Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Documentaries vs. Reality TV: How They Shape Truth – Wisecrack Edition

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Media has a huge effect on the way we view the world.

Jaws made everyone afraid of sharks.

It made everyone afraid of clowns.

Big made everybody afraid of being rapidly aged by a weird fortune telling machine.

But what about when media actually portrays the real world in all of its whale abusers,

duck hunters, and baby beauty queens?

If imaginary house elves can make us more sympathetic to inequality what does watching

actual factual humans do to us?

Were in the midst of a nonfiction media boom - both documentary and reality TV.

There were 750 reality shows in 2015, leading some critics to say that its even remade

television culture entirely.

Similarly, documentary has been cinema's unlikely Cinderella in recent years, with three documentaries

in 2018 cracking the list of top 30 highest-grossing documentaries since 1982, and thats not

even counting the insane proliferation of documentary filmmaking happening on streaming


If fictional media changes the way we view the world, how does nonfiction media contribute

to or inform our worldview?

In short, what might documentaries and reality TV be doing to our brainy parts?

Lets find out in this weeks Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Documentaries

and Reality TV.

And spoilers ahead for some documentaries.

To figure out how documentaries and reality TV affect us, we first need to understand

what this stuff is.

Documenting reality is literally as old as filmmaking itself.

The earliest films, made around the end of the 19th century, were pretty much all super

short visual accounts of real life events, like workers peacing out from their factory

or an elephant being cruelly tortured for our entertainment, which you can thank your

favorite lightbulb inventing scoundrel, Thomas Edison for.

Yes, this elephant is about to be electrocuted and no were not going to show you cause

fuck that!

But the term documentary has always implied more than just taking a camera and shooting

whatever goes down in the life of your local yodeling community, though, by all means,

go for it!

The worddocumentarywas first used by Scottish filmmaker John Grierson in the

1920s, and he described it asthe creative treatment of actuality.”

Even this definition says a lot.

Applying creativity to actuality already suggests that it's distinct from actual actuality.

Rather than showing neutral uncut footage of an event, a documentarian will use a variety

of tools, including editing, to string together a compelling story.

Since its early days, documentary has had a complicated relationship with the truth.

Take the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, which depicted the life of a man from the

Inuk tribe.

The film is definitely misleading - for starters, Nanook wasnt even named Nanook - His real

name was Allakariallak, but the director, Robert J Flaherty, thought that was unmarketable.

Flaherty also staged several scenes which were historically inaccurate, showing Inuk

life the way it would have been a century prior.

For instance, though Nanook typically hunted walruses with a simple gun, Flaherty asked

him to use a harpoon for the sake of drama.

The films various elements compound to present Nanook and his family as childish,

primitive and a bit silly.

It helps here to think about a different definition of documentary, as animaginative representation

of an actual historical reality.”

Documentary is supposed to have fidelity to a particular historical reality - whether

its showing an Inuk tribe in the 1920s or a wealthy Florida Housewife in 2012.

Flaherty distorted that reality by depicting historically inaccurate customs.

As we move forward to the 1930s and 40s, the way documentary bends the truth is perhaps

most glaringly apparent, when just about every major country put out its own form of propaganda

trying to get people jazzed about war and whatnot.

Most notably, Triumph of the Will solidified Hitlers power and public persona.

Now, we seem to talk about this movie more often than a 1930s German soldier at a dive

bar, but I swear its relevant.

In this film, we see the way subtle choices in cinematography can drastically alter a

documentarys meaning and fidelity to the truth: Look at the way Hitler appears on camera,

from a low-angle shot, he seems taller, almost larger than life, and certainly more powerful.


Anyway, that same year, thetalking heador the interview style in which an often boring

person stares at the screen and talks for awhile, would be introduced via the documentary

Housing Problems, as an attempt to let individuals tell their own story, rather than having it

dictated by avoice of godnarrator.

This was an honest attempt to make storytelling more truthful.

In the 1960s, cameras became smaller, allowing film crews to become more mobile.

This facilitated a new form of documentary practiced by filmmakers like the Maysles Brothers.

It was calledcinema verite,” which translates totruthful cinemaorcinema of truth.”

Functionally, cinema verite filmmakers will follow their subject around, passively observing

their lives without interfering, as the subject ignores the camera, all in an attempt to more

accurately capture the truth.

Of course, that caused problems of its own.

Because the camera movements imply honesty, we assume that were watching actual reality.

Some filmmakers, such as Richard Pennebaker who made the Bob Dylan documentary Dont

Look Back were sensitive to this, and purposely kept aesthetically unpleasing cinematography

flourishes to argue for the films truthfulness - showing the audience the camera eye focusing,

or keeping awkward zooms.

Filmmakers began experimenting further with the very nature of what it meant to engage

in nonfiction storytelling.

Documentarian Errol Morris encorporated dramatic reenactments to simulate a real-life murder

in his 1988 film The Thin Blue Line, to some criticism.

By the early 90s, more intimate documentaries became popular, functioning as cinematic autobiographies

or a close look at an artists family.

In recent years, films also becamevoicier,” as in the work of Michael Moore who editorializes

and inserts himself into his own plots, less documenting reality than crafting it.

The 2000s were dominated by documentaries that made strong arguments like An Inconvenient

Truth, Super Size Me, and Fahrenheit 9/11.

In Super Size Me, the documentarian is the opposite of the neutral observer - he literally

turns the camera on himself and his rapidly deteriorating liver (Which, if were speaking

about ethics, becomes a little more problematic due to recent revelations that director Morgan

Spurlok was a longtime alcoholic.

So can we really blame only Fast food?)

In a lot of ways, these films are more self aware than your classic cinema verite - their

artifice is right on the surface.

For example, when Michael Moore storms a General Motors shareholders meeting, we clearly know

were not witnessing neutral reality.

At the same time, modern filmmakers are also, arguably, taking more creative license with

the truth.

There is perhaps no greater narrative artifice than the satisfying, climactic ending.

Many a documentarian has grappled with this, but perhaps none more interestingly than filmmaker

Ben Berman in his documentary, Untitled Amazing Jonathan Documentary.

In it, the filmmaker shadows the titular, terminally-ill magician.

The problem is: Several other people are doing the exact same thing.

Looking for a way to make his story stand out, Berman, at one point, believes that the

only satisfying conclusion would be Jonathan dying.

Waiting for your subject to die is pretty blatantly macabre, and Jonathan even calls

the guy out on it.

"You're just waitin', you're just waitin'- you're biding your time until I die and then

you get that ending you want."

Here, Berman confronts the inherent ethical dilemmas of imposing requirements of a satisfying

story on reality.

Luckily, he finds an ending without killing the Amazing Jonathan.

But beyond imposing artificial beginnings and ends, creatively tinkering with reality

has other complications.

Take the issue of characterization, or the way that characters are constructed in a given

piece of media.

Scholar Carl Plantinga notes that, “in any documentary, the images and sounds that represent

the character are not neutral and transparent, but carefully constructed and chosen to portray

them in a specific way.”

He adds that the process ofselection and omission, emphasis,[plotting] and point of

viewall create additional ethical dilemmas for documentarians.

The way most documentarians will deal with this is to make characters that are, as Plantinga

puts it, “flator simple, possessing one or two central characteristics.

For example, in a Michael Moore documentary like Roger and Me which serves as an indictment

of the very very wealthy, youre not going to see General Motors CEO Roger Smith patting

his son on the back, or giving a dollar to a homeless man, because the message of the

film is that hes an evil asshole.

Formingroundor complex characters, according to Plantinga, is much more difficult.

And so, for the most part, every aspect of filmmaking and editing will serve to emphasize

a central quality of any given character.

(Now, this is also true of fictionbut thats part of what makes it fiction.)

Flat characters seems like as good a segway to reality TV as we could ask for.

Now, reality TV has always been documentarys bastard son.

But we just want to say here: Most documentarians struggle deeply with the ethics of their craft.

Reality TV?

Not so much.

Its less respected and taken less seriously.

Its also frequently charged with taking a giant Nerf gun to reality.

But the truth is more complicated.

Some of the earliest iterations oftelevisual reality" fall somewhere between the categories

of documentary and reality TV.

This includes Candid Camera, which used a hidden camera to film normal people reacting

to practical jokes on and off from 1948 to 2014.

Similarly, An American Family used what television scholar Misha Kavka calls alive-in camera

to chronicle the oftentimes boring pursuits of one upper middle class American family

to the delight of millions.

Kavka goes on to separate the history ofrealreality tv into three distinct categories.

The first is the camcorder generation which hit a stride in 1989 with a boom of crime

and emergency programmes that offer anultra veriteexperience through the use of shaky

ride-along footage.

These shows were super real, but they also vacillated between being very exciting and

very, very boring.

So reality TV regrouped.

The second generation began in 1999, and thats when things get gnarly.

We start seeing competition shows like Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol and Americas

Next Top Model, along with surveillance shows like Big Brother and The Real World.

As Kavka notes, the genre began developingits own format rules, production practices

and audience expectationssuch as confessional interviews, elimination ceremonies, and plenty

of ugly crying.

Kavka notes that this era of reality tvfound its place in the millennial culture imaginary

by openly combining actuality and artifice in ways that broke ratings records and caused

wide-scale debate.”

Intriguingly enough, every twenty-two minute episode of the Real World was the result of

seventy hours worth of raw footage, meaning this version of reality ishas to be...

Cherry-picked and skewed.

These shows frequently insert their casts into artificially constructed situations that

generate lots of stress.

Then, they actively facilitate the social destruction that follows, often by staging

and producing scenes thatcompletethe narrative arc.

Also - booze.

Not exactly the kind of thing the Maysles brothers would have been about.

The third era of reality TV kind of crept up starting in 2002 with what Kavka describes

asa gradual but noticeable changefrom an emphasis on documenting ordinary life to

manufacturing celebrity out of the everyday.”

The very phrasemanufacturing celebritynot so subtly hints at the artifice inherent

in these shows, where characters seekthe insubstantial but highly desirable commodity


Peoples onscreen behavior is increasingly motivated less by genuine emotions than by

the desire to attract as much attention as possible, a phenomenon best encapsulated by

Kris Jenner, who could turn a bunion on Kims big toe into an international news story,

and probably already has.

What were seeing is that, far more so than documentary, reality TV involves deliberate

departures fromtruthbe it in the form of hawk-eyed producers staging dramatic scenes,

or a drunk housewife doing it herself in hopes of scoring her own vodka brand.

If the second generation of reality TV birthed several distinctive genre tools, the third

generation solidified them.

As a result, certain aspects of reality tv are so familiar to us, from the tearful confession

of past trauma, to the manufactured fights, to the wordsyoure going home.”

So what is the net result of watching tv and movies that are optimized and dramatized but

self-present to audiences as real?

One consequence that really resonates with us is that documentaries and reality TV make

us narrativize reality, that is, see our own lives and the lives of those around us as

stories with beginnings, middles and ends.

As philosopher Alex Rosenberg puts it in his book How History Gets Things Wrong, “We

humans have an insatiable appetite for stories with identifiable heroes, the tension of a

quest, obstacles overcome and a happy (or at least emotionally satisfying) ending.”

Quick note: Though Rosenberg is talking more broadly about the way we employ historical

narratives, we think it can be usefully applied to documentary and reality TV as forms of


Rosenberg also notes that we use historical narratives to make sense of the present and

even predict the future.

We may watch a makeover show and think our lives are just one over-night transformation

away from fulfillment.

And how could watching hours of banal Kardashian drama not make us think that maybe, just maybe,

our lives might be interesting enough to be chronicled for the world to snarkily enjoy?

Whats more, Rosenberg argues, stories with satisfying narratives are like aloe vera for

our brains, soothing us and lulling us into a false sense of understanding.

Susan Boyle may have never been kissed, but boy did she wow the judges on Britain's Got


Here, Susans real-life suffering is first used to make us care about her.

Then, her objectively-excellent performance and rousing reception offer a compelling resolution

that ultimately redeems her and her suffering.

It wasnt for nothing, after all!

Or, even if were healthily skeptical of a Chopped narrative, - "I just feel like people

find reasons to hate on me, cuz I'm definitely different.

because" - some part of us is stoked that this girls suffering at the hands of bullies

has been redeemed by winning Chopped Jr.

All of this fundamentally limits our understanding of the world.

As scholar Ib Bondebjerg writes, summarizing the work of neurologist Antonio Damasio, “our

sense of self and our ability to interpret the world are based on emotional and narrative


Narrative Structures are part of the very fabric of our mind and imagination.”

So our brains crave narrative like a unicorn craves sparkles.

And reality TV sells us that narrative as truth.

As a result, watching The Voice may subtly makes us think that everything we do in life

can be seen as us triumphing over our central life struggle.

Watching The Bachelor subtly makes us eager to find ourhappy ever after,” a term

that is certainly ridiculous to anyone who's ever been married.

And watching My Super Sweet Sixteen not so subtly informs us that absurdly wealthy adolescents

are monsters which

no comment.

This can be a problem because real life isnt made up of neat narrative arcs and clean,

happy endings.

Its messy and things happen for no reason, and not every choice you make is motivated

by the fact that the neighborhood asshole Ricky made you wear your underwear as a hat

in third grade.

You probably wont have a heros journey, and if you do, it probably wont take place

in three acts.

But watching enough nonfiction media has a tendency to confuse us.

So what is a responsible, non-masochistic movie-watcher supposed to do with all this


Should you protest Choppeds false narrativizing or skip that super compelling documentary

on Kim Jung Il impersonators, which doesnt exist but goddamn it should.

We love documentaries just as much as the next film nerd, and wed never ruin The

Great British Bake-off for you.

We just feel like, as media fanatics, we all should be a little more aware of the way everyday

storytelling affects the way we view our own lives and our own stories.

But what do you guys think?

Are documentaries and reality TV ruining the way you understand the world?

Or is narrativizing reality just a necessary part of being human?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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