“Reality Show” brings Adam Rifkin’s dark, satirical vision to Showtime

Reality Show may be completely fictional, but Adam Rifkin would wager that it contains more truth than an actual, um, reality show.

Adam Rifkin's latest project, "Reality Show," airs on ShowtimeThe writer/producer/director/star (no word on whether he did the catering as well) of the eight-part Showtime series — which begins airing tonight at 11:30 — says his goal was to make a “dark comedy” satirizing a genre that most of us like to ridicule but still can’t seem to tear ourselves away from. Well, “dark” is one way of putting it. You could also use words like “charred,” “blackened” or even downright “opaque” to describe the story of a desperate reality TV producer, Mickey Wagner (Rifkin), whose lastest idea involves filming a stereotypical American family without their knowledge. In addition to scoring him a major comeback, Mickey believes that this will, at long last, bring true reality to reality TV. Yet when the Warwick family proves to be a crashing bore, Mickey resorts to adding the drama to their lives himself. Pepper in hints of adultery, seasoned with making somebody look bad at work, and keep going further and further until you have what Rifkin calls a “very nihilistic” look at modern-day entertainment.

Rifkin — who also has directed films such as The Chase, Detroit Rock City, and written the screenplay for Mouse Hunt — talked with me about what inspired him to make Reality Show, why it was important to cast unknowns, and whether he thinks the show could continue:

Channel Guide Magazine: You explored the idea of surveillance in Look, so did Reality Show stem from that idea as well? 

Adam Rifkin: It did. I felt that after Look the movie and Look the series that I had potentially played out surveillance, or the stuff that I wanted to say about it. I just pretty much figured that was that, and then I started to think, “Well, you know, it was pretty fun doing Look, and maybe there are other angles to surveillance that I hadn’t thought about exploring.” And then it just kind of hit me that I hadn’t ever explored somebody intentionally being put under surveillance. I had dealt more with the Big Brother angle of all the security cameras around or even the Little Brother angle of all the cellphones in people’s pockets, and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and stuff like that. I thought it might be kind of fun to explore the idea of someone being put under surveillance without their knowledge. How far could that go? And then I thought to myself, “Well, if I did decide to go there, what would be the framework? Why would this person be under all-encompassing surveillance? Is it a private detective following them? Well, we’ve seen that before. Is the government following them? Eh, that could be fun, but we’ve seen that before. You know what could be fun? A reality show. What if a reality show producer was putting somebody under surveillance for the sake of a television show and the person had no idea they were the subject of the show, and they didn’t know that they were under surveilliance? They didn’t realize that everywhere they went they were being followed and watched with multiple cameras.” So that’s where the idea came from, I just thought it could be kind of cool.

CGM: This is on really late night, and this is Showtime, so is it fair to say this is going to have some pretty extreme content?

AR: It’s very rough stuff, it’s very R-rated. There’s obviously sex in it, there’s a lot of violence in it. It gets real nihilistic. I mean, it gets very, very dark.

CGM: When you’re shooting this surveillance style, is it harder to shoot the extreme stuff like the sex and violence than if you’re shooting conventionally?

AR: No, it’s always pretty much the same. Shooting sex scenes is awkward no matter how you shoot them. Shooting violence, you’ve got to be careful not to look too stagey, and you’ve got to be careful to make it look impactful, but you don’t want to hurt anybody in the process. You want it to just look like it’s violent, you don’t want it to actually be violent. It employs the same tricks. Where it really is different is in the dramatic scenes, because when you shoot conventionally, the actors usually have cameras right in their face. You do a take, and then the cameras move somewhere else and you do another take. And so on. In this instance, we have all the cameras pointing at the actors all the time. We have no camera tricks, because it’s all wide angles or surveillance angles from far away. So the actors in a way are unencumbered by a crew and a camera right in their face. They’re in a room acting and they don’t necessarily even see where the cameras are. There’s a camera looking in through the window, or there’s a hidden camera in the flower pot. So to them it’s almost like a little play as opposed to a movie or a TV show. The key is performance and the staging so that it doesn’t look stagey, so it looks real and the performances feel real, because when you’re shooting conventionally you can fake a lot of that stuff by cutting to different angles and cutting to the close-up, and if you want someone to be impactful you can do a slow push in on their face. In this instance, it’s different. It’s really all about performance.

CGM: Speaking of performances, what went into your decision to act in this yourself?

AR: I don’t consider myself an actor. I don’t pursue acting, even though I’ve done it before. I always put myself at the bottom of my own list in terms of who I think would be right for the role. But I did kind of think it would be fun. My ability as an actor is pretty limited, but I can sort of play versions of myself pretty well. I thought this would be a fun way to explore the dark side of myself. I’d be able to go all out and be a complete evil sociopath in the name of trying to make good entertainment.

CGM: As for the rest of the cast, how important was it to you to get unknowns?

AR: That was definitely the idea. I felt it was essential that we have people you didn’t really recognize so it would feel as real as possible. We really scoured to find the best people that people wouldn’t recognize. The one exception to that was Kelley Hensley, who plays the mom, she plays Katherine Warwick. She had been on a soap opera [As the World Turns] for years and years, and I was worried that she might be recognizable. Also, I said to her in the audition, “You’re the best actress who has come in for this role, but I have two big concerns. 1) You have a fan base that will recognize you, and 2) You just look too good. You’re too sexy, you’re too pretty, you’re too self-empowered, you’re too aware of your sexuality. This character is a frumpy, repressed woman who is absolutely not empowered and not aware of her sexuality.” She said, “Please, I’m an actress. I will immerse myself in the role and you won’t even recognize me,” and she absolutely did that.

CGM: Obviously you’re going for satire here, but overall, do you view this in terms of a drama or comedy?

AR: I would say it’s a very dark comedy. There’s a lot of fun in the series lampooning reality television. My character is a reality show producer who had had a lot of successes in the past, so we see clips from a lot of my own shows. Recreating old reality shows was a lot of fun. Stuff with the family gets very, very dramatic, but even at its most dramatic, it still has an element of gallows humor to it.

CGM: After Look and now this, do you think this is all you have to say about reality TV and surveillance?

AR: Every idea that I think is the end all, be all suddenly spawns another idea that goes even farther, so this show takes things really to the edge, but even in finishing it I have ideas for taking things farther, so I’d welcome doing it some more. [Reality Show] was created as a miniseries of sorts, with a distinct beginning, middle and end over the course of the season. That said, while you’re shooting this stuff, you can’t help but have more and more ideas. “Well, we could take it this direction, we could take it that direction.” So if it is successful, it might be fun to explore again. It might be fun to take it to the next level. I’m open to that, for sure.

CGM: One could get the idea that you aren’t such a fan of reality TV. How do you feel about it?

AR: Well, the thing about reality television that everybody knows — and if they don’t, they should — is it’s all fake. Everything you see on a reality show is staged and manipulated, either while shooting it or in the editing room. Nothing that you see is real. It is like professional wrestling. I’d be a hypocrite if I told you I’m absolutely against reality television and I would never watch that trash, because everybody’s watched it and everybody likes a good train wreck. Even though you know it’s staged, you still find yourself saying, “How could she say that?” You know what I mean? Or you still find your jaw dropping at the antics of the Honey Boo Boo family or whatever. Yeah, I mean, it’s silly. You can’t take it too seriously, otherwise you’ll want to gouge your own eyes out.