The party took place in a large house in a well-to-do neighborhood in North Dallas, on one of the few days in August when temperatures did not soar past 100 degrees. The living room had been cleared of furniture, the better to allow the cameramen space to maneuver. Everyone present—the show’s producers, the “extras” who had been invited to the soirée—was anticipating drama: The A-List: Dallas, a reality series set to premiere on MTV Networks’ Logo channel this month, had been filming at locations throughout the Metroplex since June, and conflicts among the participants were said to have reached a boiling point. (The show’s inspiration is the popular New York–set The A-List, now in its second season.) Ostensibly, the party was for Levi Crocker, a swaggering 25-year-old cast member who wears a cowboy hat and was launching a line of swimwear. But of course, in the circus sideshow of reality TV, a party is usually just a good excuse to throw a punch—or at least a drink in someone’s face.
I had been invited by the show’s publicist to watch the filming, and I stood near the bar in the backyard, observing the action—or, for a long stretch, the lack thereof. A deejay spun music. Levi entertained guests poolside as a four-person camera crew hovered nearby. Soon enough, however, all eyes had turned to cast member Ashley Kelly, her eyes fiery, her tiny frame tensed. She was suddenly confronting Levi and giving him an earful about … something. The crew swarmed around them, preventing any party guests from wandering into the shot or hearing too much. A producer quickly gestured to a third cast member and urged him to enter the dispute, presumably to play mediator. When Ashley stormed off, her blond curls flouncing in indignation, one group of cameramen scurried after her while another stayed behind to chronicle Levi’s easy-does-it, Matthew-McConaughey-in-training reaction. Drama delivered.
What a strange season it’s been for North Texas, which all at once has seen a sometimes distorting, sometimes disarmingly honest mirror placed before it by reality TV. The A-List: Dallas, which follows five gay men and a female friend as they navigate life in the city, is actually one of five nonfiction shows that recently set up camp in the area. In mid-July, CMT launched Texas Women, about four Fort Worth residents who are “country” by day, glam by night. Days later came Big Rich Texas, on the Style Network, a semi-sequel to 2009’s Dallas Divas & Daughters, featuring five catty country clubbers and their obnoxious progeny. Bravo’s Most Eligible Dallas, about six vapid young adults and their misadventures in dating, launched in mid-August, as did HGTV’s Donna Decorates Dallas, about a designer who “blings out” already lavish homes. The obvious slams against these shows are ones you’ve heard since The Real World premiered in the nineties: cast members “perform” for the cameras; producers encourage conflict and shape narrative arcs in the editing room. There’s nothing remotely “real” about them.
But if you are willing to give this latest crop of Texas-based programming a chance, you may also discover some unexpected glimmers of truth. At once artificial and genuinely earnest, preoccupied with stereotypes yet mocking of them, the shows portray a state puzzling over its modern identity. Consider Texas Women, the most enjoyable of the series. We do not for a moment believe that “party girl” Hannah would ditch her assignment of buying decorations for a party and spend the afternoon at a tanning salon instead. We do not believe that her roommate, stock contractor Anna (she raises bulls for rodeo competition), would actually go hunting for the party food—and then, at a distance of 350 yards, successfully shoot and kill a pig. But the contrivances are nevertheless appealingly goofy, and lurking beneath the froth is something resembling an actual theme: in a state so