Or at least reality TV shows do, according to Melissa Jo Peltier, author of Reality Boulevard, a scathingly satiric novel about Hollywood, nonscripted television (including shows such as Dancing on Death Row and Young Cons) and the deleterious effect it’s having on an impressionable viewing public. Kirkus Reviews, in a starred review, called the book a “dead-on satire—with a heart—of the reality TV scene from a knowledgeable, witty insider.”
A documentary TV producer and 20-year veteran of the Hollywood scene, Peltier seems like the perfect person to have written this entertaining, slice-and-dice critique. “I started the book as something else, a sort of screenplay that I wanted to be Broadcast News for nonfiction TV,” she says, referring to the Oscar-nominated 1987 film. “That was the early ’90s and I wrote it in screenplay form. But I stopped because I really didn’t have anything to say at the time.” After she moved back to New York, her 11-year-old stepdaughter told her that she thought the MTV reality show The Hills was real. When Peltier saw “the really bad effects of reality TV behavior being reflected on her and her friends, suddenly I felt like I had something to say….I had been around long enough and seen the change from the time when people were actually debating whether it was ethical to do re-enactments.”
The novel is filled with examples of how reality shows are manipulated by “soft-scripting” and “Frankenbiting”—manufacturing drama on the set or in the editing room, respectively. “In reality TV, you have to have conflict, and the conflict has to constantly escalate, every show, every season,” Peltier explains. “Docu-shows, like [Keeping Up with] the Kardashians or The Hills, those are manufactured, because no one’s life is ever that interesting. And when they cast these shows, they say they’re looking for larger-than-life personalities. Well, basically, they’re looking for exhibitionists and narcissists.”
Peltier says that the most gratifying aspect of writing her first novel was that the characters really surprised her—particularly Garret Shaw, a playwright-turned–reluctant TV writer. “I had a different ending in mind for him. But he turned around and did what a person in his situation would do. Other novelists write about how great that feeling is when your character is just so alive and decides what he wants to do….[E]ven the ones inspired by people I knew, like reality show producer Marty Maltzman, definitely did take on [lives] of their own, far apart from the reality.”
Readers may wonder if the character of Hunter Marlow, the idealistic reality show field director trying to get back to her documentary roots, is a stand-in for the author herself. “Well, I’d have to say that as far as the journey of the novel goes, she really isn’t me,” Peltier says. “She became her own person and then some. If there is a ‘me’ in the novel, it’s in the sum of the dilemmas that all the characters in the novel face and in the combination of compromises they all have to make. The novel isn’t Hunter’s story or Marty’s story. It’s everybody's story.”
Peltier’s next novel will be a romantic thriller about marriage and trust. In the meantime, Reality Boulevard is a book in the tradition of great Hollywood novels, from Carroll and Garrett Graham’s Queer People (1930) to Michael Tolkin’s The Player (1988), and reads like Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Network screenplay retooled for the 21st century. With any luck, there will be a movie or TV version of Peltier’s book to bite the hand of an industry that feeds so many but rewards only a fortunate few.