What is Reality?
By Paul J. Coyne, Co-Executive Producer
This week, Beyond Scared Straight returns to the county jail in Oklahoma City. This is one of our favorite places to document because their intervention program is so effective, the deputies are fearless, the inmates are terrifying, the local teens are all dangerously influenced by the explosive gang activity in OKC and, a plus for TV viewers, the program has a rigorous physical therapy component. These workouts break every teen down in some way - allowing them all to open up.
One of the more nerve-racking and suspenseful aspects of putting together our series comes toward the end of editing an episode. That's when we contact the teens and find out the latest updates on their lives. Our fingers have been crossed for months. Until then, we honestly don't know if the jail tour has worked its magic completely. One of the most surprising outcomes our series has ever seen happens in the last 10 seconds of this week's show. I won't give it away but make sure you watch the entire episode to see why that result is so surprising. You'll be glad you did!
This week you will see rival gang members, from both sides of the bars, come face to face. You will see the return of female inmate Tiny, who memorably appeared on the previous Oklahoma City episode. Since we last with her late last year, she was released from jail, messed up again, and is an inmate once more.
You will also meet a self-described "cracker," a female inmate who is a member of the Aryan Nation. She sets her sights on two minority teens that unfortunately aren't allowed to look away. What this inmate says is just brutal to listen to. Not someone you want at your house for Christmas. What she said that we weren't legally (or morally) able to put into the show was much worse.
But surprises like that are what we have come to expect from Oklahoma City.
When last we brought our documentary cameras behind bars in Oklahoma, we captured a moment so unexpected that our expert camera operators almost missed it. One of our female teens took a roundhouse swing at a deputy and was promptly restrained and cuffed.
This shocking (and incomprehensible) moment happened within the first few minutes of the teen's arrival at the jail. We were still setting up our cameras when things went crazy. In my wildest imagination, despite how hardened so many of our teens are before entering the jail, I never thought any kid would be that brazen.
As one of our cameramen was loading a tape into his camera, out of the corner of his eye he noticed a conversation escalating between at-risk teen Leigh and one of the female deputies. Our stellar crew has a sixth sense about these things and he knew something was about to explode. He flicked the camera on and waited for that agonizing moment between hitting the record button and seeing the "record" light glow in his viewfinder. He was recording for only a few seconds before the teen's fist was headed toward the deputy's startled face. All the cameraman could do is stand back and watch.
I am grateful that our documentary camera operators are the best in the business. It was one of the most memorable moments of our documentary series and because our crew never lets their guard down, viewers got to see how far some of these teens go to prove how tough they are.
By the way, one thing that I want to repeat about our series: we are not a reality show. We are a documentary series.
These days, it seems any non-fiction series tends to fall under the category of "reality TV" and I just have to accept that. It used to be that shows like American Idol and Wipeout were called "talent shows" or "game shows." Now, everything that isn't scripted or doesn't hire actors is called Reality TV. I personally wish it was all known as "unscripted television" but that doesn't have quite the same ring.
I've never been a big fan of the term "reality TV" and not because, as every critic seems to bemoan, "It's not reality! It's all fake!" In truth, I love good reality TV - and most of it is very real. I've worked as a producer or editor on some of the most popular and innovative reality TV there is - The Amazing Race, Survivor, The Bachelor, Big Brother, Average Joe, The Joe Schmo Show and a dozen others. I also worked on the lowest rated network television premiere - ever - an American Idol knock-off called The One: Making a Music Star.
By the way, that series lasted less than 2 weeks. I showed up for work one morning and was informed by the parking lot security guard that the show had been cancelled and I could go home. This was a guy who I often had to wake up so I could enter the lot and he essentially fired me!
There are several differences between a documentary series like ours and traditional reality TV. Let me count the ways...
To me, a "reality show" is almost always an unnatural situation that has been constructed by the show's creators. Real island castaways wouldn't take time away from building a boat just to vote one of their own off the island. Tycoons don't gather a bunch of apprentices together into a boardroom each week and make them debate until one of them is fired. Those were situations created for the show.
Beyond Scared Straight is the opposite animal. We did not create the concept of bringing teens into jail for a day to show them the road ahead. All of the intervention programs we document on our series have been in existence long before we contact the jails and ask if we can film. We are "flies on the wall" and once the jail day begins, we just stand back and see what happens. We don't interfere with the inmates or deputies because have an important job to do. We would just be in the way.
Ours is not a show that needs to be "produced" for maximum impact. I say it often. Truth is always the better story.
Another aspect of many reality shows is the quest for fame and fortune that seems to drive many of the people who appear on those shows. No one used to know what Kardashians were and now they're an empire. I wouldn't call anyone on an all-star dance show an actual star, at least not anymore. And I can't remember the last time I formed an alliance or threw someone under the bus.
Surprisingly, I get many emails from viewers that say, "I think I would be great on your show. Where can I apply?" Even though we do not "cast" our series, we would never put someone on an episode that actively campaigned to be on the show. It's not being on TV that creates change. It's the tour. If you need a jail tour, contact your local sheriff and explain why.
I'm proud to work in documentary. I'm proud to work in reality TV. I feel like what I do makes a positive difference in the world. Plus, I get to hear all the newest prison slang.
Though it's easy to complain about reality TV and how trashy it can be, I think that's an unfair generalization. When I was in high school, everyone complained about school lunch - but they would still line up on pizza or spaghetti day.
There is a lot of superb unscripted TV to choose from and (I'm not just saying this because they pay my bills) a lot of it can be found on A&E. There is something worthwhile in every genre of television, and everyone has a favorite. And, there is a lot to say for TV's guilty pleasures. I have my own, of course, but they don't involve tiaras, toddlers or housewives.
I have two theories that I half-jokingly put forth in defense of reality TV. First, I think reality TV made it OK again for people to go to a movie theater to see documentaries and foreign films. I feel like reality TV made it acceptable to watch real life unfold via handheld cameras - and to read subtitles while it happens.
I also have a theory that reality TV has inadvertently done a world of good for scripted television. The one thing nonfiction TV has, more than just about any genre, is the ability to surprise. When you are dealing with real life, real people and unexpected situations, you never know what's going to happen. I think by the late '90s, with several exceptions of course, scripted television had fallen into cliche patterns and that didn't offer many unexpected moments. People were craving that when reality TV took off.
Maybe it's just a coincidence but I'd like to think that my stellar work on The One: Making a Music Star had something to do with the creation of Mad Men and American Horror Story. I'm still waiting for my thank you card from Jon Hamm.
So come on back to Oklahoma and see what surprises Beyond Scared Straight has to offer this week. I won't say that someone throws a punch this time but I can say that one terrified teen will examine an inmate's fist so close he barely has room to open his mouth.
Keep it real.