The Only Happily Ever After in the Reality TV World (Book Review: Romancing Miss Right by Lizzie Shane)

With so many years of reality television, faux-romance, and D-list (or is it F-list?) reality celebrities, many of us might feel disillusioned by the entire subject; yet, Lizzie Shane’s Romancing Miss Right proves that with the right (and light) touch, reality television romance can be surprisingly fertile ground for a fresh contemporary romance. Shane’s Romancing Miss Right, the second of her “Reality Romance” series (you can definitely read it on its own since I haven’t read any of the others yet), is a lot of fun to read on its own, regardless of one’s familiarity with reality programming.

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Those who have watched reality shows (whether you watch them out of love, hate, or irony) will be in the best position to appreciate Shane’s deft ability to both gently mock reality shows while still believing in the possibility of finding love. In fact, there is something satisfying about reading it in tandem with watching ABC’s “The Bachelorette” and Lifetime’s “UnREAL” (both of which are currently airing and go together like gin and tonic on a lazy summer day) because each medium approaches the subject from a different angle.

A teensy bit like “UnREAL,” Shane briefly peeks behind the curtain on how reality-romance-sausage is made; but, unlike that crass, cynical, and darkly humorous sitcom, Romancing Miss Right allows readers to (re)imagine a reality dating show through the genre’s guaranteed Happily Ever After. Romancing Miss Right has intelligent characters, a believable but understandably optimistic romance, and witty comments about reality television, ambition, sexual chemistry, and romantic leaps of faith.

I didn’t anticipate having strong feelings about this book, but consumed it in my general pursuit of literary romantic escapism. On the one hand, it’s a conventional contemporary romance, delicious and sweet and everything you’d expect if you’re familiar with the genre. However, because the past few weeks of entertainment have been dominated by the theme of reality television—namely because I’ve been watching both “UnREAL” and “The Bachelorette” and reading pursuant reviews and articles—I was interested to return to this fictional reality TV/dating show world. As I skimmed it again, I was surprised anew by how many passages I highlighted for their gentle humor and lively exchanges.

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Given its setting, Shane has her work cut out for her to convince readers of her characters’ intelligence, likability, and self-awareness about the reality business, all while still maintaining a plausible romance. As an audience, we are so inundated with the oft-depressing reality of “reality television” and the improbability of true connections and lasting relationships (much less actual marriages), that we likely approach a book like this with a healthy dose of skepticism. And, yet, how different is this than the romance genre’s Regency “marriage mart,” where the heroes and heroines navigate scripted and supervised encounters and seek to make, survive, or (gasp!) even find love in arranged marriages? Perhaps that is why Curtis Sittenfeld’s recent modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, titled Eligible, features a reality show; this connection between today’s reality television stars and the regency era is highlighted by Sophie Gilbert in a provocative article in The Atlantic called “The Real Housewives of Jane Austen,” (May 31, 2016). With the ability to peek behind the curtain of production while remaining cozily in the realm of happy endings—and also get into the contestants’ heads and thus empathize with their professional and personal goals and desires—the reality television landscape can yield surprising romantic gems, like Shane demonstrates.

In a smart move, Shane begins her book through the eyes of those behind-the-scenes of the reality show, namely a male and female producer who bluntly discuss the merits of the prospective “Miss Perfect” and what they imagine the audience wants to see—thus, behind closed doors, our erstwhile romantic lead is chastised by a male producer for appearing “emotionless,” “frigid,” and “robotic,” which he believes will hurt ratings because, in his view, their show’s audience “loves the fucking sobbing” and “likes idiots” because “idiots make good television” (pp. 1-2). It’s hard to completely disagree with this generalization! By beginning with this backstage access and cynical approach to crafting reality television storylines for a sheep-like audience, Shane maneuvers her way under a skeptical reader’s skin.

A few pages later, we meet our female romantic lead, Marcy, who is quickly established as likable character who is aware of the hypocrisy (“She knew her part, knew all the lines to say to make America believe the love story—hell, she was a romance writer. She’d written half of those lines. But it was different now. Playing the heroine. Much less comfortable than sitting at home in her pajamas with her fingers on her keyboard. Everyone was watching and she had to give them a show.” [pp. 17-18]), but confident that the rigmarole of such a show will be worth it for her career as a romance author. In addition, she is not entirely distrustful of the process (“If we call it a show, it makes the audience think it might be fake. It’s always the process, the experience, the journey.” [p. 15]) and she maintains a hope that she could find a suitable man that she could settle for and settle down with.

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The male lead, Craig, is similarly practical about his reasons for joining the show as he wants to transition from hosting a syndicated radio show to being on network television in some interviewer or entertainer capacity (“I’m not the guy who gets the girl, Mom. I’m the bad boy America will love to hate. That’s what’s going to get me national exposure… [Miss Right] knows what she’s signing up for. And if she doesn’t then she’s a moron. I’ve studied these shows. I’m going to be the one everyone is talking about—and that isn’t the guy that gets the girl. But I’m not going to lie to her.” [p. 10]). He is definitely leaning in to this stereotype of dating show contestants who are accused of being on reality shows “for the wrong reasons” (whatever those actually are?). In fact, during a one-on-one date later on, he point-blank tells Marcy that he came on the show because he wants a career in television (which causes one of the nearby producers to make choked, horrified noise, as you could imagine). Yet, for all of his seemingly shameless ambition and cynicism, he isn’t blinded to the charms of Marcy and is willing to have fun with her however long he’s around (“He would have gone through the motions with anyone, but Marcy… Marcy was going to make this a hell of a lot more fun.” [p. 36]). Again, it’s an example of the balance that I found so commendable; Shane has to write characters who are knowledgable and aware about the reality of reality television, but who will also inevitably succumb to the lure of conventional true love by the end of the book. Walking, and writing, that kind of tightrope seems like an under-appreciated skill.

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Despite their seeming awareness of the cameras and absurdity of it all, their mutual cynicism cannot quite douse the initial spark between them. From their first conversation, they dance around the issue with tacit allusions to the show itself and the standard opening gambits, but seem unable to remain entirely neutral about each other. Despite the fact that Marcy is more focused on her aching feet (from the hours standing in heels) and aching jaw (from the hours spent smiling at over twenty new contestants), and the sense that she has become the proverbial “hot potato” passed too quickly from one contestant to another, despite all of that, the self-proclaimed “villain” Craig startles a genuine laugh out of her, and he was likewise pleasantly surprised:

“So this is supposed to be what? A refreshing display of honesty?” She crossed her arms and cocked her head to one side, rocking back on her heels. Her posture was deliberately casual, but her eyes were intent and very interested. Much more interested than she was probably willing to admit. Just try to resist me, sweetheart. “I’ve never had to lie to get a girl.” “Are you saying I’m not worth lying for?” Challenge sparkled in her eyes. Well, I’ll be damned. Miss Right wants to play. He felt himself smiling. She was quicker than he’d expected. “Lying for, maybe. But lying to? You’re too good for that.” “Smooth.” She shook her head ruefully, eyes gleaming.   (p. 31).

Marcy and Craig have chemistry right away, which actually worries both of them as they are more comfortable when focused on their career ambitions and would rather not contemplate the messy possibility that they could actually meet someone and fall in love in such a contrived environment:

“Marcy knew she shouldn’t be intrigued by him. She could already tell he would be all about games and power plays— which would make the show more interesting but could make her life hell for the next eight weeks. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder what he would come up with if she sought him out later. A moth to the freaking flame.” [p. 33]

“It was ridiculous to think the show’s heavy-handed emotional manipulation tactics were working, but the truth of it was he liked her. He hadn’t been supposed to like her. That wasn’t supposed to even enter into the equation. He wasn’t supposed to feel anything. That wasn’t why he was here.” [pp. 71-72]

I could imagine that to that rare type of somewhat-jaded-but-obviously-willing-to-participate-reality-contestant, it would feel sort of embarrassing to experience sincere romantic emotions on television. Thus we have the standard reluctant couple, both of whom admit early on that they are attracted to one another, but remain skeptical and skittish, and whose major obstacles emerge from their own issues, rather than some external threat.

If you’re watching, or have read about, this season of “The Bachelorette,” it’s hard not to draw some fairly direct comparisons between this romance and the show. I hesitate to make one more here for fear of turning off potential readers, but borrowing from the typical reality-TV villain’s handbook, let’s just say that I’m not here to make friends (that’s a lie, please like me and be my friend? #strongfemalefriendship).

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So, if you’ve watched, you’ve met Chad, who was a definite villain who went off the deep end, but—but—before he Hulked out, he made a few good points early in the season by being honest about the absurdity of the premise that several men claimed to be in love with her so quickly, or that these men were simply desperate to spend time with her, or that the majority of the men seemed overly-focused on him, or that anyone could enjoy the awkwardness of a group date… among other dating show issues. While the version of Chad we just saw on “The Bachelorette” became increasingly unlikable and aggressive, Lizzie Shane’s character Craig is (as expected from a romance) the best possible version of what Chad might have been aiming for—the reality truth teller and self-proclaimed (but de-clawed and relatively innocuous) villain.

Craig is what Chad could have been, if he wasn’t so ‘roid-ragey and obnoxious. Miranda, the female producer in the book, reflects on Craig at the start that, Craig was proving to be an interesting conundrum. Marcy was captivated by him, the men seemed to dislike and distrust him, but he still managed to get in their good graces enough to set them on paths to self-destruction. As long as it made good television, Miranda was happy— but she wasn’t about to let him hijack her show. There was only room for one puppet-master here and it was going to be her.” [p. 67].

Marcy, Craig, and the producer Miranda are all aware of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) manipulations happening on various levels and at cross-cutting purposes. It all works to complicate the story the producers want to present, the story the participants want to present of themselves, and the more organic feelings that emerge throughout filming and work to present us with the romantic story. At one point, Marcy confronts Craig for instigating some drama with the other guys, and there’s a nice bit of conversation between the two that touches on the bizarreness of the show and their current, albeit temporary, reality:

“You did it on purpose. You knew exactly what would happen.” Craig slapped the cards down on the table. Fuck it. Being good was boring as hell. “Of course I did. We’re competitive beasts, princess. I didn’t even have to say much to bring out the Neanderthal brigade.” “That’s your excuse? It was easy?” “It’s not an excuse. Just a fact.” He rose, tired of giving her the high ground— literally— in the argument. On his feet, he had several inches on her, even in those pointy heels— don’t get distracted by the legs, Craig. “How many of them see anyone beyond Miss Right when they look at you? They’re competing for the prize. At least I see that there is more to you than just the girl we all want to win.” “Do you want to win? Or are you just here to make a splash so you can become a star?” “Can’t I do both?” he asked, though he knew he couldn’t. [pp. 94-95]

Craig’s lingering question—can’t I do both?—mirrors an issue prevalent in this kind of entertainment. The beauty of reading romances is that, 99 times out of 100, the heroes and heroines can have it both ways; they get the job and the guy, the passion and the stability, the child and the partner, the love and the money (or whatever apparently conflicting but prominent desires the characters hold close).

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You might think you “know better” than to believe in a reality-TV love story like this, but that’s what the characters thought, too, and they were wrong! As the female producer summarizes at the end: “The ratings were solid— though not quite as high as last season, damn it— and audience retention had actually grown week by week in key demographics as America fell in love with the prickly pair. The woman once called the Ice Queen had become America’s Darling and Craig had gone from being hated to adored. Mostly. All in all, a victorious season.” [p. 271]. There you have it. From hated to adored—mostly. I think that’s a worthy goal for those of you dubious of this kind of contemporary romance set in the bizarre world of dating shows and reality television. With any luck, you’ll find it mostly adorable.

***

John Leech, Sketch from Punch, %22Reality and Romance,%22 1852

John Leech, Sketch from Punch, 1852 http://www.john-leech-archive.org.uk/1852/romance-and-reality.htm 

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