'Unplanned America' Is an Unplanned Human Experience
While its premise reads as pat reality TV, Unplanned America actually provides a look at the very human sentiments behind some of America’s more unusual subcultures.
Unplanned AmericaCast: Pawel Jarecki, Tim 'Gonzo' Ryan, Nick Maher
Subtitle: "When Fantasy Meets Reality" and "Family Matters"
Unplanned America’s premise is reality TV distilled to its most basic elements. Three Australian friends set out on a cross-country US road trip with nothing but a camera and a desire to explore America’s cultural underbelly. From the get-go, the show has everything that one wants from mindless entertainment: foreign takes on local culture, sensationalism, and a visual style that, despite our rational faculties, still makes us think we’re watching objective reporting.
Yet Unplanned America offers something else as well. The show bills itself as a “gonzo television documentary”, drawing on the memory of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who thought the best kind of reporting was the kind that found the reporter right in the action, partaking of the local flavor. While the show has definite appeal for the casual TV viewer unfamiliar with Thompson or his “buy the ticket, take the ride” philosophy, the subcultures it focuses on are definitely chosen with a literary audience in mind.
In its first episode, the trio explores two very different subcultures located in two very different American locales: a crime-fighting superhero group in Seattle and a realistic sex doll manufacturer in south Texas. At first, the episode's format is unclear; there seems to be little in common between its subjects. Viewed in conjunction with the second episode, however, the show's format begins to establish itself. Each episode's general theme highlights a particular need (for product, for services); each group presented in these episodes explain (in their own words) how that product or service fulfills some necessity that mainstream American culture isn’t meeting.
These groups are introduced in each episode using a montage of American news clips meant to highlight the "weirdness" of its topic. In the segment focusing on Seattle’s superheroes, the ambivalence that the city feels toward its costumed characters is clear. The superheroes roam the streets wearing tights and masks, and for anyone who’s been in a theater lately, there is a strange hint of life imitating art. The onslaught of superhero films clogging cinemas almost always contain a self-reflexive gag about the average citizen who dons a cape and takes to the street to fight crime; we’re invited to similarly chuckle at the hubris of Seattle’s masked crusaders.
But what Unplanned America offers us is a very different picture. The superheroes are a diverse group of startlingly average folk. Most of them admit to a relationship to comic books and the promises of justice that they make, but their current activities as real-life crime fighters are less about outsider angst than they are about a justifiable desire as citizens to safeguard their community’s right to self-determination.
Their efforts are not complete fantasy, though; as the crew follows them for a night, one becomes aware of the substantial role they play in the Seattle streets. They are on a first-name basis with the homeless population, who in turn help them with information that (they say) leads to solving crimes. They break up fights and chase down shooters, unencumbered by the protocol that often leaves the official police force tied up by bureaucracy and bias. As documented in the episode, the local police force looks both ineffectual and somewhat thuggish next to these superheroes; when they are called, they either do nothing or mace the wrong person. At the risk of tipping into vigilantism, in the current political climate this portrait, more than blockbuster films, gives us reason to reconsider how and to whom we give the right to dispense justice.
Because it lacked the same emotional depth, it wasn’t clear how the second half of the episode related to the first, beyond the dual focus of "fantasy" and "reality" indicated in the episode title. Lacking one member due to a Texas-sized dose of poison ivy, the friends head to a town south of Austin to explore a factory that manufacturers life-like sex dolls. There really is no better word to describe this segment of the episode than "bizarre", as the camera pans across rows of headless silicone bodies of various skin tones hanging on industrial hooks, while their creator talks about both the process and impact of his product. “The doll is so much more than a sex object or a toy but a presence in their home, and they [customers] are excited to go home,” the manufacturer says.
The show really begins to settle into its format in the second episode, where both segments are united under the common themes of family, outsider status, and belonging. First, the episode looks at the annual gathering of the “Juggalo Family”, the group of die-hard fans dedicated to informal worship of the rap-rock band The Insane Clown Posse (ICP). Most Americans are somewhat familiar with Juggalo culture, and so seeing Australians interact with ICP’s legion is more than entertaining. But the gag ends up being informative, as it takes what could be an opportunity for ridicule, and instead offers a genuinely human portrayal of the anxieties and social needs of the American underclass. Juggaloes are, by their own description, “society’s trash”. They come from poor families, broken homes, and difficult pasts. For them, The Gathering is a place where they can come together, free of judgement, to find the acceptance and the family they never had before.
Unplanned America jumps from one type of American "family" to another, as it moves from the trailer park to inner city New York to profile the city’s ballroom dance scene. The more savvy of Unplanned America’s viewers will be familiar with this scene from the cult documentary Paris is Burning (get thee to Netflix and watch it). I did wish that they had thought to at least name drop that classic in their contemporary documentation of the same community, as it's clear little has changed since the 1990 documentary. Gay and trans youth of color still come together to find and create together families that, unlike their families of birth, will not only accept but celebrate them for who they are.
This particular segment could have potentially ventured into seriously problematic territory, as the documentarians are all self-described “straight, white guys”; they address this issue by featuring little of their own commentary, instead letting the communities speak for themselves. After explaining the familial structure of ballroom families, one patriarch and emcee states, “My life is a flash of ballroom moments, and I think that is a beautiful thing.” It's difficult to disagree when confronted with the raw, aesthetic footage of the ballroom scene; it is beautiful, and it made me happy watching it.
All things considered, Unplanned America is a textbook reality TV road show, but we shouldn’t hold that against it. Its documentarians are white men, but they’re honest about their credentials (or lack thereof). They approach each subject with an openness that allows for the possibility of genuinely surprising perspectives, and the show’s editing does an excellent job of tying these “weirdo” subcultures back into very universal human sentiments.
Everyone wants to belong, to fight injustice, to find a place in the world where they matter and make sense. Unplanned America is a documentary about how some of our more colorful counterparts go about doing just that.