Sean. Dan. Sue. Dirk. Joel. Debbie. Lori. Julie. Shelly. Tina Fabulous. Jackie. John. Jessie. Tiara. Kelly B.
One was a lumberjack lawyer. One was a frat boy. One drove trucks. One carried a Bible. One lived on a farm. One was a “psycho.” One was a Mormon. One got eliminated in the first round. One sold prescription drugs and loved football. One had no gay-dar. One was average. One was fired. One could sing. One was transformed. And every single one of them was from Wisconsin.
Even if you’ve managed to steer clear of the reality programming for the past four years and have carefully avoided the day-after water-cooler talk about who did what to whom and why, it is still virtually impossible to be unaffected by this national and yet surprisingly local phenomena.
Ever since “Survivor” debuted in the summer of 2000 with three different cast members (Sue, Dirk and Joel) claiming Dairy State origins, American reality shows cannot seem to get enough of Wisconsin. “The Bachelor,” “American Idol,”Survivor,” “The Real World,” “The Swan,” “The Apprentice,” “Big Brother,” “Average Joe” and “Playing it Straight” are just a handful of the television shows to feature Wisconsinites as cast members. “Elimidate” and “Blind Date” seem to be here at least every other week. And auditions for future reality programming have become as familiar to the Milwaukee bar scene as free rail drinks for “ladies” on a Wednesday night.
I had always been under the assumption that the rest of the country (or at least people on the coasts) grouped Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois into a large Midwestern lump not unlike the way we view Kentucky/Tennessee or Alabama/Arkansas/Mississippi/Louisiana. We have our own dialect, drive American cars, drink cheep beer, wear fashion a few years late and possess a strange work ethic that leads to setting 5 a.m. alarm clocks and writing gratuitous “thank you” letters. Oh, and we’re all obnoxiously white and Christian. But oddly, there seems to be two Wisconsin residents for every one girl from Minneapolis or Chicago. Most are usually bright-eyed, obnoxiously cheery and naïve, though we also seem to produce a plethora of chain-smoking, hard-drinking surly tramps. Sometimes, though this is very rare, the two archetypes are combined for a surprisingly well-rounded character that tends to make it through most elimination rounds. But why us? Surely other Midwestern states have their share of simpletons and skanks chomping at the bit for a chance at national exposure.
According to Milwaukee native and television producer Mia Kaminsky, who has worked as the casting producer for “Shipmates,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” and “Blind Date,” “Wisconsin produces the most flavorful people from the Midwest–we have our own accent and stereotype, but most of us are not so far removed that we’re not hip to the ways of the world. In other words, we make good TV!”
So we make good characters, but is this reality phenomenon damaging to the image of Wisconsin residents? The majority of us did not grow up on an apple orchard or spend our Sunday, Sunday, Sundays at Great Lakes Dragaway in Union Grove, Wis. My experience in the suburbs of Milwaukee was one-half Dazed and Confused and one-half Mean Girls. The kids I grew up with lied, manipulated, forged signatures and lit things on fire. Not to mention, in the words of “Seinfeld’s” Elaine Benes, “teased someone until they developed an eating disorder.” (It was, after all, Brookfield.) Little House on the Prairie –or really anything involving manual labor and livestock–might as well have taken place on Mars. The State Fair was where you could get fried things on a stick, not where you earned a ribbon.
And thus, like many other Wisconsinites, I feel slighted by the naïve, stock character we produce who steps foot out of his or her small town for the first time–on national television, no less–and instantly discovers that the world is populated by people of different colors, backgrounds and sexual orientations. Sure they’re still better than the greasy drunks from “Elimidate” who exude the trashy sadness of a Water Street bachelorette circa 2:30 a.m., but only because they’re so damn innocent. It’s really only a matter of time before Mormon Julie or no-gaydar Jackie becomes the Miller-swilling, trash-talking, hard-boiled Susan Hawk.
Granted, all of this could be an act that the particular reality “star” developed in order to get on television in the first place. Wisconsin residents seem more than eager to get their 15 minutes of fame vying for a creepy trust-funder with an eye twitch. (No offense, Firestone.) And long before anyone ever heard of Tina “Fabulous” Panas, Wisconsin had the highest “Bachelor” ratings of any state. Kaminsky thinks it has to do with location, that people like “The Apprentice’s” Jessie or Kelly B. from “The Swan” are using reality programming as a means to capitalize on opportunities currently unavailable in our area–and on someone else’s dime. While compiling research, I did notice that the majority of these reality contestants were now living out of state and usually owning their own business, something they may not have been able to afford before their respective show’s hoopla.
So maybe this is a good thing, a kind of mutual exploitation on behalf of Wisconsinites and Hollywood, a symbiotic relationship between the host and the secretly devious ingenue. Hmm, I guess now I don’t feel guilty for watching this trash after all.
(Originally published June 10, 2004)