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Best Worst Show or Worst Best Show?
on February 5, 2014
Reality shows are scripted. This is the "reality" of reality shows. That they have writers. That things are often not spontaneous. I used to work in television, so it's really easy for me to spot the scripted things here. Like how Jill was clearly assigned the role of the instigator and Melissa is more than game to play up the whole "doormat" thing for a storyline. But what cannot be faked is genuine emotion, which this show has a lot of. But how do you get real emotion out of a scripted mess?
The problem with playing yourself on TV is that eventually, even if you know most of the stuff is made up, you will become what you're pretending to be. You can play the game for a season or two, but it happens every time. Mostly because the public (and your producers) will pretty much demand this (or you will get fired for being boring). Even scripted moments of "fake" insults will eventually cut too close, go too far in the pursuit of drama and make the hurt and rage real. Because reality stars are not "actors" even though they are required to "act" in a role where they are playing themselves. So when the line is so blurred between "real" you and "TV" you, it's only natural that after a while you stop "playing" at being a jerk and you actually become one.
The "real" from this show comes from a place of pent up, historical rage between a bunch of noodle-nosed stage moms living through their kids (both for real and for pretend) and a megalomaniac dance teacher who has found the fame and wealth she always desired in a reality TV. I've watched every season, every episode and it's been fascinating to see Abby go from a strict, kind of ridiculous, but ultimately well-meaning dance teacher to complete psycho for the sake of the cameras. It was riveting to watch that moment around season two when she began to forget and lose focus of who the "real" Abby Lee is, versus the massive control-freak, borderline abusive Abby Lee who is an employee of Lifetime Television. Season two's "Abbygeddom" and the episode where rival dance teacher Cathy hits her with her purse are the two key moments when Abby's real and fake world's collapse in on themselves and she actually ceases to be able to function out of a mixture of rage and shame. You can see her in those moments actually questioning who and what she's become here. But rather than dealing with it in any kind of honest way, she retreats and double-downs on the well-crafted lie the producers created for her.
This was most evident in her relationship with "rival" dance teacher Cathy, as things went from a goofy, made up competition where they were still friendly in real life, to both of them finally, legitimately hating each other because the play fighting went to far. Abby's "accidental" water tossing that caused Cathy to "escalate" to hitting Abby with her purse, is the moment when it "got too real" for Abby. Abby, for all her bully bluster, is actually not tough. She wants to be liked. She wants friends. She wants respect. This is why instead of escalating with Cathy, Abby had a meltdown and called her geriatric mother sobbing and hyper-ventilating. "TV Abby Lee" should have retaliated in kind or made more drama. But the "real" Abby Lee showed up and just wanted it all to go away. Even though Abby knew what Cathy was doing and saying was for the sake of the cameras and a check, at some point the insults and slights became real and IT WASN'T FUNNY ANYMORE.
And you can also say this of the moms, who Abby was shoehorned into dealing with because the network signed them first -- obviously based on how game they were to play up the whole weirdo stage mom thing. I don't know if any of these women (save Holly) were ever normal, but in the course of the first two seasons two-thirds of them turned into legitimate nutjobs. By season four, everyone (except Holly) is drunk off their own fame and ego and are raging mad about things that actually doesn't make much sense to the viewer because Lifetime carefully edits out the references to the fact they all got famous on this TV show. The moms and Abby can't say, "The rage got real when I forgot that the pyramid was just for the show and Abby called my kid a sneak on national television when she was still in the room, so I lost it because that's against the rules. Chloe's not supposed to hear your cruelest insults." They can't say, well, in season one I was pretending to be mad and was cool with all of this and even my kid was cool with it, until the day we weren't and by then we were all stuck in a contract, forced to deal with one another. *cough, cough* Kelly.
The best examples of this destructive, reductive situation is the saga of Kelly, Christie and Abby. Of how Christie and Abby (obviously) never liked each other and are just in this for the show and that of Kelly, who used to dance for Abby and has known her since they were kids. All their fighting is never really about what's actually happening on the show, but about stuff that might have happened a decade ago in the case of Kelly or five years ago in the case of Christie. They always seem a little too mad, too quick to anger, too brutal in their put downs for this to be all for show after a certain point. At some point in season three it all went too far and I honestly believe Kelly did legitimately try to leave -- she always seemed on the verge of a complete mental breakdown with the hyperventilating and Abby's digs about her being an alcoholic -- but that Lifetime contract and not wanting her kids to miss out on potential paydays down the road kept her in it. (Of course now that she's physically assaulted Abby off-camera in real life, that should give some indication that things got "too" real between them to a point of no return a long time ago.)
So that psychological game, of looking for the nuggets of real in what's largely a piece of screaming, comedic fiction is what has kept me invested in the show. Plus I really like all the girls who dance on "Dance Moms." Maddy, who reminds me the most of myself, drives me bonkers because I just want to shake her like I wish I could have shook myself back then and scream "OMG! STOP TAKING EVERYTHING SO SERIOUSLY!" Chloe, who seriously should not be on this show and should be studying ballet, and Nia, who I feel gets treated like the dang "diversity hire" despite having the most raw potential, are my actual favorites. Maddy, again, reminds me of how I felt about piano and art as a kid. I loved it ... until the day I didn't because I was burnt out at 12. I'm not saying she's going to walk away from this before she turns 13, but let's just say, I wouldn't be shocked.
The kids, while in on some of it, are clearly not in on everything and much of their filmed reactions are real. This is the real reason why I felt Christie was screaming and crying "What are we doing to our kids!" early on in season four. I refuse to believe that was about Abby and was more about what the mothers have chose to subject their children to for the sake of drama on a reality show.
As for what is obviously fake with the kids is the in-studio interview stuff and quite a bit of obvious editing on the routines, competition performances and award ceremonies. The only kid I ever "believe" isn't reading from a script is Chloe and that's more of a testament to the fact I think Chloe's by far the best at a natural line reading. Maddy and Mackenzie always give the most canned "enthusiasm" to their readings, but I never believe they aren't reciting lines.
Personally, I feel that in the case of the children this show is a form of child abuse. I realize that I'm part of that abuse for watching, but I squarely blame the parents, producers and Abby Miller for not doing a better job of limiting their exposure to stupidity. Like, I think the kids know much of it is for show, but they're still kids and kids aren't as able to tell the difference between a fake fight and a real one once the crap hits the fan. When the parents lose control, typically, they try to remove the kids from the situation, but there's been plenty of unnecessary "kids being exposed to TERRIBLE BEHAVIOR" to go around. Like, I thought it was messed up when Maddy and Mackenzie (and also Paige and Chloe) have had to endure over-hearing the other moms or Abby trash their parents. Even if your mom tells you her friends are only crapping on her for the sake of the show, as a little kid, you don't really let that go. For show or not, someone talks about my mom, I'm not going to get over it.
So, again, cue Christi sobbing "What are we doing to our children?" Yeah, it'll be interesting to see how these very cute, smart, talented sweet children turn out when their moms and dads have leveraged these things about you for the sake of exposure and fame. I'm hoping that in 10 years they'll all be well-adjusted college students. I'm hoping the moms aren't wasting the money they're getting paid to do the show. (The kids can't be paid, otherwise they'd be ineligible of competing in dance competitions, the heart of the show. That's why all the ringers they bring in, like Sophia and Asia, keep leaving. Ultimately, they can make more money as professionals and don't really "need" the show, other than for some brief advertising.)
So, all that said. I'm enjoying this season, even though it appears Abby has finally gone off the deep end and bought her own hype. I'm ready to see where this all is going to go. Hopefully it doesn't end with Kelly poisoning the woman's food over Brooke being at the bottom of the pyramid again.