TV that mixes fact and fiction

16.33, Friday 12 Nov 2021

I’m into TV shows that play with the boundary of fact and fiction. Here are some that stick in my head.

Murder Island (2021, here’s a review) is a 6 part murder mystery (plotted by author Ian Rankin) where they’re all actors except for members of the public LARPing as in-world detectives. Only it’s competitive: there are multiple detective teams playing to solve the case, and the winners get a cash prize.

So for the viewer there is narrative on two levels: the murder mystery itself, and then the drama of watching other people solve the murder mystery.

High budget escape room meets immersive theatre meets reality TV?

Prehistoric Park (2006) was a nature show told as a fly-on-the-wall documentary about an animal park in South Africa. Aimed at kids. Usual drama of dealing with sick animals, finding the right food etc. Except that these animals are dinosaurs, and at the back of the park is a literal time portal that the keepers drive a truck through back to the Cretaceous or whatever.

It was wild, and told completely straight. From the Wikipedia article (linked above) I see that the format is a “mockumentary” which makes sense – it was the era of The Office. But whereas The Office was a (fictional) comedy told with the tropes of (factual) documentary - which makes sense as comedy is often arch and plays with preconceptions - Prehistoric Park is… something else. I find it hard to parse.

Actually it reminds me in a way of Robinson Crusoe (1719), thought of as the first novel in the English language (how true that is? Don’t know). Defoe’s novel goes to extraordinary lengths to work its way into the fiction, describing how the manuscript was (apparently) written, how it came into the hands of the so-called author, why they decided to publish, and so on. Novels nowadays skip most of that – we take it for granted. (But we retain a rump understanding of the presence of the reader in the fiction. For example the author often ensures that narrative is only ever told through the perspective of one character or another, avoiding omniscience.)

So Prehistoric Park goes to great lengths to explain why the TV is showing images of the deep past despite the viewer knowing that it is 2006, and the choosen device is the in-world time portal.

Great show though.

BONUS, on this topic: Ghostwatch (1992) which U.K. viewers of a certain age will have burnt into their psyche. Horror dressed as documentary, thoroughly credible to start and then… Read Ghostwatch: the Halloween hoax that changed the language of television (The New Statesman): a one-off show, inspired by the first flickers of fake news, terrified a generation. The BBC quickly disowned it. Now, its cast and creators tell their side of the story.

Murder in Successville is a semi-scripted comedy/detective drama where all the actors are impersonating celebs. For example the police chief is (fake) Gordon Ramsey. The detective is the only person with a standalone non-celeb character, and each episode they have an assistant.

This assistant is a legit celeb, and they have to solve the murder of the week – only they also the only person who doesn’t know the script. There’s a lot of absurdity and a lot of improv. As with Murder Island there is dual enjoyment for the viewer: firstly solving the mystery (there are always enough clues) and secondly watching the celebrity collapse in bafflement.

So there are these multiple layers of reality: the so-called celebs; the story; the impersonations; the celeb of the outer reality inserted into the inner reality; the viewer watching it all at home.

People are way better at consuming media on multiple simultaneous levels than I think is often appreciated. Look at wrestling which is both fake and real. So the “fake news” scare and our slightly po-faced insistence on authenticity (whatever that is) on social media both feel unsophisticated in comparison. I wonder if we could have a social media platform that embraced are-they-aren’t-they pretending as something completely ok. Something to unpack there.

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