“Reality show or true crime series?” asked NPR this week. The subject in question was the he Real Housewives franchise, which has manufactured a multitude of stars who have ended up behind bars — or are headed in that direction. There’s Salt Lake’s Jen Shah (just sentenced in a telemarketing scam), the Giudices, and several other miscreant spouses who’d arguably enabled the “house” part of their wives’ titles.
We’ve also talked about the Chrisleys, whose tax and bank frauds just sent them to jail, and going back a bit there’s Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino (tax evasion), Josh Duggar (child porn, among others), and Ryan Alexander Jenkins (murder). I could go on and on.
Since I read that NPR transcript, I started thinking about how much I’d enjoy a smart, deep-dive take on a lot of these convicted criminals, true crime properties that examine not just what they did/have been accused of doing, but how the reality TV machine might have played into their cases. Do juries look at these folks differently than they would some suspect without a TV show to their name? Do feds try harder for a conviction when their target has multiple franchises?
So that’s what I want to talk about today: what reality stars turned suspects would you like to see at the center of a well-done and smart true-crime property? What true-crime content creator would be best at this kind of story? And, bonus question — what problematic reality star would you prefer we never hear about again, for good or ill? — EB
On the TLC tip, I watched a YouTube video about Kate Gosselin of Jon & Kate Plus 8, and while nothing that's mentioned rises above the level of "allegations by a justifiably bitter ex-husband", she stole from 2 kids' trust funds, institutionalized one son for years just because she didn't get along with him (and didn't tell Jon where he was), and has all but disowned that son and one of the older girls. She also may have abused the children as per her own journal entries. So I'd love a documentary series from the creative team that made The Way Down.
Maybe it wouldn't fit as a crime by legal definition (more of a civil matter), but I've love a look at all the various flipping shows and see what was done right, what was done wrong and what required thousands of dollars in repair work and bylaw fines two years into home ownership for the new residents.
Probably way too wonky, but I’d like a podcast that breaks down reality show contracts: what’s prevented, what kind of NDA do they sign, when is money paid, and what should the average Jane know if she wants to be on anything, be it Challenge, Bachelor, Baking It, Real Housewives, Love After Lockup, etc.
I would have said the Erika Jayne/Tom Girardi is the one I would most have wanted to hear about. I know we’ve had one property already, but I want the trials to end so we can have a full accounting for their global wrongs.
Finally, how much money could we make if we created a School for Future Felons? How to dress for court, how to behave on camera, how to hide affairs, how to create a good edit, what kind of Air B&B to rent so you look prosperous but not crazy wealthy, how to generate audience sympathy. Critical to the curriculum will be how to cry real tears.
Can I vote the Kardashian/Jenner clan into obscurity? May I never again have to see a commercial with one of them hawking medication, high-thread count underwear, etc.
Or maybe . . . on the flip side. We could put all those true crime perps without quite enough evidence to convict (a la the Staircase) in a house together Big Brother style and wait for them to turn on each other. Man, I sound really evil don't I?
Call the phenomenon "created reality." Cable and streaming media and the internet have an inexhaustible appetite for material. Reality shows and "true crime" constantly need new, emotionally engaging material. But not just any material. Stories have to fit the desired narrative. Facts that run counter to the show's narrative are glossed over or simply ignored.
A storage locker that contains that one hidden treasure worth millions and our bidder was the only one with the faith and guts to find it. Never mind the producer and director and bidder who know what is in the locker, probably because they put it there.
A "real housewife" has a fabulous life outside the home, the sort of life that women viewers want. Never mind that they are often blatant con artists, and that the show-runners are in on the gag.
Flip the script. Start out with a real crime, a "great heist" committed by real criminals who now have done their time and are willing to talk on camera about their flashy outlaw adventure. Never mind that the great heist is over-blown or that the crook's craft is more lucky than crafty. Put a camera crew and a clever editor together with an articulate safe-cracker or vault robber or drug smuggler and you have at least an hour of "real" crime adventure.
Next month, (February) a well-respected documentary channel will trot out yet one more version of a California bank burglary from 1972. It was a creative crime pulled off by professional yeggs (look the word up) with organized-crime connections. The setting was the Orange County gold coast. The sounds of breaking waves masked the dynamite explosions and three nights of hammering on safe deposit boxes. It was made for television.
Turns out that it was also made for true-crime coverage decades later, when the chief burglar "revealed" that the real target was "$30 million in Richard Nixon's illicit campaign funds." Needless to say, that sudden shift in "facts" turned a damn good burglary into a national sensation. The burglar has become a regular on national television. His narrative has landed him on every "great heist" list ever compiled by Web crime analysts. He ripped off "the man," even the score for the little guys who always dreamed of stinging a crooked pol like Nixon.
Never mind that there is no physical evidence to support the crook's claim. Never mind that the evidence introduced during the major trials of the six principal burglars indicates clearly that the Nixon sting could not have taken place. Never mind any basic research. Just grab a few startling facts and bend them into this new, unsupported but very sexy narratives.
I was a reporter in Orange County when the burglary occurred. I covered it on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, which shaped the narrative to fit its own outlook. And forty years later, when the chief burglar made his claims, I dug back into the case, trying to prove or disprove the startling new angle. What I found was a fascinating crime and a fascinating investigation by the FBI. The burglar and the unorthodox agent who cracked the case ended up in a bitter, even bloody, feud that carries on to this day.
But that factual angle on the story has little appeal for the media of today. I have talked with the producers of at least three nationally-broadcast true-crime docs about the case. They were professionals and seemed fascinated by the case -- right up to the point where they hear that the Nixon $30 million angle is hooey. Suddenly, they shift back down into entertainment mode and lose interest in the facts of the real crime. One of them even told me to forget about the clear, sworn testimony that contradicts the crook's story. "It is just such a buzz-kill," he said.
At least he was honest.
Real crime is usually less fun than the sexy narrative, just as the artificial persona of a "real housewife" who is also a glamorous social media star is usually vastly less entertaining than the life of the con artist scrambling to sting gullible viewers. Reality can be a real buzz kill. But the glitzy narrative is cheaper to produce and will draw better Neilsen numbers. Unfortunately, misleading or incomplete narratives have gotten our society into a great deal of trouble in recent years. Hell, maybe they have always existed as a means of social control. But facts, hard as they can be to discern, should still be the basis of human thought and action. That may sound cynical but the older I get, the more convinced I am that it is the only way to figure out what is real.