A rowdy group of twenty-somethings looks for love, a three-generation family living under one roof battles newcomers to their neighborhood, rough fisherman work at the most dangerous job in America and fearless cops dodge a gang member’s bullets. Although these plotlines may sound different, they have a great deal in common – these are four of reality television’s latest creations and they are all set in and around Boston.
“Wicked Single,” “Southie Rules,” “Wicked Tuna,” and “Boston’s Finest” premiered to national audiences in 2012 and 2013 to varying levels of success. These shows often rely on stereotypes as the backbone of the plot – two of the shows have Boston’s infamous catchphrase “wicked” in the title – and therefore haven’t received too much praise from Bostonians. But like it or not, it seems like Boston has been popping up on TV screens more and more this year. Has Boston become the new “it” place for reality television?
“We like drama. We get engaged by the craziness of someone else’s life. I think it’s escapism as well, it allows us to escape, it allows us to be in the moment with something that’s not happening in our real world,” said Angela Cooke-Jackson, an Emerson communications professor who has written on the subject of reality television,” said Angela Cooke-Jackson. Click the above photo to see more opinions from Bostonians about reality television.
“It all started with ‘Jersey Shore,’ pretty much,” says Avery Mangahas, a current Northeastern University student. “Those were a particular group of people in a particular place that had all these rules, and all this lingo and it was like another world. Like gym, tan, laundry, GTL, was a glossary of that place.”
Mangahas worked for Powderhouse Productions, a Somerville company that produced the A&E show “Southie Rules.” Mangahas says that networks are looking for the next “Jersey Shore” style mega-hit. Ever since that show premiered in 2009, reality shows from “Breaking Amish” to “Toddlers and Tiaras” have found success by focusing on a specific subculture that is foreign to most Americans.
“The networks are looking for cohesive cultures that they can just stick a camera on,” Mangahas says.
Recent box-office hits, such as “The Town,” “The Departed,” “The Fighter,” and “Gone, Baby, Gone” have put Boston on the map – a trend that television producers seem eager to latch on to. Those movies relied on Boston’s gritty reputation, which can also be seen in “Boston’s Finest” and “Wicked Tuna.” In addition, Boston locals provide an easy and immediate identifier to that “cohesive culture” with their accents, which can be heard on every new show. (One “character” in “Southie Rules” has such a thick accent that his appearances on the show are all subtitled.)
“The downside of ‘Jersey Shore’ and the backlash is that it is sort of exploitative and trashy. Networks are trying to move away from bad implications and get to see more ‘realistic’ subcultures,” says Mangahas.
Angela Cooke-Jackson, an Emerson College communications professor and co-author of the paper “Appalachian Culture and Reality TV: The Ethical Dilemma of Stereotyping Others,” says that these shows promote biases that permeate into real-world discrimination. She saw that first-hand when producers came to eastern Kentucky, where she was living at the time, and attempted to create a reality show with Appalachian stereotypes at its foundation. Although the show was shot down due to backlash from the community, it spurred her to write the paper on the ethics of using subcultures to create a reality television show.
“It makes people make assumptions about other groups that aren’t true,” says Cooke-Jackson. “Viewers just go, ‘oh that’s how they are.’ I can’t stand ‘Honey Boo Boo’ because it perpetuates this mentality about their culture that is inaccurate. It’s done for viewership, it’s done as a comedic thing, but it really can be damaging.”
Tim Grafft, the head of locations for the Massachusetts Film Office, which attempts to lure producers to film in the state, says that the increase in production is helping the state, for now.
“We try to market our region to filmmakers of any kind, because when a filmmaker – whether it’s a huge movie or a still shoot for a fashion ad – they hire people here, they spend money in restaurants, they spend overnights in hotels, so they generate economic impact in the commonwealth,” says Grafft. He predicts that this summer Massachusetts will have its most profitable season ever in terms of movie and TV production.
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Boston, the commonwealth is the fifth fastest growing state in terms of film and television production (and the number one state outside of the Midwest). The study states “local non‐fiction television and post‐production companies have experienced particularly dramatic growth in recent years.”
In the short term, these shows create jobs and revenue for the city. But are “Wicked Single” and “Southie Rules” damaging Boston’s educated, liberal image for the long term? Only time will tell, but so far neither show has hit it off with national or local viewers or critics.
Mangahas says that the reaction from local audiences to “Southie Rules” has been primarily negative, even erring on the defensive or angry side. But there have been some words of encouragement.
“I think there’s also a desire to support people who are like you or from your area even if what they’re doing is not necessarily the best you’ve ever seen,” says Mangahas.