Do big life events work for reality TV – or send shows into a death spiral?

10.21.11 8 years ago

The traditional wisdom is that, in the world of sitcoms, major life events can signal a show is about to jump the shark. How many of us have groaned as formerly great shows muddle around in the tired territory of onesies and wedding dresses, with characters suddenly falling flat and humorless before us? 

It would be easy to assume the same might happen with reality TV shows. After all, these shows are probably no less scripted than any other programming. But so far, I have high hopes for two shows on which main players have chosen to tackle big changes on-screen; “The Rachel Zoe Project” and “Gene Simmons Family Jewels” don’t seem to be jettisoning their strong points to make room for plot points, or at least not so far.

On “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” a rough season during with Shannon Tweed and Gene Simmons seemed closer to breaking up than walking down the aisle has been resumed with those intended nuptials. But kudos to the Simmons for not doing the easy and obvious thing, which would be to brush all of the couple’s relationship problems under the rug to make way for a great wedding. Tying the knot has never been so hard won, at least not on television. Tweed and Simmons even go through marriage boot camp prior to their wedding, hashing out the kind of old hurts and misconceptions that can pile up when you’re dating for almost thirty years. To the Simmons’ credit, they haven’t danced around tough issues on the show, and while the wedding is the kind of showstopping event that tends to suck the life out of a sitcom, here it’s just the continuation of a story, a breather before more drama unfolds. The show is only likely to benefit from this new wrinkle as Simmons embraces monogamy and Tweed (or Shannon Simmons, I guess) learns how to trust it. 

“The Rachel Zoe Project” has always been about the fantasy and fashion of Hollywood, so tossing a baby into the mix might not have seemed like a such a good idea. It certainly didn’t seem to appeal much to Zoe in previous seasons, as her husband Rodger pleaded with her to consider taking the leap and she insisted she didn’t have time to be pregnant AND dress stars for the Emmys/Oscars/museum soiree/opening of an envelope she had booked. But Rodger apparently wore her down, and this season we saw Zoe waddle around, horrified by her growing girth (she probably had to wear a size two!) and the prospect of having a rugrat to deal with when she could be shopping. Motherhood seemed like an imperfect fit for Zoe, to say the least, but it was hard to look away.

Unsurprisingly, the big episode during which Zoe delivers little Skylar is mostly filled with a B-storyline about Joey dressing Molly Sims, as Zoe had no desire to let camera crews see her screaming and straining to push out a baby. But snippets of what we do see of post-baby Zoe promise that the little squirt may have been just what the one-dimensional workaholic really needed. She glows while talking about the kid in a way she never did while pregnant (despite that old wives’ tale about glowing pregnant women) and seems determined to balance her motherhood with a demanding career that isn’t exactly baby friendly. I foresee baby pee on a Dior anytime now.

How Zoe reacts to that baby pee is still in question, but it’s a problem I never would have expected to see even a season ago. While Rodger happily bounces around, the proud father, Zoe will be tackling the challenges familiar to any working mom — although she’ll undoubtedly be better dressed. Unlike a sitcom, there’s the possibility of some real issues being tackled. Where sitcoms wilt, reality programming can (sometimes) dig deeper. And who would have thought “The Rachel Zoe Project” would ever go beyond the surface? I’m hoping both of these show surprise us with some, well, reality. It can only be to their advantage.

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