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Tuesday, August 5 2014

Revisiting Reality with "Face Off"

When the TV show Survivor debuted on CBS in the spring of 2000, it cemented the role of the "reality show" in American pop culture. Reality programming had been around since at least the 1970s, when An American Family ran on PBS and told the real-life story of a California family. Nearly 20 years later, The Real World debuted on MTV, and launched the modern era of reality programming.

That said, it's not a genre that everyone finds equally compelling. While I watched the first few seasons of Survivor almost religiously, in the end, I haven't made tremendous efforts to keep up with the genre. Quite frankly, I am far more enamored of the storytelling found in traditional scripted TV, than I am of watching the unscripted—and often artificially provoked—actions and reactions of a carefully selected pool of "real people" (often the most extreme personalities that could be found). There is however no denying the power and influence of reality programming.

Part of what made Survivor so appealing, and so influential, was the way it merges the lively human drama of reality TV with the engrossing spectacle of orchestrated competitions, in the "reality game show" format. It's a format that caught on wildly; depending on how broadly one defines the genre, it can be difficult to catalogue every example. From The Bachelor to The Biggest Loser, from Last Comic Standing to Dancing with the Stars, the format has proven its popularity time and time again.

Tonight, I revisited the genre, however briefly, when I watched Face Off, SyFy's reality game show about aspiring SF/Horror makeup artists competing for both recognition and a cash prize.

In retrospect, it's a little surprising that I haven't watched the show before. When I was a kid, my Mom brought home a book one day about famous movie monsters, and that was likely one of the early influences that launched my love of the fantastic and the macabre. Things progressed from there when I was given a horror movie makeup kit as a gift; the kit included greasepaint, crepe hair, spirit gum, and most importantly, a set of plastic molds and a gelatin mixture for making prosthetic appliances, similar to what the professionals make with foam latex (though much easier to make). The kit also included instructions for how to do a professional Mr. Hyde makeup, Frankenstein's Monster, and the like. I think I must have read through that manual a hundred times.

The fascination with horror movie makeup never quite went away. In high school, I discovered that liquid latex was fairly easy to acquire, and between that, a book on theatrical makeup, and a subscription to Fangoria magazine, I taught myself a few basic techniques. I always aspired to learn how to make full foam-latex appliances, though the opportunity never presented itself.

So it's no surprise that I found Face Off tremendously appealing, even though the reality game show format would have to have worn a little thin by now.

Surprisingly, that's not at all the case, and in retrospect, it seems obvious why. What makes a story engrossing is the ability of the reader/viewer/listener to identify with the people and characters they meet throughout the story. What more universally identifiable trait is there than the desire to compete? We are all of us, every one, raised from the cradle to feel the pull of competition, though one suspects that no specific upbringing is needed to bring out that quality; it's in our genes. Combine that with watching someone likeable (or who is relatable, at any rate), as that person strives to make a personal dream come to life. The combination is irresistible.

All the other points aside, it's really that last bit that I find so moving. Sure, as a bona fide SF/Horror geek with a casual interest in effects makeup, the basic idea of the show grabs me—though honestly, not enough. I've known of the show for a couple years at least, but never watched it before. And I know from having gotten engrossed in Survivor and a few other reality game shows, that the competition format is always a sure winner. That said, again, I'd spent my time with the genre and fallen away, and despite having seen a few episodes of Dancing With the Stars here, an episode or two of America's Got Talent there, it had been a while since any of them had made me feel particularly compelled or inspired.

Tonight was different, and I know exactly why.

What made my heart soar—what inspired me to sit down, well past my customary bedtime, and write this piece—was the ending, when an aspiring makeup artist was sent home. Conforming to the elimination pattern set forth by Survivor, presumably never to be abandoned, the judges on Face Off voted off one of the contestants, on the basis of perceived merit (her project didn't live up to standards). In every episode of every series that hews to the format, this is normally a poignant moment, in which shattered dreams are assessed, grieving takes place, and an ominous tone is set for those who remain.

On this episode, however, the closing sequence lifted me up, and made my heart soar. Over footage showing her packing up her makeup kit, the young woman who was eliminated spoke about her passion for makeup, her aspirations to persevere in her art, to continue to grow and achieve everything she has set out to achieve. These were not the words of a reality-challenged tuneless warbler on American Idol, of a dreamer with no talent or skills to support their dreams. This was a dedicated, passionate, hard-working artist who had one bad night. Every creative person can easily put themselves in this particular pair of shoes: Given the opportunity to shine, to make your dreams a reality, to bring that brass ring within your reach, you choke. Everything you worked for looks like it's slipping away.

How, in a circumstance like that, do you decide to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and reaffirm your commitment to making your dreams a reality? How on earth does any sane person do such a thing?

Honestly, when I figure that one out, I will let you know. I'm still working on it myself. It's such a hard thing, and yet so crucial to finding any measure of real, self-affirming success in this world, to persist in the face of rejection and (apparent) failure. Yet so magical to see it happen, and on reality game shows, it's something we are privileged to see happen again, and again.

Is it really any wonder that the genre has found such longevity?

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