When reports came in Monday that 21-year-old Shain Gandee of MTV’s “Buckwild” was one of three men found dead in a vehicle in West Virginia, it was a case of tragic reality intruding on a reality show.
Though the second season of the ratings winner had begun filming, cameras did not catch the incident, Washington Post TV columnist Lisa DeMoraes reported, and production is shut down for now. MTV’s Web site for the show — billed as “a group of nine young, carefree and adventurous friends living in West Virginia” – features a report “in memory of Shain Gandee,” a popular cast member who earned the nickname “Gandee Candy” for “his wild stunts and sunny disposition.” An MTV spokesman said in a statement: “Shain had a magnetic personality, with a passion for life that touched everyone he met and we will miss him dearly.”
The show’s site also offered a chance to preorder the “Buckwild” DVD or to watch video of favorite moments from the show, including a “21 potato gun salute.”
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) had objected to the show before it first aired, saying in a letter to MTV: “Instead of showcasing the beauty of our people and our state, you preyed on young people, coaxed them into displaying shameful behavior — and now you are profiting from it. That is just wrong.”
I felt for him. One of my most creative and stylish friends grew up in West Virginia, and she’s been battling disparaging “hillbilly” stereotypes ever since. (How many times can you hear jokes about wearing shoes and marrying your cousin before you lose it?) But I knew that Manchin’s objections would only tempt the curious to see what “shameful behavior” looked like.
Reality shows walk that line, trying to grab attention by dangling outrageous or salacious behavior in front of an audience willing to play along. No matter how mundane or messed up the viewers’ existence, they can be amazed, amused and appalled by cast members who know the most memorably over-the-top behavior is rewarded with more screen time and, perhaps, a spin-off.
Would the antics be as “Buckwild” without a camera along? Gandee had said it was just young people having fun. Two fellow cast members are dealing with their own real-life problems, drug charges and a suspected DUI. Bravo’s “Housewives” franchise has seen marriages, divorces and a suicide, but you can only speculate what heightened scrutiny does to an already troubled situation.
Reality shows fill the TV schedule on network and cable. The low-overhead, high-return formula makes them hard for networks to resist. You can tut-tut that Snooki of “Jersey Shore” was paid more for a Rutgers University speaking engagement than Nobel- and Pulitzer-winning author Toni Morrison and is name-checked by presidential candidate Mitt Romney. But you’ve got to admire her for making the most of some body-baring, beach-party footage.
Neither “Buckwild” nor “Jersey Shore” ever made it on my viewing list. I prefer a reality show such as “Top Chef,” where I can pick up tips on cooking, or “So You Think You Can Dance,” where people do things I never could.
But the crazier-the-better shows are part of the culture, affecting our view of society. As an African American woman, it’s frustrating that the classy image of Michelle Obama in the White House can’t seem to compete with the drama queens of the airwaves.
I wrote about an extremely egregious example — the Oxygen channel’s “All My Babies’ Mamas,” about a rapper, his 11 children and their 10 mothers – that was kept off the air by petitions and howls of protest. Plenty such shows remain, though maybe not for long, according to a column on The Root that sees some sense and perspective creeping into the bottle throwing and trash talking.
Already some are questioning whether “Buckwild” should be taken off the air for good. But in a story on FoxNews.com, crisis communications expert Ronn Torossian doubts anything will change. “Reality television isn’t meant to depict the normalcy of life; it’s meant to have drama, excitement and controversy. As long as people will stop and watch a car crash on the highway, so, too, will they watch reality TV,” he said.
If past strategy is any guide, we may be seeing a tasteful, televised “Buckwild” tribute before it, or any show that follows, moves on.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3