Popular Culture  •  August 25, 2003

The Reality of Reality TV - “The Restaurant”

NBC’s hit reality TV series, “The Restaurant”, claims to expose what goes on behind the scenes at one of the top restaurants in New York City. The show received mixed reviews from the people I personally know. Many are offended by the show’s apparent claim to truthfulness. Those especially who have worked in the restaurant business are keen to reject this claim to accuracy (though the makers never officially claimed such a thing, as you will see later). Despite this common criticism, the show has been a big success. Many critics of the show watch it to the end regardless, because, underneath it all, there is something interesting going on.

The difference between “Reality TV” and documentary is that, in the former, the people in front of the camera do not conceal their own awareness of the camera, whereas in the latter, the less they show this awareness, the better. Most documentary films assume Newtonian mechanical physics where the observed is independent of the observer. Reality TV programs, on the other hand, accept the subjective reality presented by Quantum Mechanics. If someone is in your room, you behave in a certain way. If no one is in your room, you behave differently. If person A is in your room, you behave differently than if person B was in your room. If you are in a bar alone, you behave differently than if you were with someone else. You behave differently when a few people are listening to you, as opposed to when an auditorium full of people are listening to you. And, finally, you behave differently when your friend is recording you with a camcorder, as compared to when a crew from NBC is shooting you for national news coverage.

In your mind, you create the concept of “the other” which is independent of what truly is. The “other” is what symbolically and negatively defines who you are. Without the “other”, you can’t exist. When you think or speak of yourself, there is always this underlying “other” that represents what you are not. This “other” is purely symbolic. To illustrate this point, think of a Web cam which is constantly broadcasting your behavior to the Web. Even if no one is actually watching, you assume that someone is, and you act accordingly. It makes no difference what this “other” is in reality. We change our behaviors depending on who we think “the other” is at any given moment. No specific behavior is more realistic than any other behaviors. Thus, the claim that “reality” is some sort of indisputable and univocal fact is untenable - no such thing exists.

“The Restaurant” offends the egos of those who are intelligent and perceptive enough to see the shift in the behavior of the subject caused by the presence of the camera. In their minds as an audience, there is “the other”, presumably the director of the show, who is manipulating their perceptions. Their awareness of this manipulation gets in the way of seeing what is happening for what it is. Once their egos are offended, they are trapped in the web of symbols, and they become blind to what they could otherwise perceive.

In this sense, “The Restaurant” should not have been marketed as a true-to-life documentary of what goes on in a New York restaurant. This creates too much egotistical resistance. It should be presented as something akin to MTV’s “The Real World”. That is, make no pretense about the fact that the situation is artificially created: artificial people, artificial place, and artificial finance.

As in “The Real World”, the premise of the show is to see what happens to this artificially formed group of people in this artificially created environment. It is a perfectly good premise. If you claim that it is true-to-life, you are only doing yourself a disservice; you will unnecessarily end up offending too many egos. “The Restaurant” is a TV drama much like “Cheers” is, except that it is not precisely scripted like the latter was. In fact, I would even recommend that Rocco DiSpirito (the chef of the restaurant) arrange for a famous guest to come to his restaurant every week, so that he could conduct a brief interview with this guest.

To their credit, the producers of the show never actually claimed that it is true-to-life. The description of the show reads: “‘The Restaurant’ is a one-hour unscripted drama that offers a behind-the-scenes look at rising New York star Rocco DiSpirito...” “One-hour unscripted drama” is exactly what it is. Unfortunately the public assumed that the makers were claiming it to be an accurate portrait of the real life restaurant business.

This is the genius of Mark Burnett, the executive producer of the show and the creator of “Survivor”. He is aware of what aspect of “reality” is actually interesting. He doesn’t show reality for its own sake. He only uses reality as a device or a vehicle for his products. “The Restaurant” is not a sitcom, it is not a fictional drama based on a true story, neither is it a documentary. It is an “unscripted drama”, a controlled chaos, where reality helps them write a script. A fictional script is written after the fact, inspired by what happened in reality. It employs reality-based script writing. It is a piece of reality-based fiction. It has no ultimate objective like many goal-oriented reality TV programs have (e.g. “Survivor”, “Trading Spaces”, “Blind Date”, “American Idol”, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”, etc). Its only goal is to write a dramatic script inspired by reality. It is a format that has a lot of potential. Burnett didn’t invent it, but he knows how to use it well. He chose a very appropriate and effective environment for this format: a restaurant where there are naturally a lot of actors and interesting, sociable people. Just as in the film “Grand Hotel”, a lot can happen in a restaurant. It is conducive to inspiring stories; it is the very reason why “Cheers” was a long-running hit. Burnett knows that reality is no more or less than what you make of it.