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TV or reality? Lines blur after death of show star

Apr. 03, 2013 @ 11:35 PM

Shain Gandee died doing precisely what made him the star of MTV's "BUCKWILD" reality show: tearing through mudholes in his truck, taking chances most others wouldn't, living free and reckless.

MTV says its production crews were not with Gandee when he, his uncle and a friend left a bar at 3 a.m. to go "muddin'." But the line between television and real life blurred in one fatal moment when Gandee's vehicle got stuck in a deep mudpit. He and two passengers were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Did Gandee's on-camera life, and the rewards it brought him, make him more reckless when the camera lights were off?

And how does the audience fit into this picture, the 3 million weekly viewers who made "BUCKWILD" a hit, plus the many millions more who have made shows from "Jersey Shore" to "Dancing With the Stars" to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" a living, breathing part of our culture? How has reality TV shaped perceptions of real life -- and of our own lives?

Everywhere you look these days, the lines blur.

Evan Ross Katz is a fan of "BUCKWILD," which followed a group of self-described rednecks' "wild and crazy behavior" in rural West Virginia. Katz watches about a dozen reality shows for his work as a freelance pop culture commentator, and he says Gandee felt more real than other stars.

"I want to believe that was him in real life," Katz, 23, says. "Sometimes you just get this impression. I really do believe you can tell when people are being genuine or not on these shows."

"I found him to be strangely genuine, by far the most genuine of the group. ... I don't think he showed any sort of agenda to prove he lived this different life. I just think he organically did."

Katz knows that reality television is carefully shaped by producers looking for storylines and conflicts. He watches ironically, sometimes condescendingly, and takes it all in with a grain of salt.

Yet still he is drawn to the personalities and the dramas, especially the combative women on "The Real Housewives" series.

"Housewives" fights may affect the way he deals with drama in his own life: "When someone takes a small situation over the top, it's the worst. You feel like you're on one of these shows. But if two of my friends get into a huge fight in front of me, I let it go for a little while before I jump in."

"Is that a byproduct of reality television? Probably," Katz said.

Then there is another byproduct of reality-TV culture: the compulsion, enabled by social media, to broadcast everything about yourself.

"People misbehaving is nothing new," says Tyler Barnett, owner of a public relations company in Beverly Hills and a former cast member on several reality shows. "What's new is the ability to misbehave to a global audience almost instantly."

The vast majority of viewers would never fill a dump truck with water, let alone leap into it from a rooftop, as Gandee and his friends did. And it's too simplistic to blame reality TV for the failings of modern society.

"It's important not to dismiss what happened (to Gandee) by pointing fingers at a genre of television that's a giant tent with many different kinds of shows and productions and varying degrees of ethical behavior," says Andy Denhart, editor of RealityBlurred.com.

"What's important is to continue a conversation about what entertains us, and what are the consequences of our entertainment," he says. "What are the consequences of fame, and what are we learning watching other people's lives?"

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