Faking It

A few episodes of Faking It prove that Shakespeare was right: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women are merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; /And one man in his time plays many parts.”

This Channel Four production is the latest British series to air in the United States (an American version will soon begin airing on The Learning Channel). Last month it won the Rose d’Or, the top award at the Montreaux Television Festival, suggesting the respect it’s earned in the industry.

Billing itself as a documentary rather than a reality show, Faking It does document the emotional and physical journeys of ordinary people. What makes them extraordinary is they’re given the opportunity to step out of one life and dive headfirst into another. A ballet dancer becomes a pro-wrestler. A naïve country boy becomes a tough bouncer at a hip London nightclub. A shy fast food vendor becomes a gourmet chef.

Much as it sounds, Faking It is essentially a documented sting operation, but it is a harmless and quite enjoyable one. A little research, a little play-acting, and the experts are fooled. This is what conman and Catch Me If You Can author Frank Abagnale knew: if you dress like a lawyer and talk like a lawyer, people will believe you are a lawyer. Abagnale did his research so well that he actually passed the Louisiana state bar exam.

But don’t confuse the participants in Faking It with Abagnale’s breed of con man. While the program does try to pass one type of person off as another, they do it not to dodge the law, or make money, they do it for very personal reasons, the same reason climbers attempt Everest: to test themselves.

Each week, participants attempt to learn a completely new job. For four weeks, a team of experts works with them to develop necessary abilities and attitudes. While the format stays the same, the personalities and the jobs vary wildly and the participants’ insights into their own transformation and learning process make Faking It fascinating to watch. Nobody on Faking It goes into “battle” unarmed. Each is assigned a team of coaches to teach him how to walk the walk and talk the talk. And so, in addition to watching people temporarily transform their lives, viewers see close relationships develop between the initially skeptical coaches and their charges.

That is, even if the premise of Faking It is to give one person a chance to dupe others, the show also takes a close and compassionate look at the process of transformation, the effort and commitment it requires. The fakers use a confessional camera to record their doubts, fears, misgivings, and eventual triumphs. Each episode culminates with the pretender putting his month-old skills to work, as mentors watch, comment, and cheer on their students via closed circuit TV.

Faking It begins with a technique you could call “lifestyle immersion.” For example, Alex is a sweet, openly gay boy who loves horses and majors in chemistry at college. He’s only been to London twice in his life, and doesn’t think he’s ever met anybody who isn’t white. Packed off on a train to London, he arrives at his temporary home, a high-rise project in a tough, working class part of town. Watching from a balcony many floors above, his two coaches remark that if he had wandered into their hood accidentally, dressed as he is in his dandy clothes, he’d be dead in about five minutes. Back down on the ground, Alex is mumbling the exact same thing.

The training that follows includes kick-boxing and language lessons; a new haircut and wardrobe; and several practice runs at small pubs as prelude to his attempt to fool the security bosses at the Hippodrome nightclub. Near the end of his training, he is talking football with the boys at the local barbershop, so capably you’d never know he’d rather be horseback riding in the country. Henry Higgins would be proud.

Since the show began airing in the U.S. on 1 June, every impostor has succeeded. Still, the thing that makes Faking It compelling viewing is the genuine effort all players put into their cons. We watch them master skill sets and learn to be more aggressive, more confident, and more open to jobs and lifestyles other than their own.

“What we did was a bit like theater,” says Sir Chay Blythe, who helps turn a woman from a Ferry Stewardess into a Racing Yacht Skipper in an upcoming episode. “We got Lucy saying lines, without her always fully understanding the implications of what she was saying.” The take-away for viewers at home is that it doesn’t really matter if you know what you’re doing on the job or not. All you have to do is act like you know what you’re doing. It’s easy to see how Jayson Blair managed to deceive The New York Times.

The participants on Faking It may also be tempted to give up or cut corners, but they don’t. First, because they’re on camera and their mentors won’t let them, and second, as we learn from the confessionals, they don’t want to disappoint these same mentors.

For Ed, the, shy, amenable fast food vendor turned chef, the challenge was to get a little attitude. Frequently, he tells the camera he’s not sure if he’s doing his best, but he’s going to keep trying. In the end, he thanks his coach, Donna Berlin. “I would have been eaten alive if it wasn’t for you,” he tells her. She adds, “Even if he doesn’t feel confident about his skills, he still has to have the slight air of arrogance in order to fake it through the competition. While master chefs taught Ed some food prep basics, Berlin taught him arrogance.

If this were an American-made show, Ed, Alex, and the others would wind up with jobs in their “new” professions, but that’s not the point of this series. At the end of each episode, the participants go home after emotional good-byes with their mentors. In pretending to be someone else, working at a completely unfamiliar job, they tell us, they feel they’ve grown. Ed tells viewers he’s had the “opportunity of a lifetime,” learning to cook at a level that might help him in the future, as well as give orders and take charge, skills he was woefully lacking at the show’s start. As for Alex, he says acting the part of a butt-kicking doorman helped him understand himself and something about the world outside his country manor. When he headed home, the other tough-talking bouncers gave him a bouquet of flowers.

Faking It is a catchy title to be sure, but after four weeks of hard work, these people are more than charlatans. They are changed. The recorded ups and downs of their struggles are at the heart of Faking It. It’s not about the destination, it’s all about the journey.