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 proud of its masculine heritage, where in some corners a proper lady is still expected to marry a strapping oil man, raise a few adorable kids, and go shopping at Neiman Marcus, Texas women must struggle to blaze their own path.
Similarly, Most Eligible Dallas is little more than a brainless celebration of moneyed, gym-toned elites. But periodically an unguarded moment shatters the sparkling surface: We witness, for instance, the casual racism of self-proclaimed “quintessential Dallas girl” Tara Harper, who mocks the name of her rescue dog, Shaniqua, and then smiles as her Latina housekeeper cooks food for the pet. Or we hear the self-hating ramblings of Drew Ginsburg, a once obese gay man whose family owns several car dealerships and who seems uncomfortable with his sexuality. (“You want to talk Armani, you want to talk Versace, you want to talk the arts, go find another queer,” he sputters in the first episode.) Whether Texas viewers acknowledge it or not, these are accurate reflections of attitudes and personalities that exist in modern Dallas—and the show doesn’t flinch in exposing them.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not arguing that these shows are particularly original or socially significant (indeed, Big Rich Texas is so grossly contrived, and so cluttered with braying characters, that it quickly turns unwatchable). But I’m hesitant to write off anything that reckons with the question of how a state whose sense of self was formed by the likes of Giant and Dallas attempts to put forth a “real” image to the world. And I’m fascinated by the notion of a generation so accustomed to reality TV that it doesn’t distinguish between life on-camera and life in private. On the day I visited The A-List set, I interviewed the cast members. A few said they hoped the show would bring them exposure for their business endeavors or lead to modeling and acting gigs. Others said they simply thought it’d be fun. At least one, James Doyle—a handsome, husky Oklahoma native who had just suffered the postmodern indignity of having a camera crew follow him on a first date—seemed slightly regretful about participating. The longer I spoke with each person, the more the contradictions multiplied. Everything about cast member Phillip Willis, right down to his bow-tie broach, struck me as rehearsed—as if he were avidly playing the role of “sassy black man” from the South. But when I talked to Doyle, he spoke achingly about his struggles with coming out to his family. More than once, he wiped away tears.
Is this all real or fake? Has media innovation made it so that our definitions of real and fake need to be readjusted altogether? Why are so many Texans suddenly so willing to play the stooge for East and West Coast producers who don’t think twice about portraying them as twits, bigots, or worse? On all counts, your guess is as good as mine. But what I do know is this: Near the end of the party, Ashley confronted Levi once again. When Levi emerged from the argument, his face and shirt were dripping wet. I didn’t actually witness Ashley throwing the drink in his face, but rest assured the cameras captured it all.
Who Shot J.R. Again? More screen time for Dallas
In addition to seeing itself on five new reality shows, the city of Dallas is also on the verge of a fictional makeover, courtesy of a reboot of the legendary soap opera Dallas. This is not the feature film remake that was buzzed about in the mid-2000’s with John Travolta as J.R.; that project disappeared into development hell. Instead, it’s a TV drama that focuses on a new generation of Ewings, with Jesse Metcalfe and Josh Henderson playing the sons of Bobby and J.R., respectively. TNT shot a pilot in North Texas in the spring and picked up the show for a full-season run; it’s set to premiere in summer 2012. Whether the producers can make the big-hair, big-oil story lines resonate in a recessionary era remains to be seen. For now, though, Dallas diehards can at least breathe this sigh of relief: Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, and other original cast members are expected to turn up in cameo roles.