First of all, television is always staged. Everyone knows that sitcoms, dramas and variety shows have scripts and use actors. Some programs include improvisational material, but they are no less staged. Many reality shows are like professional wrestling -- the stars are not professional actors. Producers of these shows are in cahoots with the subjects, who are rewarded for good performances with publicity and money. There is a wink to the audience, most of whom know that it's all a setup, but are never sure where the boundary is between real and fake.
"I am going to really hurt somebody."
News programs and documentaries are pitched as being real, but elements of them are no less phony. A colleague recently told me of his experience as a student activist at MIT during the Vietnam-era. He was with a group of students who were asking people to sign petitions in a Congressional district in Boston.
After canvassing a low-income African American part of the city, they returned to their headquarters where a CBS Evening News crew was waiting for someone to interview. They invited the students to go back in the field, but the newsmen took them to a different (whiter and wealthier) neighborhood. They knocked on the door of a big house, and the woman who answered said she was completely on their side, but that they were in the wrong district. Then she saw the cameras and microphones, and decided to go along with it, pretending to be signing the petition that would go to her Representative. CBS got the footage they needed to appeal to their demographic, the woman and the activists got their political message out. Everybody was happy. But it was fake.
That's the way it worked in the 1960s, and that's the way it works now. Even scientific documentaries are not above coaching subjects and contriving scenes. One of the first times I participated in such a production, I was surprised to see the director carrying a script. She already knew what she wanted us to say. During one of the first scenes we filmed, the dialogue went something like this:
Director: Tell us about the enormity of the explosion.
Me: There was a really big explosion here.
Director: Okay, but tell us how enormous it was.
Me: There was a really huge explosion here.
Director: That's better, but try to emphasize how enormous it was.
Me: There was a really enormous explosion here.
I would never say something on a documentary that wasn't scientifically accurate to the best of my knowledge. But I have learned how to use the words the interviewers prefer, and to recognize when they telegraph how they want me to say things so we don't have to do multiple takes.
Back to Kitchen Nightmares: Amy's Baking Company. It's performance art. There were three or four cameras running for some scenes (look at the camera angles). There were fixed cameras, cameras on booms, handheld cameras and special lighting. At least five of the subjects/actors were wired for sound. That takes a huge crew. Those kinds of scenes require choreography to keep technicians, other cameras and equipment from appearing onscreen. They also require multiple re-takes.
The editing makes it all appear seamless, but you don't have to look very hard for clues that it's rigged. For example, when Gordon shows up and can't open the door, he appears to be surprised and angry that it was locked. The scene was filmed from both outside and inside the restaurant. How did the camera crew get inside? Why didn't Gordon just ask them to let him in?
Katy and Miranda, the servers, are both pretty and poised. They have great lines, great smiles, and great delivery. Why would the likes of them be working for a notoriously bad employer? Would a production company be willing and able to get their own actors or shills hired by a high-turnover business? Just asking.
The staging is inspired. My favorite scene comes at the beginning and appears to foreshadow what might follow. Standing next to a rack of very sharp knives, Amy declares, "I am going to really hurt somebody." After that, it's hard not to worry about a slasher scene every time she wigs out.
There is tension whenever Amy approaches the knife rack. But the coming and going of knives give more evidence for multiple takes and heavy editing without regard for continuity. How do knives disappear and reappear within a few seconds without being used?
Amy's Palinesque personality and diction are perfect for the part, and it's fun to imagine how the filming might have gone:
Director: Tell us what you think of Katy.
Amy: She's a terrible employee.
Director: Okay but tell us about how poisonous she is.
Amy: She's poisonous.
Director: One more take. Is she like a viper?
Why would Amy be willing to go along with this? Different people have different motivations for wanting to be on TV. Even in science documentaries, there are examples of individuals who allegedly will break the rules in exchange for such a gig. According to one blogger, the researcher who prepared samples for the climactic (and staged) scene of NOVA's "Megabeasts Sudden Death" would appear to be "...a liar salting his samples at his own expense to get on TV." (full disclosure: I also appeared in that program, as a skeptic).
As a result of Kitchen Nightmares, Amy's Baking Company has hired a new kitchen staff and today's grand re-opening was sold out in advance. Amy has discovered the reality-show niche pioneered by professional wrestling villains. All she has to do now is show up every night and play a witch. The customers will love it -- as long as she stays out of the kitchen, the food is good and the service isn't too slow.