Essay: The “Harry Met Sally” Principle in Reality TV

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Reality television shows are often widely diverse yet vastly similar. While they do showcase many different lifestyles, they all seem to focus on the same things: money, fame, success, and most importantly, boy-girl relationship drama. It almost seems as if it is an unspoken rule that when a reality show features girls and boys, that show’s plot is immediately centered on the ever-changing relationship status of its cast. Several reality series like The Bad Girls Club and The Real Housewives have attempted to avoid this by only featuring women, to varying degrees of success. One show, however, was able to fend off a relationship-based plot for 19 seasons. America’s Next Top Model had always preferred to flaunt the high stakes drama of the cutthroat model industry, however, in its most current cycle, producer Tyra Banks made the decision to revamp the competition by including male models. Although the show has the same rules and the same fashionable foundation, the battle of the sexes plays a leading part in each episode’s plot, as per the rule. Several relationships are obvious from day one, as it is with Chris and Nina; two strong models whose mutual friendship gains an air of romance during the seventh episode, titled “The Girl Who is Scared of Clowns.” Of course, this “romance” is highly edited, meaning the audience can never be certain if what they are seeing is how things actually happened, or if the show’s manufactured elements came together to narrate a false principle. Either way, by blending flashbacks, strategic music, and character commentary to portray rising conflict in Chris and Nina’s relationship, the seventh episode of America’s Next Top Model 2.0 affirms the adage that boys and girls cannot remain “just friends,” rather, they must either come to hate each other or fall in love.

In Chris and Nina’s opening scene, the producers use flashbacks that deliberately showcase earlier instances in which their friendship carried romantic connotations to allude to the possibility of their closeness turning into love. These flashbacks set the stage for this episode by revealing to the audience that Chris and Nina’s relationship, which was previously based on care and respect, may have changed after the events of last week’s episode.  The scene begins with a shot of the two of them alone on Nina’s bed, discussing their great teamwork in the previous challenge. The setting is intimate and honest: the audience can see both of their faces and they appear content as they discuss an instance of mutual triumph. However, as Nina describes the reasons why she chose Chris to be her partner for the challenge, the subsequent flashback does not showcase their great teamwork, but instead flashes a brief moment of them passionately “locking lips.” Since flashbacks are often interjected to reveal something important that happened in the past, the audience is called to see their kiss as more than a simple kiss. The kiss has now become a pivotal part of the plot and therefore must be revisited in order to disclose a deeper meaning. What this flashback doesn’t show is that they were required to kiss for the challenge, or the playful humor with which they went about it. The moment seems sultry and charged, as if they might be more interested in each other then they yet realize. This flashback is used as evidence of a perceived desire that may not even exist because the audience is supposed to deduce that Nina and Chris are romantically inclined. After the heated flashback, Nina reveals that Chris “means so much to [her]” and has “always been by [her] side,” which is directly followed by him telling her that he understands the way she feels and that he has “genuine love” for her. In any other scenario, this would have been seen as a testament to the strength of their friendship, but because of the amorous undertones insinuated by the flashback, those lines are viewed through the shroud of a budding romance and further the belief that they are moving out of mere friendship and into love. Even Chris’s mention of “the next time [they] are a team” becomes romanticized. Since planning to team up in advance of a challenge can be seen like the game show equivalent of setting up a date, the motive behind what may have just been strategic planning as allies now appears to be their desire to spend time together as a couple. Clearly, this demonstrates the immense sway that one strategically placed flashback can have on the audience’s perception of the narrative. Here, the producers were able to deftly craft the entire meaning of a scene to fit with the idea that a relationship between a boy and a girl cannot remain static, even in a high stakes environment, through the use of a single well-placed clip.

Later in the episode, the deliberate use of dramatic music to signify a major change in Chris and Nina’s friendship lends to the notion that if love becomes unattainable, it is the natural course of a boy-girl relationship to otherwise end in hatred. As the scene opens up, a heavy base line underscores Chris’s increasing frustration as he reflects on the low challenge score he received. The riffs that punctuate Chris’s admissions of anger can almost be likened to the iconic and effective musical score from Jaws, in which the piece’s mounting tempo subconsciously communicates to the audience that something is about to go very wrong. Nina suffers the brunt of Chris’s anger as the pace of the music continues to rise. Although she normally possesses a calm, unflappable personality, Nina admits that his antagonism “breaks [her] heart” and responds in kind. Even so, the aggressive music that punctuates this scene seems to carry the qualities of a romantic falling-out rather than those of a fight between friends. Chris, who now “feels as if [he’s] being attacked,” unloads the remainder of his temper on Nina. As this occurs, the music becomes a chorus of theatrical violins and combative drums, giving the scene a sense of drama and intensity. It is clear that in this instance, music is used to impact the audience’s emotional response to their fight. By combining music that feels like it would also be appropriate in an action film with strong verbs like “break” and “attack,” the audience is able to infer that this is more than just a mere disagreement—this may end Chris and Nina’s loving relationship for good. As the music reaches a crescendo, Chris seemingly admits defeat by placing his head in his hands while Nina berates him for causing her to become unnecessarily upset. The music then tenses, almost sounding like the countdown clock on a game show, which prompts the audience to become anxious about how Chris will respond. It is apparent that in this very moment, Chris’s actions determine whether or not they can mend their previous connection. Unfortunately, he admits he does not know what to do, and tries to resolve their conflict with a hug. But as the soundtrack continues, unchanged, it becomes evident that it will take more than just a hug to compensate for his unwarranted aggression. Chris then makes it apparent that he is unable to care about Nina as much as he cares about himself by walking away from the fight without closure. The music dramatically ends as he leaves, as if following him out of the room and signaling a perhaps unalterable change in their relationship. Without doubt, the producers use music to manipulate the audience’s perception of their quarrel which serves to emphasize the idea that boys and girls are unable to maintain a friendship without eventually falling in love or falling in hate.

Finally, tactically placed character commentary supports the principle that boys and girls cannot maintain strictly platonic relationships by revealing contrasting points of view that question the very nature of Chris and Nina’s friendship after the fight. Character commentary is a technique frequently used in the reality genre, often placed at strategic intervals in order to interpret an opinion for the audience from a specific angle. In turn, the audience is supposed to identify with and or at least understand that character’s take on the situation at hand. A day after the fight, the first commentary the audience hears is from Chris, who acknowledges that Nina is still upset and although he “did hurt her feelings,” he still regards the two of them as “very, very close.” This admission, however, is directly followed by commentary from another competitor, Jiana, who firmly believes that “Chris will just use [Nina] and drain her for everything she’s worth.” When these contradicting statements are juxtaposed, the audience subconsciously chooses to agree with Jiana because their belief in Chris and Nina’s relationship has already been shaken by their fight. Jiana’s commentary drives the audience towards the unanimous opinion that their relationship, originally depicted as caring and sweet, is now harmful and toxic. The audience is able to infer that since any semblance of romance is now lost, the possibility of Chris and Nina coming to hate each other seems both appealing and logical. Thus, the producers use character commentary to influence the audience’s emotions by offering contrary opinions which drives the narrative that boys and girls will never be able to maintain a stable friendship due to the notion they must eventually love or hate one another without exceptions.

In the end, it remains ambiguous as to whether Chris and Nina’s relationship will ever be mended. Unresolved, the aftermath of the fall out must be continued in the next episode. Even so, the producers were able to craft reality from fiction by expertly using flash backs, music, and commentary to emphasize that the principle which states boys and girls cannot remain “just friends” is in fact true. And, if it is, maybe this episode is more than just mere entertainment; perhaps it serves as a warning to stay wary of one’s friends, or as a grim reminder that nothing good can last. If it is or if it isn’t, either way, the lesson is learned.

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