“Reality” is a pretty thin concept ‘round MTV way these days, what with “reality” shows like The Hills presenting life in L.A. as an endless stream of nights filled with white people drinking in clubs and days drinking in cafes where they never, ever see a person of color. So too with The City, which applies the same formula in Manhattan.
Life of Ryan, a show ostensibly about the life of pro skateboarder/Tiger Beat cover boy Ryan Sheckler, has the potential to be “real” in the sense that it follows a person not created and casted by MTV’s producers. But in the end, it’s no more reality based than a scripted sitcom.
Life of Ryan, collected now on a DVD set that features a trio of skate videos, chronicles Ryan’s “struggle” to be a “normal” kid amidst increasing obligations from his skateboarding career (launched when he was 12). He’s coping with his parents’ divorce, trying to find a girl that likes him for something other than his money (Ryan pulls down $5 million a year, according to ESPN), and attempting to balance his life with his surfer pals in San Clemente, California, with his life as a young Tony Hawk wannabe. It’s a supposedly difficult balance, and one that Ryan must handle daily.
The series launches with Ryan detailing a messy divorce between his parents, Gretchen and Randy Sheckler, who fought bitterly for custody of Ryan and his brothers Kane and Shane. But thanks to a Hills-like approach to filming, the main emotional moments never happen on camera, because that would be giving too much away. Instead, we get context-lacking conversations between Ryan and Gretchen, who was his manager, talking about how bad the divorce was.
Then we get shots of Randy telling Ryan how bad the divorce was. Then we get canned scenes where Ryan and best friend Casey compare the divorces of their parents on a beach at sunset. Then Ryan consoles clearly coached little brother Kane as he cries about the divorce.
It makes for beautiful looking and superficial television, but it also means that we never get past Ryan’s beach bum descriptions (“The divorce was, like, the worst”) of things that supposedly were hard for him. Then suddenly there are clearly scripted segments where people walk into a room at just the right time and talk about clearly pre-arranged topics.
Additionally, the other main thrust of the series—Ryan’s insistence on trying to maintain a “normal life” (which apparently is hanging out on a beach and having “serious” conversations in front of cameras)—smacks of “I’m just a regular kid” opportunism. Ryan goes to great lengths to show how “normal” he is: he hangs out with his friends playing X-Box! He goes surfing! He goes to Lego Land! He’s normal, see.
Problem is that Ryan isn’t a normal kid, and probably never will be. He turned pro at 12. He makes millions of dollars a year. But too much of the first two seasons (23 episodes) is spent with Ryan, his friends, his brothers, his parents, and his manager, saying over and over how “busy” Ryan is, and how much he has to sacrifice (like, gasp, girlfriends) – yet he never really seems that busy.
Sure, Ryan has a lot on his plate, but he’s doing things kids his age will never get to do. I’m sure most pro-skateboarders would trade his checkbook for the opportunity to hang on the beach with friends. Most 18-year-olds would love having their own million dollar McMansion (Ryan’s house shopping is the main event in season two), even if it means their elbows and knees have no cartilage like Ryan’s (there, at least, is proof that he has worked awfully hard and yes, sacrificed).
The only real struggle on Life of Ryan is Ryan trying desperately to prevent his ascent into the leisure class by filling up his non-skating time by filming a reality show about how he’s just a regular kid.
The third season, which just aired as a six-episode marathon in April, drops the pretense that Ryan is just trying to be “normal” by highlighting how awesome his life is. Ryan has moved into his mansion with Casey, and the first episode is about how crazy their parties get. Seriously guys, the parties are out of control. They, like, drink beer and stuff. And people punch holes into walls. And they make out with girls. It is so cool. That is, if you’re 15 and your only frame of reference for adulthood is MTV.
To top it off, the parties are so crazy, Ryan has to hire security guards to watch the doors and install more security cameras. Yeah, that’s exactly how I remember parties from when I was 18.
The rest of the final season is spent following Ryan as he auditions for movie roles, manufactures conflict with his manager who urges him to grow up, and generally lounges around. There is a minor plot arc involving X-Games in 2008, but that is set up in a way that even if you didn’t watch them happen live, you know Ryan is going to win gold.
The season ends with Ryan’s friends going off to college, leaving Ryan to move on past his high school relationships to focus mostly on his professional endeavors. It’s an almost anti-climactic development, since it’s basically acknowledged that Ryan has to care about his career more than the show and his friends in the first episode, but closing the series apparently allows him to move on.
The curveballs thrown in Life of Ryan are the topics that aren’t discussed here: namely allegations of Gretchen being a stage mom, and that Ryan gets the benefit of the doubt in competitions due to him being the veritable face of street skateboarding because of his youth and exposure. Such concerns are given cursory pass overs—the mom issue is diffused by Ryan constantly saying how great of a manager she is, while the question of him getting undeserved hype is written off as propaganda by “haters”.
In the Life of Ryan, no problem can go unsolved after a family talking session on the couch or with friends at the beach. Being “busy” means flying to Austria for fun, and “sacrifice” is what you do when you decide making millions bloody skateboarding is more important than hanging out on a beach with your friends talking about who’s dating who. At least MTV’s last skateboarding show, Viva La Bam, had the good sense to wrap itself up in stupidity and pranks.