Cheaters “Real” Reality Television as Melodramatic Parody
Journal of Communication Inquiry Volume 32 Number 3 July 2008 230-248 © 2008 Sage Publications 10.1177/0196859908316329 http://jci.sagepub.com hosted at http://online.sagepub.com
Joseph C. Harry Slippery Rock University
This article explores the reality television show Cheaters as a parodic-pastiche genre featuring videotaped surveillance of the romantically unfaithful within a web of preexisting fictional and nonfictional forms, including, most prominently, melodrama and detective fiction. Cheaters’ claim of promoting “temperance and virtue” within a legalistic ethos of one’s “right to be informed” about infidelity allows the show to cast itself as “real reality” television, though its narrative structure goes well beyond simple documentation. Especially when considered in the supertextual context of sexually, egocentrically themed advertisements, Cheaters emerges as a parodic-pastiche narrative that easily intermingles moralistic and sensationalistic themes. I argue that the show’s postmodern catch-all rhetoric borrows most centrally from fictional melodrama, and therefore Cheaters can be interpreted as melodramatic parody. It provides, on the surface, a moral framework that grants ideological cover for an otherwise salacious interest in visually documented infidelity.
pastiche; parody; melodrama; reality television; postmodernism
From Cheaters’ surveillance cameras you’re about to view actual true stories, filmed live, documenting the pain of a spouse or lover caused by infidelity. This program is both dedicated to the faithful and presented to the false-hearted to encourage the renewal of temperance and virtue. Introductory message of Cheaters syndicated television program.
heaters is an independently produced, syndicated weekly television program now in its seventh year of production, airing in about 200 U.S. television markets and in more than 80 countries, with approximately 5 million weekly viewers (“Business Wire,” 2006). Each week, a handful of the romantically unfaithful, along
Author’s Note: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Dr. Joseph C. Harry, Department of Communication, 220 Eisenberg, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, PA 16057; e-mail: [email protected]
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with their illicit mates, are tracked down and confronted by Cheaters investigators. The cheaters’ deceptive actions, sometimes spanning several weeks and often including blurred-out sex scenes, are captured on videotape. Because it documents actual escapades of infidelity, Cheaters brands itself as “real reality TV,” cleverly and ironically implying that although it is indeed part of the reality television genre, its realitytelevision competitors offer only fictionalized reality, as opposed to Cheaters’ unmediated (“real reality”), serious and often intensely painful and embarrassing depictions of everyday people finding out about their lovers’ romantic deceptions. The show’s executive producer and cocreator, Bobby Goldstein, categorizes the show as “true surveillance, spying, true voyeurism” stemming from “domestic-relations investigations” (Brieger, 2004), which does describe, on the surface, much about the presentational basis of the show.1 The program gets about 100,000 requests each year from people who might not otherwise be able to afford a private investigator (Brieger, 2004). All “clients” (as they’re referred to during the program), as well as their cheating mates, must sign legal waivers granting the show the right to broadcast their names and faces. Those “cheaters” who don’t sign waivers are presented during broadcasts with faces blurred out and names not revealed. But Cheaters sometimes pays as much as $2,000 to persuade an embarrassed party—someone caught in the act—to grant program producers the right to name and visually identify them, although this is typically not difficult to obtain from the “younger, lower-income, blue-collar” (Dempsey, 2004, p. 27). So although it is true that Cheaters can lay some claim to providing “real reality,” because people are actually caught in the act of cheating, it’s also clear that a great many lovelorn souls are quite willing to air their woes to millions of viewers. More surprisingly, even those whose scandalous actions are caught on tape are also, more often than not, willing to go public. One can argue that Cheaters’ self-proclaimed “real reality” status is, in this way, actually closer to being hyperreal—a simulacrum of and for “reality,” as the resulting “real reality” turns out to be more engineered, studiously perfected, and cleverly staged than is ever made apparent during the program. Baudrillard (1994) contends that in a postmodern, digital-electronic, globally connected mass-mediated era, simulacra—semiotic signs referring only to other semiotic signs—provide the foundation not of “reality” but of the hyperreal. Reality television, in general, would seem to offer an example par excellence of the hyperreal, in which cultural simulacra provide a fabricated reality that comes to be seen as “(m)ore real than the real, that is how the real is abolished” (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 81). One can reasonably call into question the epistemological basis, the claim to realistic knowledge, behind Cheaters’ self-promotion as real reality. When analyzed rhetorically, as a televisual genre, there is great complexity in Cheaters, which reveals itself to be an interesting generic mix of surveillance video, peep show, spy or detective story, melodramatic soap opera, gotcha journalism, and game-show theatrics. Its overall tone, initially established in the above-presented
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mission statement touting “temperance and virtue” with disdain for the “false-hearted,” is thematically sustained through each episode as high seriousness and an almost Victorian moralistic edification, especially in the character of Cheaters host and head detective Joey Greco, a humorless but dedicated surveyor of romantic corruption. The show seems to advocate a straightforwardly prudish, anachronistic moral creed—the restoration of temperance and virtue—but ironically, within an essentially amoral framework of skittish high-action sensationalism, embarrassing video voyeurism, rancorous character conflicts and melodramatic flair, all familiar elements, to varying degrees, in the reality TV genre. There is, in this latter respect, an unavoidable element of comedy that emerges. White’s (2006) largely descriptive analysis of the show concludes it is “tawdry” and “shameless” yet regularly offers its own ironic self-critique (via complaints voiced by some who’re caught cheating), and that Cheaters, as narrative, is highly complex, ambiguous, and contradictory, making it virtually impossible to know whether the angry participants, whether cheaters, or the cheated-upon, are victims or victimizers. There is, in this latter respect, a contradictory tone of resentment-driven revenge mixed with ridicule at work in Cheaters, and these qualities appear also as key thematic elements in many other reality shows (Murray & Ouellette, 2004; Smith & Wood, 2003), such as Jerry Springer, Fear Factor, and Survivors, to name a few. At the simplest level, interpersonal revenge and ridicule among key characters merely make for entertaining television, clearly so in game shows like, for example, Survivor, where ego-fueled competitive scenarios are prearranged for purely entertaining purposes. But these themes are fundamental in a different, more serious way to Cheaters, considering its realistic expose’ format, featuring one mate—whose real-world dilemma was not televisually prearranged, someone who actually has been wronged—purposely exposing his or her wayward mate to a very public revenge and ridicule, a shaming ritual captured in all its embarrassing detail on surveillance cameras. Somewhat similar to Cheaters, the police-reality show COPS deals with serious issues and uses actual (though not undercover) video footage but only to document lawbreaking, not to expose immoral acts. And while, at another end of the spectrum, Jerry Springer’s in-studio shock-talk captures, somewhat like Cheaters, sordid firstperson stories and confrontations, the Springer show is taped before a live audience in game-show format. Moreover, any tawdriness, comedy, or irony emerging from Springer comes off as for purely entertainment purposes, whereas those same qualities in Cheaters are always directly connected to an emotionally serious issue— actual romantic infidelity. Uniquely, Cheaters’ unusual content, story-telling framework and format open up rhetorical ground for deploying the fertile generic devices of melodrama and parody. The make-up and content of the program also render a critical analysis within a broadly parodic interpretation especially appropriate. At a more critical level of analysis, this entertaining and highly enticing mode of electronic surveillance in the service of dishing out real-world revenge is ethically problematic. In any Cheaters episode it is easy, for example, to empathize with the
Harry / Cheaters
cheated-upon, especially when the cheater comes off as an unrepentant liar. But one’s initial empathy toward the aggrieved party is soon complicated by the knowledge that the cheated-upon party has consciously decided to go public, to expose their unfaithful mate’s moral deceit to several million television viewers. A more nuanced response is then possible: empathy toward both the cheated-upon and the cheater, if only because in the latter case, one may feel the cheater’s reasonable right to privacy (querulous moral questions aside) has been trounced by the aggrieved party’s unbridled desire for public revenge. As a narrative style, melodrama is everywhere evident, but seasoned rhetorically with an ironic, cynical, and salacious nudge and wink—an ultimately amoral televisionentertainment ethic working within a surface ethos of conservative sexual morality. If Jagodozinki (2003) is correct in asserting that reality television’s “stylistics” are the very antithesis of reality as portrayed in conventional “ethnographic documentary” film (p. 320), then the door is opened to examine the stylistics of reality TV as a genre much closer to fiction than documentary (even though most reality shows claim varying degrees of factuality as their epistemological basis.) It is Cheaters’ highly stylized narrative, rich in a certain kind of parodic melodrama, that the present article considers by studying the narrative makeup of the show and the general nature of certain advertisements supporting it.2 On this latter score, given Cheaters’ moralistic mission statement, one might expect the accompanying product and service ads to be associated with things like counseling services, self-help books, or even religious organizations. But these are nowhere to be found. Instead, most Cheaters ads promote a host of dating services (including Cheaters’ own in-house dating service, NoCheatersDate.com, directed at “faithful” hook-ups) and telephone sex services, as well as antibalding remedies, foot cream, penis-enhancement concoctions, nonprescription diet pills and energy boosters, and credit counseling services, making it clear which demographic the show desires and in fact attracts, the much-valued 18-to-34 age group, a majority being women (Albiniak, 2004). In just one evening’s (July, 2006) hour-long program, for example, 23 separate ads ran, the vast majority being for competing local dating services, but one promoting a penis-enlargement pill, another promoting a local strip club featuring a female videoporn star, and another a telephone sex service; all the above ad types have remained remarkably consistent during the roughly 4 years I have watched the program. Looking at Cheaters in the broadest sense, then, as a television “supertext” (Browne, 1987)—a routinized television story formula presented within a distinct advertising context of, in this case, egocentric, sexually oriented products and services—lends to Cheaters an especially ironic twist that, in this essay, I read as a certain kind of parody, realized via a pastiche mix of melodrama and surveillance footage. Browne’s notion of the television supertext involves “thinking the relation of media and society by theorizing the television discourse, the institution which supports it, the advertising that drives it, and the audience which consumes it, as elements in a general system” (Browne, 1987, p. 587).3 Although a nonfictional program that contains the standard reality TV
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generic qualities of the “display of live, real-time, relatively unconstrained, apparently spontaneous social interaction” (Lunt, 2004, p. 329), Cheaters cleverly demonstrates qualities long associated with various forms of melodramatic fiction. In the language of literary melodrama, the show paints a “moral universe” (Rem, 1996, p. 241), in which clearly defined villains engage in the “persecution of the good” (Feuer, 1991, p. 165, citing Brooks). The program contains every element Singer (2001, pp. 44-49) identifies as the essential qualities of melodramatic fiction, melodrama itself viewed as a “cluster concept” consisting of “pathos,” “overwrought emotion,” “moral polarization,” “neo-classical narrative structure,” (i.e., a clear beginning, middle, and end) and “graphic sensationalism.” White (2006) categorizes Cheaters as openly contradictory and “characteristically ambivalent, embracing positions that would be considered frankly incompatible in other contexts,” by combining “salacious appeal with self-congratulatory sanctimony,” wherein “participants are positioned as hapless victims and empowered subjects” (p. 223). In this essay, I account for Cheaters’ ambivalent textual status by reading it as a postmodern parodic text celebrating but also deflating and, therefore, destabilizing the narrative conventions of melodramatic fiction by appropriating the latter as a storytelling device within a nonfictional reality-television format. Cheaters conforms to reality television’s “text in the making” (Danesi, 2002, p. 141) mode by blurring reality and fiction, the latter coming closest, in Cheaters, to fictional melodrama. My argument is that Cheaters functions, specifically, as melodramatic parody, but in the ambivalent, fragmented rhetoric common to the postmodern parodic mode known as pastiche (Chatman, 2001; Hutcheon, 1985; Jameson, 1991; Kellner, 1999), a stitched-together, scattershot presentational format appropriating any number of existing dramatic and other presentational forms (Duvall, 1999) without necessarily privileging any particular form. In the remainder of this essay, I explain more fully pastiche as a narrative form and closely analyze the narrative content and significant structural-graphical elements of a recent Cheaters episode as a case study representative, in its basic format, of all episodes. Finally, I consider implications related to Cheaters’ parodic narrative structure and how, as a popular-cultural product situated within the nicheoriented, postmodern commercial television landscape, it ironically utilizes pastiche for questionably moralistic but highly sensationalistic purposes.
General Background The program airs each week in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, viewing market in firstrun and syndicated reruns, at no earlier than 12:30 a.m. I have watched the program for the last 4 years, taping many episodes from each year to document, via detailed notes for each episode, the distinct narrative elements of the entire presentational format, the
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latter of which, one quickly discovers, never varies (White, 2006). In terms of the analysis of how the ads work in conjunction with the main text, it is of course true that television ad sales are determined by media buyers concentrating on the specifics of regional television markets, each with varying demographic and geographic characteristics (see Webster & Phalen, 1997), so ads for a given program at a given time will differ from one market to another.4 However, given Cheaters’ niche-specific, relatively youth-oriented audience, the ads referenced in the present article are likely fairly representative of those related to the show in other viewing regions.
The Nature of Pastiche Pastiche is well understood as a storytelling form in both ancient and contemporary literary studies (Hoesterey, 1999; Kemp, 2002), but as a narrative form in television it remains virtually unexplored. Kellner (1999) draws on pastiche in accounting for some elements of the science-fiction show, The X-Files, as a postmodern narrative, and Fiske (1991) links television’s institutional form to pastiche, also within a postmodern context marked by information fragmentation. Pastiche is what Jameson (1991) calls “blank parody,” which he argues is the most neutral and uncommitted form of parody. It is based fundamentally in mimicry but (unlike conventional parody) lacks overt humor and satirical depth (p. 17), yet is still quite playful in bringing together a variety of preestablished textual fragments, recognized rhetorical formats, and diverse sociocultural styles and influences, all of which also, according to Fiske (1991), adequately describe television itself as a pastiche, all-inclusive mass medium. “Television is particularly suited to the culture of the fragment,” because of its constant flow and great variety of program, advertising and promotional segments, all of it “dictated by an unstable mix of narrative or textual requirements, economic requirements, and the requirements of varied popular tastes,” (Fiske, 1991, p. 58). Here, Fiske not only makes a case for pastiche as the infrastructural form of television, but his description also is similar to Browne’s aforementioned notion of the TV supertext as a matrix of television discourse, the sense-making institution that supports it, the advertising that finances it, and the viewers who watch it, all of which combine “as elements in a general system” (Browne, 1987, p. 587). Jameson (1991) casts pastiche, as does Fiske, as a parodic mode, without parody’s overt satirical quality—more or less a denatured form of parody. Jameson goes so far as to claim that parodic-pastiche is the only remaining narrative form available in the postmodern social formation. Simple parody, its roots in both modernism’s and premodernism’s capacities to produce (and therefore differentiate) culturally discrete narrative forms, has no remaining “vocation,” as all narrative forms and styles are now ceaselessly interwoven:
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Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a particular mask, speech in a dead language: but it is the neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eye-balls. (p. 17)
Pastiche is a “juxtaposing of the profound and mundane,” a “mixing of styles,” and an “imitation of previous works, authors, or genres in their attempts to ridicule or to flatter,” and which is “not necessarily satirical” but is designed to “subvert established genres” (Braendlin, 1996, p. 50). Pastiche is generally considered a form of parody, even parody’s “sister-term” (Kemp, 2002, p. 179), but usually without traditional parody’s critical or satiric edge, although Hoesterey (1999) argues that pastiche can provide a powerful form of critical (not just playful) reflection and agrees with Jameson that pastiche, a “mix-and-match form” (Hoesterey, 1999, p. 84), should be seen as a “preferred postmodern idiom” (p. 78). Both parody and pastiche establish a dialogue “between an earlier text or style and a second voice that mimics or subverts the first as it is reproduced” (Kemp, 2002, p. 179). Although similar to the satirical and ironic distancing effect of parody, pastiche “does not clearly situate itself outside or in opposition to” (Kemp, 2002, p. 182) a previous textual style or genre that it imitates, which lends support to Jameson’s view of pastiche as uncommitted and neutral toward its source genres. Parody simultaneously authorizes but undercuts (de-legitimates) what it parodizes (Morris, 2003, p. 74), which is similar to how Chatman (2001) describes the parodic form, as instantaneously paying homage to and ridiculing an original source text or set of preexisting communicative, narrative, or stylistic conventions—an important trait, as I will show, that is quite evident in Cheaters. It is most productive, then, to conceptualize Cheaters as consciously and parasitically appropriating, as its sources or host texts, historical and contemporary cultural notions grounded in Western ideals of romantic fidelity—expressed rhetorically and semiotically via the show’s pronounced theme of “temperance and virtue”—by paying homage to these twinned concepts while, simultaneously, subverting and thus ridiculing them in the interest of providing an entertaining, commercially viable, hyperreal narrative of the “real.” The reigning theme of temperance and virtue, as such, serves only as a rhetorical prop, a parodic shtick, a hyperreal tactic or, in more semiotic terms, an ideological simulacrum that will be constantly honored and ridiculed in the same breath—parodized for popular public consumption.
Rhetorical-Structural Elements The show always opens with a warning about its “mature” nature, quickly followed by a brief preview of the evening’s two case files. Next, in male voice-over,
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viewers are told they will witness “actual true stories” documenting the “pain” caused by infidelity, with the goal of encouraging a “renewal” of temperance and virtue. On one level this language could be read as wishful thinking on a moralistic plane, but also as parody’s quality of “reverential fun” (Chatman, 2001), because it occurs as terminology whose only referent is an idealized, and therefore ideological desire for moral purity—“homage” twinned with “ridicule,” and directed at an audience “cognizant of the new subject matter’s inappropriateness,” to utilize Chatman’s (2001) assessment of how parody works. The show, after all, would not exist without the repeated violation of temperance and virtue, the very qualities that the surface narrative claims to celebrate. Still in the introductory stages of narrative establishment, viewers are next presented with a montage of footage culled from previous shows, featuring cheaters caught in the act, with lovers, spouses and the cheating “others” all reacting in mostly violent and highly dramatic ways. This standard montage footage is a key introductory rhetorical strategy, especially when followed by the standardized male voice-over statement: “Real reality television, as brought to you by Cheaters detective agency’s private eyes—on Cheaters.” The text here aligns itself with the legalpolitical rhetoric of detective agencies (private eyes), which might also potentially deflect criticism regarding the sensationalism and voyeuristic thrill that are so much a part of the show’s appeal. By claiming to present, via surveillance footage, “real” reality, Cheaters can equate itself with more legitimate nonfictional storytelling modes, especially to journalistic objectivity with its “respect for the facts, truth, and reality” Zelizer (2004, p. 100).
Case Study of 2005 Episode: Structure and Content Examining an episode from a recent program clarifies how a pastiche of standardized narrative genres, storytelling devices, and visual imagery collectively place Cheaters within the generic realm of what might best be termed melodramatic parody. An episode airing in early March 2005 featured a 38-year-old named Chris Carlisle. Joey Greco, the program host, introduces himself and then turns to Chris’ case. Chris himself (or rather, his mug shot) is first featured at the upper left of the screen, inside what looks like a file folder. Greco introduces him as, “Chris Carlisle, a stoic figure struggling with his deepest fear—his wife’s infidelity. Seeking a dignified resolution, an embattled Chris appeals to Cheaters for professional assistance.” Chris is automatically cast, through association with such terms as “dignified” and “embattled,” in the standard melodramatic persona of the suffering victim. The “file folder” that encased Chris’ face now morphs into a narrowed camera lens, still with his face inside it and is followed by an approximately 2-minute videotaped discussion provided by Chris, to an unseen interviewer, about his tattered
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relationship. Greco tells viewers that Chris is “worried his reconciled ex-wife is expanding her romantic horizons with an unknown gentlemen,” before Chris tells us the story of his relationship. During Chris’ brief explanation of how things went wrong, a large, bright, glimmering golden heart, ripped down the middle, flows across the screen about every 30 seconds, accompanied by a “whish” sound effect. As a visual rhetorical device, this serves to punctuate certain phrases or, sometimes, during virtually all scenes in an episode, helps segue from one scene to another. This tattered golden heart is superimposed over the constant graphical backdrop (during in-studio presentational segments from Greco and his “clients”) of a deep, vibrant, gauzy blue, with the Cheaters logo moving leftward, but always in the background, behind the subjects appearing on screen. The Cheaters logo is framed within a graphically produced image of a magnifying glass, the “C” of Cheaters forming the circular part of the magnifying glass. This rhetorical device both adds to the melodrama being created around the character of Chris and serves as a ubiquitous promotional advertisement for Cheaters itself, a phenomenon Deery (2004) calls “advertainment”—the promotion of advertising products or, in this case, the show itself, within the context of a main storyline. The ripped and tattered “heart of gold” (connoting the notion of fractured romance) superimposed over the Cheaters logo and meshed visually within the icon of the magnifying glass, is a pervasive but inescapably cartoonish reminder of the program’s interwoven messages of surveillance and its subsequent exposure of illicit romance. Semiotically, these nonlinguistic signs—the visual (material-denotative) signifiers—cohere to produce a signified concept, and the resulting signification might be stated as “Your innocent heart of gold has been ripped in half, but through our steadfast detective work, we will investigate the problem, catch the villain and bring him or her to justice.” The rhetoric of Cheaters, like any other television show and, for that matter, any visual-cultural product, is a combination of these semiotic, essentially nonverbal elements (Culler, 1992) and “how” they semiotically create meaning (Seiter, 1992, p. 31) alongside its verbal-narrative content. As an example of the parodic-pastiche at work, these graphical elements serve, at least initially, to ideologically legitimate the tactic of surveillance as an important part in “documenting the pain of a spouse or lover caused by infidelity.” But the garish golden heart, brilliant blue background and ever-present magnifying glass simultaneously serve, in their own graphically cartoonish fashion, as a sly and somewhat playful send-up of the otherwise serious topic at hand, thus offering up a parallel rhetoric of ridicule, subversion, and delegitimation, thereby parodically undermining the seriousness of the surface melodrama. Chris rather quickly explains his situation, before viewers are offered video documentation of what “detectives” ultimately have discovered. This narrative technique conforms to what Thorburn (1987, p. 636) calls television melodrama’s “multiplicity principle,” wherein both protagonists and antagonists serve less as fullblown, carefully explained characters—we never get to know Chris beyond the
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briefly stated, dismal particulars of his immediate dilemma—and more as symbolic bearers of the multiple, stereotypical dilemmas conventionally associated, as themes, within melodrama. As Thorburn (1987) explains: There is no pretense that a given character has been wholly “explained” by the plot, and the formula has the liberating effect of creating a premise or base on which the actor is free to build. By minimizing the need for long establishing or expository sequences, the multiplicity principle allows the story to leave aside the question of how these emotional entanglements were arrived at and to concentrate its energies on their credible and powerful present enactment. (p. 636)
This episode’s cheater, Julie Carlise, age 41, is introduced as a homemaker “seeking satisfaction outside her current relationship,” followed by a visual of a videotaped moving image, in gauzy Black-and-White, of Julie sitting in a playground swing, where she’s in the company of her lover. This phase alone typically involves several days to several weeks of investigation, with all damning evidence (excluding potentially legally “indecent” material) shown, most often in Black-and-White. Frequently, certain portions are placed into freeze-frame, with a graphically produced image of a squared, checkerboard “scope” superimposed around the face of one of the guilty parties. The illicit lovers are also usually introduced by name during this segment. Hidden cameras installed in Chris and Julie’s apartment have caught her and her lover, Robert, on the couch drinking tequila, and on two separate occasions moving into the bedroom to have sex. Cameras installed catch them at one point actually having sex, but viewers see only a few seconds of a blurred image, in conformance with The Federal Communications Commission indecency rules. A secretly taped telephone call from the aggrieved party—in this case, Chris, to the cheater, Julie— is heard, with the latter misrepresenting her intentions as to her whereabouts. A voice-over then explains to viewers, “Cheaters investigators reconvene at the Command Center to prepare a final report to Chris. Coming up—the confrontation,” the latter accompanied by brief visual footage of the “confrontation” viewers will soon witness in full. Here, Cheaters whets viewers’ appetites for the most compelling part of the show, even though the videotaped evidence has yet to be revealed to the client. The client is given the damning evidence on videotape. In this episode, Greco says, facing the camera and addressing viewers: “With Julie’s indiscretions now preserved on tape, Cheaters regretfully must confirm Chris’ worst suspicions. Driven by his desire for the truth, shaken but willful, Chris prepares himself for the imminent conclusion.” Chris views the videotaped evidence, with Greco at one point sternly informing him, after both of them (but not the audience) have viewed Julie in a state of undress, “That’s her tattoo. I’m sorry you have to see this.” The segment always ends with the client being given the “opportunity” to confront the cheating party,
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who is disclosed to be with their illicit mate at some nearby location. The confrontation scene relies, of course, on each “client’s” willingness to publicly confront his or her cheating partner, thus the “opportunity” to confront the cheater is a vital program requirement (White, 2006). Chris and Greco are next shown driving to the site of the confrontation, usually a restaurant or parking lot and talking about what to expect and how the aggrieved partner is likely to respond. In this case, the cheating couple, Julie and Robert, is at a nearby urban lake, leading Chris to comment sardonically, “I’ll bet you they’re not fishin’.” Chris and Greco confront Julie and Robert in the park, and Chris almost immediately pushes Robert into the lake. Robert comes out of the lake, shirt ripped off and attempts to hit Chris, but security guards intervene. Julie is remorseful, with head in hands. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” she tells Chris. Greco tries to draw her out on why she would leave her 3-year-old daughter with a babysitter on this particular evening, but Julie offers no explanation. Greco concludes, speaking to Julie: “I don’t want to sound like the hard guy, but there are a lot of streets named after you.” In this instance, Greco has placed Julie firmly into the role of villain, implying she’s a “dead end.” It is during the confrontation scenes that Greco, the moral arbiter, often inserts his own commentary, usually, as the above example indicates, in rather bombastic assessments, or else in questions designed to get the villain to explain the deception. Greco, as character, thus promotes and sustains the melodramatic element of the unfolding story but simultaneously undercuts it with ironic, yet never overtly comic assessment. Returning to the present episode, Greco then asks Robert, as he and Julie get into Robert’s pick-up truck to flee several video cameras recording their every move, “How are you helping her be a responsible parent?” As Robert gets into his truck, Chris yells, “Y’all are made for each other, Robert!” Robert replies, defiantly directing his comment to Chris, “She deserves better than that!” as Julie yells out, “I’m still a good parent!” “That might be responsible in your world,” Greco replies as the couple anxiously speeds away. Brief dialogue between Greco and Chris ensues about what has transpired. “Adults can be more childish than children,” Greco concludes, attempting to console Chris, who remains stoic. After a commercial break, Greco faces viewers to stoically announce: “With the confrontation behind him and a fresh outlook on life, Chris struggles to put the events into perspective. Later in the show, Cheaters updates you on his progress.” Before we know just how Chris has rehabilitated his life, we are informed, in classic conflict/resolution melodramatic style (Singer, 2001) that there will be a resolution, thus adding a continued melodramatic flair and narrative expectation to the proceedings. Greco reports at the end of the show that, according to Chris, his relationship with Julie is over, but he’ll maintain a relationship with his daughter, who is from Julie’s previous marriage.
Harry / Cheaters
Cheaters as Mass-Mediated Melodramatic Parody Cheaters exemplifies what, in the postmodern age of reality TV, Calvert (2000) calls our contemporary “voyeur nation,” a mass-mediated, socially acceptable obsession with spying on others without, unlike the traditional Peeping Tom, ever having to leave home, to get caught, or even worry about needing psychological treatment (Metzl, 2004). The program, by using real-time surveillance in a mass-entertainment format, reifies undercover spying as a “technology of control” (Andrejevic, 2002, 2006; Bratich, 2006; Campbell & Carlson, 2002) but never raises explicit questions about the ethics behind it, other than, perhaps, Cheaters’ legalistic mantra about a viewer exercising his or her “right to be informed.” The fact that many Cheaters “victims” allow legal undercover videotaping within their own residences truly tangles up otherwise cherished social-ethical notions about the right to privacy and the use, or misuse, of surveillance. Cheaters can certainly be read simply, as nothing more than diversion. As the viewing of even a single episode confirms, its “real reality” is, undeniably, perversely fascinating to watch, as someone (who never asked to be on television) is revealed to millions of viewers as a lying scoundrel and is ultimately brought to account by Joey Greco and the suffering “victim,” who did ask to be on television. In actuality, even the seemingly unmediated aspect of the show—that cheaters never initially asked to be exposed—is complicated by the fact that most of those busted on camera do ultimately allow their names and faces to be shown, most likely persuaded by Cheaters’ willingness to pay up to $2,000 per cheater for the right to do so. The real reality is, in this manner, bribed out of one faithless culprit after another, thus adding journalistic accuracy and an enhanced sense of the real to what nevertheless remains, generically, a stitched-together melodramatic parody of temperance and virtue pitted against sexual intemperance and deceitful immorality. But unlike perhaps most other reality programs, Cheaters achieves something more than just a heightened sense of realism, voyeuristic sensation, and pure melodrama—it weaves spy video and a juicy detective story into a titillating morality tale, albeit with a cynical wink and nudge. At the supertextual level, Cheaters’ own Web site, which sells, among other items, DVDs of previous programs that include uncensored, sexually explicit surveillance footage, evinces its own parodic take on matters of love, lust, and infidelity; the Web site proudly declares: “Cheaters does not discriminate when it comes to exposing guilty pleasures and the resulting pain.” The self-acknowledgment of offering “guilty pleasure,” alongside an admonishment to viewers to take seriously temperance, virtue, and faithfulness, is difficult to read as other than self-parody. Thus a central irony inherent in the discursive framework of Cheaters, and a key to its parodic-pastiche reality effect, is the rhetorical tension it fosters between what can be thought of as neither a moral nor immoral ethical stance, but what amounts to an amoral commercial appeal to rank sensationalism and sexual voyeurism wrapped within an ideological narrative of “traditional” morality. The show’s resulting reality effect transpires as a self-conscious fabrication of “real reality,” via actual
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surveillance footage but within the narrative guise of melodramatic fiction—the villainous cheating party and his or her illicit mate being subjected to a vengeful moral purification ritual, justified punishment for the melodramatic villain’s “persecution of the good” (Feuer, 1991, p. 165). This intense focus on exposing normally private affairs in an especially vengeful manner is perhaps the show’s most sensationalistic element; yet it is also what may be considered a rhetorically absent message, as this issue is addressed neither by the host nor Cheaters “victims” but is an element fundamental to melodrama: the cheatedupon’s strong desire for revenge and a willingness to extract it in a very pronounced way, by publicly shaming their villainous partners in front of several million viewers; this was obvious in the episode involving Chris and Julie. The satisfaction of the protagonist’s revenge, always framed within the context of the Cheaters “confrontation” scene, functions as a contemporary parody of the abject ridicule and public shaming once suffered long ago by wayward villagers being placed, head and neck, into the public stocks. This invocation of revenge and ridicule are central to much reality TV (Andrejevic, 2003; Murray & Ouellette, 2004; Smith & Wood, 2003) and may be important in understanding its growing audience. For example, in an experimental study of 239 adults, Reiss and Wiltz (2004) showed that vicarious enjoyment of “vengeance” or “getting even,” among a small handful of other factors, was important to reality TV viewers, who may associate their pleasure in vengeance to an equal pleasure in “competition” (p. 374). This may be troubling news for the media theorist, social-psychologist, or ethicist. But it is probably welcome news to the makers of reality television, who now have empirical evidence regarding what attracts viewers. This may also provide some insight about why Cheaters can so easily embrace a parodic stance: The “guilty pleasure” Cheaters acknowledges it produces may, from a viewer’s perspective, have everything to do with pleasure but very little to do with guilt, the latter of which stems from the moral impulse. Within any Cheaters episode there exists, as White (2006) also discovered, seemingly contradictory impulses: a rhetorical push, in one direction, toward a highminded moralism grounded in the ideological codes of melodrama and, in another direction, toward a lowbrow, spy-video, sensationalistic thrill of confrontation á la the brouhahas depicted on any episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
Supertextual Considerations This parodic-pastiche narrative is even more firmly established within the supertextual matrix of program content and ads, the latter inviting viewers to purchase a slew of dating services, nonprescription pep pills, penis-enlargement concoctions, and many other personal-enhancement products designed to spice up one’s attractiveness and, at least theoretically, if we take certain ads at their word, one’s sex life.
Harry / Cheaters
Although a fuller analysis of the different ads connected to Cheaters goes beyond the limits of this article, an example of one frequently run ad helps make the point, as it is representative of the primary theme in virtually every ad: an egocentric focus on sex. An advertisement for a penis-enhancement product called Enzyte features a “dorky”-looking but very happy, grotesquely smiling man, “Bob,” surrounded by the attentions of several young, adoring female cheerleaders at a football game tailgate party. Across from them stand several shirtless and pudgy males, looking downtrodden at Bob’s new-found success with the ladies. In another version of the Enzyte ad, which typically runs in conjunction with the first, a man holds a garden hose that spews a steady stream of water, while Bob arrives home to be greeted by his wife, who presents a garishly wide, toothy smile as she greets him at the front door of their home. We then see Bob at a backyard pool party, and a male voice-over (in mockserious tone) tells us how Bob is “living large” and, as we see a man dive into the pool, how Bob has a “new spring of confidence” and a “swelling of pride.” The Enzyte ad provides an example of pure parody that, unlike the more neutral and uncommitted (Jameson, 1991) pastiche-parodic stance of Cheaters, offers no undercurrent of alleged seriousness or higher moral purpose. Viewers of this particular ad are symbolically invited to comically ponder the pure, intemperate pleasure of sex before they return, moments later, to the temperance- and-virtue rhetoric in the main program content. The Enzyte ad, considered alongside the many others focused on sexual pleasure, including for local strip clubs or for “phone sex” lines hawked by scantily clad female models, leaves little doubt of the reigning supertextual theme connecting Cheaters, its surrounding ads, and its viewers into a common rhetorical space.5 Appropriate to the cultural diversity of its youthful audience, Cheaters quite often features episodes involving estranged couples who live together or who sleep together but live separately. Although this last fact is hardly shocking by contemporary standards, it provides another level of irony, as the program’s surface morality is espoused via the Victorianesque “temperance-and-virtue” ideology, which would seem to constrain sexual relations within the exclusive domain of traditional marriage. The fact Cheaters so often features stories of sexually active unmarried couples would seem to imply that “temperance and virtue” should decidedly be read as parody or, at best, as merely secular qualities that need not be associated with the romantic ideal of “married love,” but instead more like the mutual trust and firm handshake implied in everyday business transactions in the amoral, pluralistic-capitalist marketplace—the political-economic social formation that makes Cheaters a viable television commodity. In this sense, Cheaters commodifies quasi-religious Western ideals (and ideologies) of romantic, chivalrous love and trust by treating these notions as simulacra (signs about signs), thereby parodically transforming these ideals (which, in the postmodern era, are themselves simulacra) into a kind of market relationship. Cheaters, in this respect, adopts the professional-ethical stance
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common to all mass-media cultural products designed for popular commercial consumption—amorality, the basis of the capitalist marketplace where (when applied to commercial TV) high ratings, sizable ad revenues, and conventional storylines are the basic business model.
Conclusion One indication that the program may be crafted, perhaps unwittingly, as a pastiche-parody is program creator Bobby Goldstein’s own remarks: “Ever the patron of communication and honesty, we are here to shelter the forsaken and confront the dishonest.” This remark by Goldstein, made to “Business Wire” (2005), is difficult to read as other than self-conscious parody. Cheaters might best be thought of as an exemplar, in the general context of narrative fragmentation (Fiske, 1991), of the “postmodern explosion of micronarratives” (Baetens, 2005, p. 5), of an ongoing “trans-valuation of values” common to the political economy of the postmodern social space, an ideal environment for pastiche to flourish. At the level of the television system, the program actively competes within and draws its several million mostly youthful viewers from the ratings-intensive, demassified, niche-oriented electronic media space, where ever-growing program choices and audience polarity—the latter a tendency for viewers to stick to narrow program types (Webster & Phalen, 1997)—increasingly rule the day. Pastiche’s neutral, uncommitted narrative mode may then, ironically, provide the widest appeal to a relatively narrow but highly lucrative audience demographic. This presentational form draws together genres, styles, and storylines that, in Cheaters’ case, can deal with issues of morality (trust, virtue, temperance) and immorality (deception, infidelity) as competing simulacra cast within an entertaining commercial textual frame whose own ethos, like that of the industry that spawned it, is amoral—the antiethical (or even a-ethical) realm of the “can do” or “will do,” rather than the more properly ethical domains of morality and immorality, with conceptual grounding in the “should” or “should not.” An increasingly fragmented commercial entertainment system is a key element in the political economy specific to a capitalist postmodern social formation, and pastiche—the most open-ended, all-encompassing form of parody—may be its most naturally expressive mode, the genre-in-dominance fundamental to a postmodern era. Cheaters’ brand of melodramatic pastiche finds its place quite naturally within the demassified commercial entertainment system—virtually free of legal restraints, amoral (a-ethical) by design, and interested only in commoditizing cultural fragments as so many saleable cultural products, thereby commodifying these for consumption by demographically specific audiences. Of concern, however, is that by commodifying infidelity as a spectator sport, the program devalues whatever any
Harry / Cheaters
particular individual may attempt to conceive of as a genuine ethics of romantic trust and commitment. It may thereby contribute to pervasive cynicism and, possibly, to further advancing the idea, already placed in motion by many other reality shows, that public revenge and humiliation should be seen only as entertaining, rather than as yet another intrusion into the private realm by contemporary techniques of surveillance. Cheaters may be the most extreme example of the genre-bending trait common to all reality television, a format which, as Lunt (2004) points out, “is in flux, merging with other genres (e.g., talk shows and docudrama) in a way that unsettles traditional categories based on a division between information and entertainment,” (p. 330). This unsettling of traditional categories necessitates, as well, new ways of understanding not only the nature of television but the nature of reality itself (Andrejevic, 2002; Bratich, 2006). Reality TV in the postmodern, culturally fragmented, digitally invasive era of increasing surveillance has nothing to do with “representation” of reality but instead is about more-or-less strategically staged, choreographed interventions, interjections, and immersions into the lives and discrete practices of individuals (Bratich, 2006, pp. 65-67). Considering Cheaters’ naturally (melo)dramatic subject matter, such videotaped, choreographed interventions and immersions into individual slices of life provide a convenient fictional ground for melodramatic parody in the pastiche mode. The pastiche narrative style, simultaneously paying homage to and ridiculing one or more preconceived source texts or sociocultural ideals, draws parasitically on the human drama and intense emotion inherent to romantic infidelity; it appropriates historical and contemporary cultural and moral ideologies within which infidelity can be made sense of, providing a commercially successful creative framework—nonfiction wrapped in fictionality—while shakily maintaining Cheaters’ epistemological claim to “reality.” Cheaters’ parodic, melodramatic pastiche, its “real reality,” does seem to qualify as hyperreal, in which “the real” and its simulated model are one and the same, and about which, according to Baudrillard (1988): “There is no longer any critical and speculative distance between the real and the rational” (p. 84). What remains to be explored much further is the ever-expanding nature of television’s general connection with reality, and the texts that claim to portray it.
Notes 1. For how reality television employs postindustrial techniques of digital-electronic surveillance and video voyeurism to simultaneously construct and deconstruct subject positions, see, for example, Andrejevic (2002, 2003, 2006); Bratich (2006); Calvert (2000); Cavender and Bond-Maupin (1993); DeRose, Fursich, and Haskins (2003); Dowd (2006); Metzl (2004); Murray and Ouellette (2004); Smith and Wood (2003). 2. Narrative is defined in numerous ways, often depending on its occurrence within a distinct medium (see Bordwell, 1986; Deming, 1991). In this article, I follow Deming’s definition of narrative as a story
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whose discourse is “manifested in a medium” (p. 241)—in this case, television. This definition does not exclude ads surrounding a main text from being considered as part of the general medium within which the narrative is rendered. 3. I follow Browne’s (1987) idea of “supertext” in its conceptual-theoretical sense, as looking at a separate text surrounding, and literally outside, but nonetheless interwoven with a main text. This differs from how DeRose et al. (2003) employ the word in their informative analysis of Blind Date. There, supertext is defined as captioned messages within the main program text, the former functioning to contradict and destabilize the ongoing drama and subject positions depicted in the program itself. 4. In fact, in other regions of the country, where I have had occasion to view the program the ads might be somewhat less focused overall on sexual or ego-centered products or services. My analysis of program and related ad content is limited to a relatively large, urban-metropolitan viewing region (see endnote 5 for more on this point). Differences in ad content for any nationally broadcast television program have to do partly with how national and/or local television advertisers differ in different viewing regions and partly with differences in audience demographics from one viewing region to another. But a somewhat lesser number of sexually focused ads connected to Cheaters in different television markets may also be a sign that the program is gradually attracting more mainstream advertisers as the show’s longevity steadily renders it more acceptable to more mainstream advertisers. 5. Although Cheaters’ overall demographics, as mentioned earlier, skew nationally toward an 18-to34-year-old female audience, many ads in the Pittsburgh viewing region skewed more toward younger to middle-age males. Many ads were for “phone sex” services, of most interest to males in general. Still others were for things like foot cream or pep pills, the latter two products being of more interest, one would guess, to a middle-age audience of both men and women. There also were many other ads for various dating services, these probably being of equal interest to younger men and women. The general tone and content of the majority of ads, however, was clearly focused on ego-enhancement and, specifically, on products or services advancing a salaciously sexual theme, including within the dating service ads of interest to both genders. My example of the Enzyte penis-enhancement ad is used to best demonstrate the comical, sensationalist sexual theme emerging from many ads to help make the case for Cheaters’ melodramatic-parodic stance, founded in simultaneously upholding sexual morality and skewering it in both program content and the sexually liberal ads supporting the show.
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Joseph C. Harry is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. He has published journal articles and book chapters focused on the sociology of journalism and news sourcing, on issues of stereotyping, rhetoric, and semiotics in mass-media products, and on ethical issues depicted in popular films. His research interests are in the interrelated areas of media sociology and political economy and the textual analysis of mass-media products via rhetoric, semiotics, and sociolinguistics.