In their continued efforts to dream up twists on the basic reality TV-game show format, producers have now found a “next level,” in self-parody and manipulating contestants. Of course, deception has long been integral to the genre. Most recently, a “spy” was placed among the ladies competing for The Bachelor; poor men played rich ones on the Joe Millionaires; My Big Fat Fiancé had an actor duping his bride-to-be’s family; and Superstar USA is a direct inverse of American Idol, where only the obviously untalented survive.
But, in Joe Schmo 2, everything is a lie. The show within the show is fake. The participants are fake. Even the host is fake. Here’s the set-up: two unsuspecting non-actors—the “Schmos,” Tim and Ingrid—are chosen to take part in what they believe is a real reality show, titled Last Chance for Love, a sort of concurrent Bachelor/Bachelorette thing where participants are vying for the attention of a selected “hottie” of the opposite sex. What they don’t know is that there’s no game going on here at all. All of their fellow “contestants” are actors, hired to play various reality TV archetypes. The entertainment is premised on Jack and Jane’s reactions to their seemingly-real-but-really-phony environment.
It’s easy to trace back the Joe Schmo types to other infamous participants from reality shows gone by. We’ve got the Bitch (Omarrosa, anyone?); the Playa (any of the shirtless studs from Real World or Survivor); the Drunk (Trishelle, Real World: Las Vegas or Amy from Big Brother 3); the Gay-Acting Heterosexual (Daddy Duncan on Bravo’s Showbiz Moms and Dads); the Moron (oh, Jessica!); the Weeper (Bunky from Big Brother 2); and the Stalker (Trish from the most recent Bachelor). Tim and Ingrid must also contend with a pretentious host who, with deadly seriousness, delivers the most hackneyed speeches this side of Jeff Probst. There’s even a live falcon that flies in and lands on the host’s arm from time to time, delivering “special messages,” that is, the now typical game “surprise twists.”
In the first episode, when “Austin” (the white male hottie) got to dismiss any three of his would-be loves, he jettisoned the three African-American women, because, on reality TV, minorities are always the first to go. The first “challenge” forced upon the housemates was a striptease/lap dance contest, as we all know the purpose of any reality show is to get everyone out of their clothes. This strip-off, which began with the contestants dressed up like dogs or bunny rabbits, was so patently ridiculous that I couldn’t imagine how Tim and Ingrid didn’t see through everything right then and there. But then I remembered that last year, the Big Brother housemates were forced to dress up as different fruits in order to obtain food, and that wasn’t a put-on.
The first season of Joe featured only one “Schmo,” but this year, our pleasure is doubled with two, one male and one female. Tim and Ingrid didn’t know each other before they signed on for the show, and both are interesting in that neither fits easily into any popular or pre-existing reality show type. Ingrid is especially impressive, in that she doesn’t appear to have delusions that being on a reality TV show is a shortcut to the Hollywood A-list.
Maybe she’s too smart. She’s already given producers Anthony Ross and Paul Coyne a couple of near heart attacks when she seemed close to figuring out this whole sham. (Such meta-drama is folded into the show’s narrative, as producers are taped, by another camera crew, so that we can keep track of their worries.) But it is this possibility that gives Joe Schmo some appeal. Reality TV is popular not only because participants behave badly, but also because outcomes are ostensibly unpredictable. On Joe Schmo 2, the fact that the “game” is secondary (actually, non-existent) doesn’t mean viewers don’t experience edge-of-their-seats moments. The ruse always looks as if it might fall apart.
Still, even after the secret is revealed, neither Tim nor Ingrid should feel dumb. The masquerade is so carefully planned that “Joe” and “Jane Schmo” can’t be accused of being gullible, only of not being overly suspicious or completely paranoid. They’re like the innocent dupes on the old Candid Camera, only over an extended timeframe. The Joe Schmo situation is different than that on Superstar USA, where the off-key contestants are clearly the William Hung-like punch-line. On Schmo, the whole reality genre is skewered, in the pretend cast of “usual suspects,” in the amped-up drama and manufactured tension.
Joe Schmo makes fun of reality TV in much the same way as Airplane! satirized disaster movies from Airport to Earthquake!. Its over-the-topness spoofs the dumb, self-important, and hokey “Tribal Councils” and “Rose Ceremonies” of “real” reality show. On Joe Schmo, the joke is not on Tim and Ingrid, but on those of us who watch reality TV.