You Call This Acting? Maybe

Curator's Note

The 20th century was a significant period for acting. From Stanislavski to Strasberg, actors were encouraged not to be like someone else, but become someone else. Who would have guessed that 21st century TV audiences would come to accept stilted, emotionless performances as, not merely acting, but “reality” itself? As evidenced in this clip from HGTV’s House Hunters, “real” people on “reality” shows regularly try to convince us that ostensibly life-changing conversations are genuine. In fact, the reality behind this segment (“Permanent Home, Vacation Vibe”) – as in all House Hunters episodes – is that Kim and Scott had already bought a house before being contacted by producers. Once “cast,” they are shown two additional houses, leaving the viewer to guess which house the couple will “choose.” To that end, Kim and Scott must make the charade appear real. This clip reveals several production devices employed to accomplish that goal:

• Shots of the couple doing something routine, like dog-walking. The camera can follow for however long it takes them to seem natural, later dubbing in “spontaneous” dialogue

• Minimal 2-shots. Mostly we are shown the couple in single, profile shots. Thus, when they are pretending to consider decoy houses, they don’t have to look each other in the eye, which is hard for many people to do when lying (what we call acting in real life)

• Minimal eye contact even in 2 shots, e.g. when Scott says he’s “not a big fan of the tile” in the house he has already purchased. In the beat in which Kim and Scott make the ultimate decision, they barely share a glance. Once the decision is supposedly made, they look at each other as people who are actually acquainted (let alone married)

• Drinking. By giving our couple wine and beer, they can focus on object and action…or actually drink, which tends to make lying easier (or so I’ve heard)

• Truth. In the epilogue, discussing the house they now live in (no lying required), Scott looks happy and relaxed. Kim still seems a bit uncomfortable, but decidedly more sincere. In the final analysis, two things are clear: 1) reality producers use a variety of techniques to help non-actors pretend they are truly experiencing a fabricated scenario; 2) 21st Century audiences don’t need or expect any semblance of realism to believe they are watching something real. Somewhere Stanislavski and Strasberg are turning over in their graves.


RIchard, I love that you have highlighted the relationship between acting and reality tv. I haven't been able to watch my house hunting shows with my usual suspension of disbelief. I also like that you have analyzed the body language of the people to illustrate how uncomfortable with the scenario and how the scene is shot in such a way so as to best allow the people to lie about it. Overall, it makes me wonder how we can expect people to 'act' on the occasions when a camera is placed in front of them, and how we can apply this schema to reality tv more generally. Regardless, Stanislavski and Strasberg are definitely turning in their graves!!

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