Saturday, June 6, 2009

PWR2 Spring Webby Winner: Curb Your Enthusiasm: Reality/Fiction Mashup

Curb Your Enthusiasm has, since its debut, intertwined reality and fiction in a strange whorl. The show is written by, directed by, produced by, and stars Larry David as himself – he envelopes the show, sandwiching it on both sides: production and acting. The show is highly improvised. David usually writes about seven pages of material, which provides a plot outline, but the dialogue is left unscripted. Larry David characterizes his portrayal as a fictionalized version of himself, but a version without the appropriate social reservations that the real-David has. He is the co-creator of Seinfeld in real-life as well as on the show. The character of his wife is based on his real wife. The plot of the show, in which they are divorced at the end of season six, even mirrors David’s real-life divorce. Perhaps the greatest difference between real-David and show-David is that show-David is not producing, writing, and starring in a show about himself – and this is probably a good thing lest the audience be trapped in an even stranger recursive reality: show within show within show ad infinitum.

Previously, Curb has depicted David as acting, as in season three where David is cast in a Martin Scorsese film (Scorsese, of course, played himself on the show). Season four is even stranger. Mel Brooks (playing himself) casts David as Max Bialystock in a Broadway run of The Producers. Staying true to the theme of warped reality, it turns out that Brooks is carrying out the same plot as Bialystock does in the play. Humor me: David casts Brooks in Curb who casts David in The Producers as Bialystock but it turns out that Brooks is the ‘real’ Bialystock (in the show’s reality), and strangely, David must have cast him this way to begin with. From a bird’s eye view of the season, it looks like Brooks casted David as Bialystock and the other way around. Certainly part of David’s humor can only be fully appreciated by considering the production of the show itself. The full picture of Curb includes reality.

Season seven is currently in production and slated for premiere in fall 2009, and if rumors are to be believed, we are in for a far more interesting interplay of reality and fiction than we have seen yet. So far, all the projects in the show, including the Scorsese film and The Producers have been fictional. Recently, Larry David starred in Woody Allen’s latest film, Whatever Works, which premiered in April and will start limited screenings in June. It has been speculated (and let me emphasize that this is only speculation) that Woody Allen may appear as a guest in the upcoming season of Curb, as himself, directing Whatever Works. If this were the case, then the show would be like a documentary of the production of Whatever Works. One begins to wonder what exactly “fictionalized” means.

In this scenario, there may be a two-way influence between the reality of the show and reality itself: a show about the production of a movie whose production was intended from the start to be the content of the show. This seems a natural progression in David’s ongoing experiment, but perhaps an unlikely one given that season seven is confirmed to have the entire cast of Seinfeld appearing in a multi-episode subplot (the first time all will appear together since Seinfeld’s end). It is hard to imagine that there is enough time in one season for the cast of Seinfeld and Allen. Also, reference to this rumor has been edited out of the Curb Wikipedia page where it appeared for most of the 2008 summer. The originating site,, seems to have eradicated it as well.

Whether these rumors pan out, Curb will continue to involve reality in creative ways somewhere in the nebulous area between documentary, mockumentary, and sitcom. The show has affected reality before. In 2003, Juan Catalan, suspected of premeditated murder, was cleared of all charges when cut-out footage of the “Carpool Lane” episode in season four proved that he and his daughter were attending a Dodgers game 20 miles away from the crime scene. This effect was unintentional of course, but quite suitable to the show’s spirit. We should, however, expect to see David intentionally involving reality in his comedic concoction in stranger ways still.

Clayton Mellina

Runner-up: Too Good to be True? - A Look into an Episode of My Super Sweet 16

My Super Sweet 16 first premiered on MTV in January of 2005, long before terms like “financial crisis” and “global economic meltdown” entered the average American’s vocabulary. In each episode of the show, MTV’s cameras follow around a real, soon-to-be 16-year-old and document the planning that goes into their sixteenth birthday party. These are no normal teenagers, however; MTV has tracked down the most outrageously spoiled adolescents possible for our viewing pleasure. The extreme level of indulgence displayed on the show makes viewers question whether or not My Super Sweet 16 is reality TV or complete fiction, however; no 16-year-old purchases $300,000 in jewelry for her birthday party, right?

Wrong. Savannah, the star of the episode I watched for this review, receives diamond bracelets, necklaces, and earrings worth this hefty amount before hopping in the enormous limousine that transports her and a cadre of friends to her party. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The designer dresses, entertainment (in the form of exotic animals and an oxygen bar), and trendy club she gets for her party certainly aren’t free. Neither is the shiny new BMW convertible she receives as a gift at the episode’s conclusion. It is nearly impossible to make an estimate as to the total amount of cash Savannah’s family spends over the course of the whole episode, but it is somewhere in the range of a million dollars. Not too shabby for a birthday party, eh?

This extravagant display of wealth is one of the episode’s two main attractions, the other being Savannah’s competition with her mom to see who can hold the cameras’ attention the longest. Mother and daughter fight over who gets to buy the most jewelry, who gets to wear the most extravagant dress, and even who gets to look the “hottest” at the party. This bickering seems ridiculous to almost any viewer, but reminds us that even the super rich aren’t perfect.

Although My Super Sweet 16 remains in MTV’s rotation of reality TV programming, the show is something of an anachronism given the present state of our global economy. Each episode is designed to flatter wealth by the standards set before the recession, so Savannah’s party seems even more over-the-top now. The show’s entertainment value wasn’t particularly high when it first aired a couple of years ago (Savannah’s princess-like sense of entitlement gets old fast), but if anything, it is evidence that the times are changing. One can only wonder what Savannah and the rest of her family’s thoughts are on the episode today.

Owen Boochever

Meet the PWR Webby Judges


Wendy is a freelance writer, teacher, and triathlete who lives outside Boulder, CO. She has an MFA from St. Andrew's University, Scotland. She has published in Cooking Light, Trail Runner, Natural Solutions, and Atlanta Magazine. She has decided not to audition for The Amazing Race, although she avidly follows British and American reality tv, including American Idol and Britain's Got Talent.


An L.A.-based blogger and former English teacher, Kevin was a writer for, one of the first and most influential reality television sites. As a media studies major, Kevin wrote his honors thesis on reality television and celebrity. He once spit on Julie from Real World New Orleans


A Bay Area writing teacher and Stanford alumnus, Kim is an avid reality television watcher with insider knowledge--two of her family members work in the reality television industry. Her yearbook is signed by Melissa of Real World New Orleans. You may recognize her from the front row of The Price is Right.


Mark is completing a Ph.D. in English, specializing in urban space and 20th century literature. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. In fact, he scored over 100% on Entertainment Weekly's pop culture quiz (about 60% higher than Joel Stein, EW's columnist). Richard Blais of Top Chef follows him on twitter.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

American Cry-dol

The 2009 season of American Idol has come to a close, and I am not surprised in the least by the outcome. Well, let me clarify. I am surprised that Kris Allen, a 23 year-old, boy-next-door contestant from Little Rock, Arkansas was able to beat out contestant Adam Lambert, the clear dominator of every vocal contest this season. Lambert's range is unbelievable and his versatility incredible, but, as has happened over and over, the world was shocked by the announcement of the 2009 American Idol champion. So yes, I was surprised by the result because I understandably always expect the contestant with the best vocal ability to win. But no, in hindsight, I am not the least bit surprised because year after year I have been disappointed by the way America has voted throughout the American Idol season. 
2003. Clay Aiken loses to Ruben Studdard in the season finale. 2004. Ruben Studdard releases his failure of a song "Sorry 2004." Where is he now? No one knows. On the other hand, Clay Aiken makes the news all the time. I hear he just got a new haircut!
2006. Taylor Hicks wins it all. The audience is shocked when Chris Daughtry does not even make it to the final four. Hicks is even less famous than Studdard. It is unclear whether or not he actually produced an album (He did- it was just that forgettable). In contrast, I can think of 3 songs off the top of my head that Daughtry has released in the past two years that have been huge hits. America loves him!
I think you get the picture. More often than not, the talented are kicked off and the not-so talented take home the record label. And this is what makes American Idol such a popular show. America is thrilled by the unexpected, and we thrive off of shock value. And we are shocked even despite the fact that we are also the ones voting. But consider this: more Americans voted in the final race between Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee in the 2006 Season of American Idol than voted in the 2004 presidential election. So many Americans choose to participate in American Idol that we have no concept of how much our vote matters or which contestant is actually the most popular in the public eye. So we are often unpleasantly surprised when the votes are finally announced.
That is not to say, however, that we are not entertained by both contestants' performances and judges' critiques. The individual personalities of both the contestants and the judges on the show provide us with plenty of reason to watch. When Simon Cowell dishes out a praise, we cling onto it for days, knowing they are few and far between. And when Paula Abdul stands up to dance to a good performance, we know to dismiss it fairly quickly because she will do that for almost anyone if she is in the right mood. But while these attributes of the show might help us become American Idol junkies, they are not what bring us back week after week, season after season. 
What brings us back is our emotional investment. Who will we root for this next season and who will we secretly hope gets kicked off the show even though our friends are all hoping otherwise? Who has the right balance of a good voice and good looks to really pull through? These are all questions we ask ourselves as we enter a new season, and, despite our best efforts to answer the questions and predict the winner, we will inevitably be disappointed in one way or another. American Idol capitalizes on our emotional investment, and would be nothing more than just another short-lived game show without the guarantee that we will become personally wrapped up in the fates of the contestants. I am not ashamed to say that I cried when Chris Daughtry was voted off the show because I know three other people who cried when Taylor Hicks won. Honestly, for the level of emotional involvement that the show provokes, it might as well be called American Cry-dol. After all, it could be called any name under the sun and we all would still love it. And as long as most of us continue to be surprised by the outcomes, nothing will ever change that.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Real Desperate Housewives of New Jersey

Bravo is known for producing some of the most quality reality programs that television has to offer. Its new series “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” is not one of them. The show is one of the many spin offs of the company’s popular series, “The Real Housewives of Orange County”, and accomplishes the difficult task of being even more vapid and over-dramatized than the original. Within the first minute of the season premiere, the women are shown in the midst of a full-fledged screaming match, and within a minute and a half one housewife has already called another a “prostitution whore”. Before the opening credits even begin to roll, one cannot help but think this show would be better suited for a major network or even Oxygen, rather than the same company known for Project Runway and Top Chef.

The show does little to deviate from the Orange County original- however now the same vacant stares of the women’s botox-injected faces are framed by dark over-processed hair opposed to the peroxide treated locks of their California counterparts. They have simply taken the shallow, gold digging antics of the rich housewife and added thick jersey accents for an “exotic” touch. The Juicy Couture sweatsuits of the OC housewives have been replaced by Victoria’s Secret PINK brand sweatpants, and while the children of the West Coast Housewives are attending schools such as Berkeley and on their way to entering the MLB, on the East Coast they are working for their parents’ businesses and trying to raise money to open a strip club. It is the New Jersey, Italian-American stereotype at its finest, and through its portrayal of these women seems to make the claim that money does not buy class. At the end of the episode, clips for upcoming events of the season show the women spending thoughtlessly, yelling brazenly, gossiping incessantly and fighting cattily. I for one will avoid watching diligently.

Amelia Herrera