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Shain Gandee died doing precisely what made him the star of MTV's “BUCKWILD” reality show: tearing through mudholes in his truck, taking chances most others wouldn't, living free and reckless.
MTV has not said whether cameras were rolling the night Gandee, his uncle and a friend left a bar at 3 a.m. to go “muddin'.” But the line between television and real life blurred in one fatal moment when Gandee's vehicle got stuck in a deep mudpit. He and two passengers were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Was Gandee living for the cameras that night, or for himself? Did his on-camera life, and the rewards it brought him, make him more reckless when the camera lights were off?
And how does the audience fit into this picture, the 3 million weekly viewers who made “BUCKWILD” a hit, plus the many millions more who have made shows from “Jersey Shore” to “Dancing With the Stars” to “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” a living, breathing part of our culture? How has reality TV shaped perceptions of real life — and of our own lives?
Everywhere you look these days, the lines blur.
Evan Ross Katz is a fan of “BUCKWILD,” which followed a group of self-described rednecks’ “wild and crazy behavior” in rural West Virginia. Katz watches about a dozen reality shows for his work as a freelance pop culture commentator, and he says Gandee felt more real than other stars.
“I want to believe that was him in real life,” Katz says. “Sometimes you just get this impression. I really do believe you can tell when people are being genuine or not on these shows.”
“I found him to be strangely genuine, by far the most genuine of the group. Some of them wanted to pour it down your throat, like, ‘We're the wildest kids in West Virginia.’ I don't think he showed any sort of agenda to prove he lived this different life. I just think he organically did.”
Katz, 23, is roughly the same age as the modern reality TV genre, which MTV is credited with launching in 1992 with “The Real World.” Like many other viewers, he knows that reality television is carefully shaped by producers looking for storylines and conflicts. He watches ironically, sometimes condescendingly — “look at their stupid life, they're stupid” — and takes it all in with a grain of salt.
Yet still he is drawn to the personalities and the dramas, especially the combative women on “The Real Housewives” series.
“I never expected to become invested in them the way I do,” Katz says.
“Housewives” fights may affect the way he deals with drama in his own life: “When someone takes a small situation over the top, it's the worst. You feel like you're on one of these shows. But if two of my friends get into a huge fight in front of me, I let it go for a little while before I jump in.”
“Is that a byproduct of reality television? Probably,” Katz said.
Then there is another byproduct of reality-TV culture: the compulsion, enabled by social media, to broadcast everything about yourself.
Who needs a TV show when you can Instagram that hamburger, YouTube that roller coaster, tweet about the twit who just cut in line? Then comes the feeling of validation from every “like” and click and retweet — a fulfillment of the basic human need for attention.
Some have a deeper thirst — for fame. Their every post is one more chance to go viral, to reach the promised land of recognition: television.
“People misbehaving is nothing new,” says Tyler Barnett, owner of a public relations company in Beverly Hills and a former cast member on several reality shows.
“What's new is the ability to misbehave to a global audience almost instantly,” he says. “This is very encouraging to people to keep doing outrageous things. People can share so easily, it ups the ante on what's considered outrageous.”
Barnett has tasted reality fame as a cast member on “Party Monsters Cabo.” He found it addicting.
“After being on camera for a month straight, almost 24 hours a day, when I got home I felt very depressed. And I'm not a depressed person,” Barnett says. “I had so much attention, and that felt good. When I was pulled out of that situation, it felt very low.”
“It's almost like a drug,” Barnett continues. “You figure if someone is on a drug, they're higher than life. When you come down, all of a sudden life doesn't seem that exciting.”
Daily life can also seem mundane for viewers entertained by escapades like the spectacle of Gandee and friends leaping from a roof into a dump truck full of water.
“You're sitting there at home, watching on TV, thinking, ‘Wow, this is so much more exciting than my own life. Let me go out and try this. Maybe I can get on a reality show,’” says Lou Manza, a psychology professor at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.
Of course, the vast majority of viewers would never fill a dump truck with water, let alone leap into it from a rooftop. And it's too simplistic to blame reality TV for the failings of modern society.
“It's important not to dismiss what happened (to Gandee) by pointing fingers at a genre of television that's a giant tent with many different kinds of shows and productions and varying degrees of ethical behavior,” says Andy Denhart, who has followed reality television for 12 years as editor of RealityBlurred.com.
“What's important is to continue a conversation about what entertains us, and what are the consequences of our entertainment,” he says. “What are the consequences of fame, and what are we learning watching other people's lives?”
AP National Writer Jesse Washington is reachable at http://twitter.com/jessewashington or jwashington(at)ap.org.