Aside from Netflix’s impressive backlog of unreleased new programming, eventually new television seasons and shows will run out until TV production can go back to work. That may also be more of an “if” rather than an “until” for quite some time. In some ways the predicament that TV is in currently is not dissimilar to the writers’ strike of the late ‘00s. Scripted series were put on hold, and the growing Wild West rules of reality television (“unscripted”) jumped into the lead; these shows were dirt cheap to make, comparatively, and there weren’t union restrictions in place for the creatives behind them. Under the shadow of Covid-19, reality television once again has the chance to reign supreme. This time, it’s because it’s much more feasible to craft creative programming under the restrictions of social distancing.
As much as I’d love for scripted to figure out how to thrive in these conditions as well, it’s not necessarily there yet. While local creative studios like Round House Theatre utilized teams of playwrights and actors that can’t physically grace their stage to produce the inventive scripted web series Homebound, it’s still difficult to be drawn into fictional stories told through technology like Zoom that we as viewers are tethered to using as a way to work and communicate on a daily basis. It starts to feel like more work rather than escape.
For some reason, even with Zoom, reality seems to have an easier time thriving. Perhaps because sometimes it’s closer to the experience of watching “normal” programming, and most of the time because it’s bringing audiences something that feels very special and voyeuristic in its own way. Here are some examples of recent “must see quarantine TV” that are embracing the new production way of life.
The Final Episodes of “The Voice”
While the hit NBC reality singing competition’s latest season got about 3/4ths the way through under status quo production, it was the final few weeks of the competition that forced the show to have to shift very quickly into quarantine mode. While this show as a major network hit makes a lot of money (i.e. more room to get creative), it also faced challenges; the end of the season is when the contestants are narrowed down to a handful, and they’ve got to perform on the big stage with big production values in front of big audiences to prove their star power as singers. In quarantine, this spectacle wasn’t possible; the 18th season would have to end on a very different note. Luckily for NBC, they could take their money and put it towards shipping quality electronics, filming and sound equipment to the star mentors and the final contestants so they could create small professional performance spaces in their homes. They even made a cheeky gimmick out of showing John Legend and Kelly Clarkson, respectively, balancing entertaining their kids while attempting to set up this equipment. I’m sure they had production members actively walking them through the set up process on Facetime, but the reality doesn’t entirely matter because the current conceit, even when you’re a celebrity, of balancing work and childcare in your home feels real to everyone right now. The true thrill of watching the final episodes of The Voice in quarantine was that even without the grandeur of performing on a giant soundstage with screaming crowds, it was a thrill to watch the finalists embrace a more intimate medium while tackling original songs in the finale, introducing audiences to a little more about themselves because they are performing out of their own homes. Whether it’s Pastor Todd from Mississippi performing in his own church or Toneisha in Georgia, who was supposed to audition for season 2 but chose to stay home and care for her young son who had leukemia, and we now get to hear her powerful voice alongside seeing her son (now healthy and all grown up) by her side. It’s not just the ability to perform in a stadium setting that makes a star; it’s about letting audiences fall in love with an artist’s performance and personality. What better place to showcase that than at home?
Verzuz TV Battles
While this genius concept dubs itself as “TV”, it’s technically just a new, exciting way that Instagram Live is utilized during quarantine; it’s the brainchild of super producers Timbaland and Swizz Beats, who pulled up their famous friends on speed dial to pair iconic rap and r&b artists for “battle”, pitting each of their respective hits against each other over a 2 to 3 hour program that’s been happening a couple Saturday nights a month over the past few months of quarantine. While there’s no official victor crowned on the show, the wins and losses play out over Twitter and Instagram. Even the comments are a who’s who of the music industry as Diddy or Missy Elliott pop in to say hey and give love and props to the dueling artists. Even above the nostalgic element of hearing artists like Ludacris and Nelly’s hit songs from the beginning of the millennium, it’s the love and admiration that can come between two artists with true respect for each other, like during the Erykah Badu and Jill Scott battle. It was really lovely to watch these two talented women enjoying each other’s hits, sharing stories about the craft of songwriting. While after the live event the battles are all over Youtube, there’s something very special and highly entertaining about catching the battle live on Verzuz TV’s Instagram. If audiences can’t physically be together, there’s something very close in sharing the live experience of the battle while weighing in over Twitter.
While Broadway is dark and theatres all over the world are questioning their survival post-quarantine, the Broadway community has been working to make the most of an awful situation by singing and sharing stories on such online programs as Seth Rudetsky’s Stars in the Home, which features TV and Broadway show cast reunions to raise money for The Actor’s Fund. Broadway.com produced a stellar Sondheim tribute to benefit ASTEP (an organization bringing the arts to under-privileged children). While there were some Zooming mishaps in the beginning (zero sound, so relatable) which delayed the live airing for over and hour, it was worth the wait. The rest of the segments had been pre-taped, sans snafus, and featured some of Broadway’s biggest stars (and just the biggest stars period) singing their favorite Sondheim songs. There was literally something for everyone thanks to performances from Bernadette Peters; Jake Gyllenhaal; Mandy Patinkin; Patti Lupone; Lin Manuel Miranda; and a transcendent song in the round by Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, and Christine Baranski. Beyond the wonderful, earnest discourse of joyful theatre kids on Twitter, it offered the chance to hear so many incredible actors and singers that audiences normally can’t see in one show. Audiences also got a glimpse into some excellent celebrity living rooms, home offices and bathrooms (the acoustics are excellent).
Bravo’s Zoom Reunions
If viewers thought drama could not translate through Zoom they really underestimate Andy Cohen, professional shit stirrer. Full seasons of Real Housewives of Atlanta, Summer House, and Vanderpump Rules aired as normal but their reunion specials were not already taped. The benefit for viewers and Bravo is that this quarantine set up is a whole lot cheaper than renting out a soundstage or hotel ballroom or shutting down one of Lisa Vanderpump’s bordello-themed restaurants, so that means this year viewers actually got a Summer House reunion for the first time in four seasons. All these drama kings and queens don’t need to be in the same room to go off; in fact, they’ve taken a tip from the internet at large and let go of any social filter or politeness. The best part about reality TV celebrity narcissists is that they’re too busy staring at their own Zoom view (making sure they look good) to see if they’ve wounded the souls of their castmates.
Bless technology and reality TV.
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