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When reality TV confronts death

The year presented programmers with challenges when episodes featured players who'd died.

December 27, 2009|By Jon Caramanica
  • MTV went ahead with "Gone Too Far" after the August death of Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein.
MTV went ahead with "Gone Too Far" after the August death of Adam… (Michael Tullberg / Getty…)

This country has yet to create a reality television auteur on the scale of Jade Goody, the former dental technician who by the time of her death from cervical cancer in March had become one of England's household names, thanks strictly to her roles on reality shows and the doors they opened for her.

Goody's health began to decline last year, after she learned of her condition while appearing on "Bigg Boss," the Indian version of "Big Brother," which she was doing as penance for fits of racism she'd had on the UK's "Celebrity Big Brother 5."

British television responded to Goody's illness and death as it had her life: by televising them. She was filmed for television specials as her health withered, her marriage to her boyfriend received its own special, and her funeral was broadcast live.

2009 was the first year that American reality television had to consistently confront death, with three programs suffering the loss of one of their principals. But unlike the case of Goody, there was no consistent strategy to deal with it. The television industry, still struggling to fully assimilate reality programming, remains uncertain of what to do when characters die, as real live people do.

In August, Adam "DJ AM" Goldstein died of an accidental drug overdose weeks before the debut of his intervention-themed MTV reality show "Gone Too Far." The same month, Ryan Jenkins, a contestant on the VH1 dating competition "Megan Wants a Millionaire," died of an apparent suicide after being pursued by police in connection with the murder of his ex-wife. And in October, A.J. Jewell, the former fiancé of Kandi Burruss of Bravo's "The Real Housewives of Atlanta," died following a fight outside an Atlanta strip club.

Shot months in advance, "The Real Housewives of Atlanta" had already woven A.J. into its story lines; removing him likely wasn't an option. And so the episodes aired intact, with the addition of a brief tribute frame. For the couple of weeks following A.J.'s death, Andy Cohen's meta-Bravo talk show "Watch What Happens Live" became a kind of vigil, with updates from the Housewives and eventually an appearance by Kandi, who finally brought the tragedy into real time.

Having that secondary outlet likely eased the pressure on Bravo to alter the show in any way. It echoed the case of Najai Turpin, a contestant on the 2005 NBC boxing reality show "The Contender," who killed himself a few weeks before the show's debut. It aired without amendments, apart from a brief tribute to Turpin, who was eliminated from the competition in an early round.

Had he actually been the show's winner, or survived several more weeks, it would have spurred a more complicated conversation, one akin to that had by MTV and DJ AM's family and management following his death. At the time, it seemed reasonable that "Gone Too Far," which had already been filmed, would be shelved, especially given its subject matter. But it was decided that the show's potential impact outweighed the discomfort of seeing someone so recently gone on the screen.

More so than in the cases of A.J. or Turpin, "Gone Too Far" had a ghostlike quality: It was useful to watch it as documentary, a record of something that had happened in the past, as opposed to the typical reality-TV mode of the present. And yet it didn't suffer as television, perhaps because DJ AM was doing sainted work.

VH1 faced a very different conundrum when Jenkins became the subject of a national manhunt and later killed himself. By then, "Megan Wants a Millionaire" had aired three episodes, and Jenkins, smarmy and confident, was emerging as one of its stars.

Good taste dictated its cancellation, and also that of "I Love Money 3," one of the many VH1 variety-pack competitions that cull the most outland- ish personalities from its other shows, and which Jen- kins filmed after completing "Megan Wants a Millionaire."

Still, the American appetite for trauma shouldn't be underestimated. In October, thousands, possibly millions of people watched for more than 90 minutes as a gleaming, droopy silver balloon wafted in the skies over Colorado, ostensibly carrying a 6-year-old boy, Falcon Heene, inside.

Here was a moment with almost no ambiguity. Tragedy seemed a certainty: It was a snuff film, carried live on CNN. And it turned out that people only wanted to turn it off when it became clear that no life was at stake after all.

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