Party Down, Kristen Bell, June Diane Raphael best known for NTSF:SD:SUV::, Paul Scheer, Abigail Spencer who once played Don Draper’s girlfriend on Mad Men, Kumail Nanjiani and Nick Kroll) . The show is available to screen on the Internet at a Yahoo site (although the first season is now airing on E!).
The greatest thing about Burning Love is that it is deliciously sort. It is a little slice of hilarity, each episode running only 10-minutes. Let me say, for the record, that I love 10-15 minute, comedic television (for more of this, check out pretty much anything on Adult Swim but my favorite is Children’s Hospital). Burning Love often packs more of a reality-show punch in 10 minutes than The Joe Schmo Show does in an hour. In the first episode alone, I am fully acquainted with all of the characters (they are allowed to be caricatures because that’s all the show requires of them) and I understand the premise of the show.
And, sure, the Bachelor and shows of that ilk are an easy target. They aren’t really straining in any capacity for jokes. The people who want to be a part of these shows are crazy, attention-whores. But, Burning Love is so pitch perfect in getting everything right about the artificiality of these shows: the smarmy host, the confessionals, the mansion covered in drapes (why are there so many drapes EVERYWHERE?) that it doesn’t much matter that the material is a little stale. Burning Love understands that the premise might be a bit past its prime and also knows that none of its characters are on the show to find true love. These characters, all of them, are on the show to be on TV. And that’s where the show is smart. It knows it can have fun with that. Which is an aspect that The Joe Schmo Show never explores and is the worse for it. The audience knows what these people are on TV for, why doesn’t the show seem to?
Where The Joe Schmo Show strains desperately to cram insane moments in as it possibly can while Burning Love knows it doesn’t need to. The insane is already there, ripe for the picking.