Aug. 14, 2009 -- Whether it's toddlers fighting for a pageant crown or people going on dates in pitch-black rooms, reality television is constantly pushing the envelope to see what it can come up with next.
So what do you get when you create a show that openly mocks reality shows? E!'s latest series, which premieres Sunday. "Reality Hell" lures unsuspecting participants onto fake reality shows in order to mess with their heads.
"It started out as just trying, in some way, to deconstruct the reality genre, because reality has almost become a parody of itself," show creator-executive producer Peter Cohen said. "So, I thought, let's take it to one more level."
Widows, Cougars and Miscreants
In each episode, "Reality Hell" recreates a different kind of reality show where every participant is a professional actor, except for one labeled the "target." This individual thinks that he or she is going to star in a reality show, but soon experiences a different reality, so to speak.
"Most reality shows are very much produced with real-show elements," Cohen said. "Producers get what they need by prompting the contestants. But we're very scared of giving anything away. It's like a house of cards, and if something goes wrong, it all falls apart. It's actually more difficult for us in some sense because we have the added responsibility of making each show look real for just one person."
The series has parodied everything from wife swap shows to a show called "Widow," where a group of young men vie for the attention of a "cougar," the term du jour for an older woman interested in younger men. The target of the group is thrown off guard when the show's cougar turns out to be a 72-year-old woman.
One of the show's contestants, Celia Hudson, participated in the wife swap episode that will premiere Aug. 23. She unknowingly was sent to a glitzy house in Beverly Hills to spend the day with big-shot Hollywood producer Kent Fontaine, who keeps his adopted son as a slave and is constantly critiquing his daughter's body.
'I Was Too Incensed'
"They were everything I don't think I am," Hudson said of the fake family. "Kent was over the top, extremely rude and arrogant. I didn't start to feel creepy until he told me Kazu was their adopted son and they were treating him like their butler."
Hudson was so disgusted with the family that when it was revealed that the whole show was a trick, she couldn't believe it at first.
"I was too incensed," Hudson said. "I didn't even hear it at first. I thought he had told me to, 'Go to hell,' instead of saying 'You're on Reality Hell,' so I was actually really upset. It took me a while to finally get it, but they really had me. It was great."
So what does this all mean for the future of television programming? Will there soon be a reality show making fun of reality shows that parody reality shows?
"This show is interesting because it's actually creative and more like scripted television," said Bradley Jacobs, TV editor for US Weekly. "The trend is away from scripted television, so I think it is just a onetime thing. I don't think it's going to be copied a bunch of times."
Laughing With, Not At, Reality TV
While many people like to make fun of the reality TV genre, Jacobs said, it's not going away anytime soon.
"It's the pop culture discovery of the decade," he said. "It's transformed everything from what we watch on TV to who we read about in magazines. It used to be that celebrities were movie stars, but now they're people like Paris Hilton or the Kardashians. The definition of celebrity has changed but, most of all, the definition of entertainment has changed."
Cohen says that the show isn't meant to bash reality television, but rather to laugh along with it.
"I watch all reality TV shows," he said. "I actually love reality TV. But I felt it was time for a show like this that pokes fun at the genre."
As for its being a more scripted show, Cohen argues that it's actually the opposite.
"I would contend that we are more reality television than most shows, because we can't overproduce the show or it will give away the hoax," he said. "So, in some sense, we're the most realistic fake reality show out there."