"Shain Gandee, ‘Buckwild,’ And Death On Reality Television"
After Shain Gandee, one of the people who appeared on MTV reality show Buckwild, died of carbon monoxide poisoning along with his uncle and a friend after leaving a bar at three in the morning and getting their car stuck in a mud pit that appeared to have blocked the tail pipe, MTV has made the decision to cancel the show rather than continue it with a replacement for Gandee. Per the Associated Press:
MTV said Wednesday it is canceling its West Virginia-based reality TV show “BUCKWILD” a week after the accidental death of 21-year-old star Shain Gandee. Network spokesman Jake Urbanski confirmed the news, saying it was “not an easy decision.” “But given Shain’s tragic passing and essential presence on the show, we felt it was not appropriate to continue without him,” the network said. “Instead, we are working on a meaningful way to pay tribute to his memory on our air and privately.”
This comes after Koh Lanta, a French reality competition show, cancelled its upcoming season after a participant died of a heart attack while filming in Cambodia. A doctor working on the show later committed suicide.
To a certain extent, these cancellations represent progress. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills marched on even after Russell Armstrong, the husband of one of the core castmembers, committed suicide, an act reportedly motivated in part by his distress at the way he was portrayed on the show. The season of Tropika Island of Treasure that featured Oscar Pistorius’ late girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp went on air two days after he killed her. There’s something ghostly about the decision to air footage of someone who’s dead in a way that it isn’t upsetting to watch a fictional film with a performer who has died: reality television is life on a time delay, a pretense that the person who is dead is still out there, somewhere, competing in challenges on a tropical island, fighting with their wife, partying in Appalachia.
And the conundrum of whether or not to air footage of someone who has died, whether their death is related to things they did for the show, gets at one of the major problems of reality television. It’s a format that provides disincentives to taking care of castmembers. It’s one thing to prop up the mental health of an actor or actress who is struggling with the demands of portraying someone who is not at all like them. It’s another to manage the mental health of someone who is offering up their life, and more specifically, the parts of their life that are also risk factors, for consumption. If what you’ve decided you need for a show to be good is fights between friends, arguments—or even allegations of abuse—between spouses, high levels of alcohol or even drug consumption, and overconsumption, how do you manage those behaviors so they produce marketable amounts of drama without causing the people engaging in them harm? To what extent is marketable drama dependent on viewers being convinced that there is a real risk of harm to the people who are acting as characters on these shows?
I’ve written before that the diminishing rewards of reality television reflect the diminished opportunities in the American economy. But when death comes to reality television, it’s a reminder that not only is the money a step down for participants on competition and slice-of-life reality shows in comparison to their scripted peers, but the care of their persons are as well. Vulnerability is a very dangerous commodity to ask people to offer up for sale, no matter the remunerative possibilities.