Casting Shirley Partridge: The Reality TV Audience as Talent Scout
by: Mary Beth Haralovich / University of Arizona
Reality television is developing a new force on the creative side of television production as the TV audience joins television executives in the creation of entertainment programming. Bridges between entertainment and audience have always been fundamental to show business, and reality TV is taking audience participation to new heights. The reality TV watcher, sitting at home and unencumbered by the immediate proximity of global corporate economics and network politics, is invited to observe auditions and act as talent scout in the development of their own entertainment. Is the TV audience, once conceived of as passive consumer of entertainment and advertising, becoming more active and enfranchised in the actual production of programming?
Reality TV has already broken down the distance between audience and performer. Reality TV players (“player” here taken to mean both game player and stage performer) are different from movie and TV stars. John Ellis used a useful distinction to describe the appeal of the movie star: s/he is both extraordinary and ordinary at the same time. Stars are like us and yet they are different from us. We can recognize ourselves in the star and the characters the star plays, yet we also appreciate their exceptional qualities. The reality TV player is familiar, more ordinary than extraordinary. Trista & Ryan and Boston Rob & Amber may be fairy-tale romances, but they are also as familiar as the initials of high school sweethearts spray painted on a town’s water tower.
Reality TV players may be ordinary and familiar people, but reality game shows cast personalities in the hope that the mix will engender drama and interest. Reality casting can generate critique of social categories and assumptions. Survivor‘s staff psychologist has identified social types (one type for each of the players on a Survivor season) and described the anticipated dramatic outcomes of these types. While the reality player may be cast as a social type, s/he is not simply a fixed and predictable stereotype. Some reality players come to their games with an understanding of how they embody social types. In the confessionals, these players explain how erroneous assumptions about type can work in their favor in the game. “I may seem weak, but I’m strong and smart. The others will underestimate this good ol’ boy, this petite young woman.” Rather than confirming types, these players ask the audience to recognize the types that they embody and to disengage preconceptions about stereotypes.
In its striving for some mix of racial/ethnic/sexual/gender diversity, reality casting can reveal fundamental barriers that reverberate through US life, culture and opportunity. On The Apprentice, African American women players (Omarosa in the first season and Stacey J in the second) seem to not fit comfortably in the show’s business culture (these women seem to provide too much drama). Romance reality shows may occasionally explore the ordinariness of men players (such as Average Joe), but women players seem to be subject to more restricted notions of feminine attractiveness.
In reality shows that are cast by agents, the selection process has become legendary. Nationwide, thousands of applicants (sometimes hundreds of thousands) are winnowed down to numbers that can be managed by the program’s production team. The final mix of reality TV players are the dramatis personae, characters and personalities that are designed for the show just as writers and producers design characters for sitcoms and episodic dramas. Reality show DVDs and the reunion episodes present clips from the audition tapes of the finalists and take us “behind the scenes” of casting, for a glimpse of the performances that won the player the coveted role as castaway.
In reality talent shows, professional casting judgment is made more open and visible. These shows may play a didactic role in the circulation of popular knowledge about entertainment. Whether opinion is rendered caustically or gently, professional judges share their views with the TV watcher. The judges “teach” as they ensure that players have a requisite level of expertise and qualities for the entertainment genre. In America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks and a panel of fashion industry experts assess performance and explain the expectations for a “top model.” ANTM showcases the hard work (get up early, be ready, don’t be a diva) and skills (posing, make-up) as well as the body type that undergird this glamorous profession. There is no popular vote because what matters to ANTM is the judgment of the professionals. “Top models” are extraordinary, not ordinary.
Some reality talent shows cast the TV audience as a creative partner in the discovery of talent, calling on the audience’s experiential history with entertainment (sitcom, pop music, country music). These shows invite TV viewers to understand and to join in the “occupational ideologies” of the creative team, to become aware of the judgments that A&R or casting directors or talent agents might bring to casting decisions. American Idol and Nashville Star are competitions that end in the promise of a chance for a show business career, entry into an arena that would otherwise be inaccessible to most of the hopefuls. These shows have an interchange between a panel of entertainment professionals who make a public assessment of performance and the popular vote. The audience voters may be expressing their desires for what they would like to see in entertainment or maybe they are culture jamming, subverting entertainment by voting for the least likely entertainer or the underdog. American Idol and Nashville Star are talent shows, looking for pop singers.
In Search of the Partridge Family takes it up a notch, inviting “America” to help cast the Partridge Family for a new series on VH-1. Three roles in the sitcom (two child actors and an established character actor to play the lynchpin role of the family’s manager) were cast by professionals. The TV audience participates in casting performers who can sing pop songs, act in a sitcom, and re-inhabit the roles of four Partridges: Shirley, Keith, Laurie and Danny. For each one of these, auditions in four cities (Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Orlando, New York) generated eight hopefuls and a televised competition that combines professional judges and popular votes. The four show business judges are a record producer, a casting director, a music industry executive and an executive producer of In Search of the Partridge Family. Unlike American Idol and Nashville Star, the judges of In Search of the Partridge Family do not share their assessments with the TV audience. Nonetheless, In Search of the Partridge Family makes visible some of the processes that go into the production of entertainment television.
A week of rehearsals, singing and acting lessons, wardrobe and hair is presented in montage. Called “Boot Camp,” this process starts the visual transformation of the players from ordinary to extraordinary. However, despite their more polished performances, trendier haircuts and stage clothes, the players remain on the ordinary side of the continuum. The judges eliminate 3 of the 8. After a singing competition, the judges eliminate two more. Now, the field effectively narrowed to three very similar possibilities for the Partridge family character, the TV audience is invited to participate. The last three players perform a scene taken literally from the 1970s show. They stand before a green screen, interacting with the 1970s characters. In a secret combination of TV audience votes and judges’ opinions, two finalists are selected. In “The Battle of the Finalists,” the TV watchers make the final selection, voting by phone or Internet.
As the field of eight is narrowed to two, the TV audience gets to know the players as familiar and ordinary people. In “The Battle of the Shirley Partridges” episode of In Search of the Partridge Family, the players introduced themselves with sound bites that explained how their personal attributes match those of Shirley Partridge: I’m a mom; I used to be a rock singer and now I’m a mom; I’m organized; I can learn to drive a bus. The players present the sense that being myself is the same as being the character. Their personal attributes will allow them to deliver this character. In the method acting of reality TV, you don’t have to reach into yourself for an experience or an emotion that helps you understand and deliver the character. You are the character and the character is you, in your ordinariness. Yet, the bottom line will be the need that profitable entertainment has for the extraordinary–when the ordinary and likeable person has to deliver the character through photogenie and sustained performance.
The women vying for the role of Shirley are very different from Shirley Jones, the actress who played the character on TV in the 1970s. Jones was an experienced performer with the attributes of the perky TV sitcom mom. She starred in musicals (Oklahoma 1955 and Carousel 1956) and received the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role as a prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960). After working on stage and in film, television and nightclubs, Jones and stepson David Cassidy formed the nucleus of The Partridge Family (ABC, 1970-1974). The reality show amateurs offer themselves not as trained and experienced performers, but as closer and truer embodiments of Shirley Partridge. The contestants situate their performances in “being” more than in “performing.” The Shirley Partridge of the 1970s might have been an extraordinary TV mom, one who formed a touring pop band with her kids. In today’s reality talent show, Shirley Partridge is a character who connects with real moms. Or perhaps, over three decades, moms of the 21st century have become more like Shirley Partridge.
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