One day in mid-June, I saw a posting on the Radio & TV blog of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: ‘Why there are huge walls built around a subdivision in Kennesaw.’ I didn’t know there were huge walls built around this Kennesaw subdivision, and I didn’t even know what a Kennesaw was, so I was doubly intrigued.
Turns out that 2,000 feet of 20 ft.-high walls were erected around this unassuming suburb in Atlanta, not by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, but by CBS! Yes, as we all know by now, the eight Kennesaw homes surrounded by the gargantuan wall are actually part of a new reality show project from the killer combo of Mike Fleiss (The Bachelor) and Jay Bienstock (The Apprentice). The basic premise of There Goes the Neighborhood: eight families are cut off from the outside world and its creature comforts, and have to engage in family-oriented, yet bizarre, competitions in order to win a $250,000 prize.
On assorted news and TV blogs, the comments came fast and furious, with more than one cybercritic likening it to Jim Carrey’s 1998 flick The Truman Show, in which Carrey’s character lives his entire life unaware that he’s being filmed every hour of every day, on a constructed set within a giant dome. The PR for the show itself called it ‘the ultimate social experiment,’ with this quote from Mr. Fleiss: ‘We’ve never seen anything like it before. An entire neighborhood trapped behind a giant wall. It’s insane!’(Guess we won’t mention that whole ‘post-World War II Berlin’ thing.)
Critics have responded favorably to other social experiment shows such as the CBC’s The Week the Women Went, in which the women of a small town leave the area for a week, forcing the men-folk to fend for themselves and theoretically providing valuable insights into issues of gender. Others, such as Kid Nation and Channel 4′s Boys and Girls Alone, controversially placed kids front and center in the experiments.
Personally, I tend to think of a sizable chunk of reality programming as social experimentation. Survivor is branded with the tag and for good reason, as it features a bunch of folks plopped in some exotic, potentially dangerous locale who are left to duke it out for a giant cash prize by forming alliances and ultimately by stabbing each other in the back. But look at something as seemingly innocent as Jon & Kate Plus 8, where cameras follow the lives of a family that just happens to include eight cute kids. But what was, for several seasons, family-friendly programming generated a media circus that fed into some dark domestic stuff, and even more people tuned in.
Fact is, whenever a camera is placed in a ‘real’ situation, that reality is altered. The camera can reflect that which we want to see, and coax out that which we want to hide. It’s often said that reality television captures real people reacting to abnormal situations. That marriage of reality and unreality is the source of drama and/or comedy, and the crux of the social experiment.
And as could happen with any experiment, sometimes stuff blows up. In the midst of the media hullabaloo surrounding rumors of discord in the Jon & Kate household, when paparazzi were staked outside the Gosselin house, Jon was quoted in several news outlets as saying he ‘might as well be in prison.’
Welcome to Kennesaw, Jon.
PS: Our ‘Think About It’ & ‘… and one more thing’ sections took a break for the summer, but return next issue.