Whose Reality TV?

"Tune in this week to Frederick Wiseman's PBS documentary, Domestic Violence, to see some real survivors."

Reality TV, as you may have noticed if you've gotten hooked or channel surfed lately, is anything but. It's television that is meant to be gawked at as much as viewed, and succeeds not by being realistic or resembling the lives of everyday people, but rather by offering a fantastical escape to an exotic island or other isolated and alternate world.

You want real reality TV? Try Frederick Wiseman Domestic Violence, a harrowing six-hour documentary that airs Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS. (Tuesday's installment focuses on the stories of residents at a shelter for battered spouses; Wednesday's portion trails couples in court proceedings). The contrast in mood and method between Wiseman's work and the network freak shows is plain: the upbeat suspense is replaced by more genuine and heartfelt pacing; the quick edits and glib hosts have been removed so as to get out of reality's way. The result is raw, bold, if at times indigestible television. "I'm not making movies about sensational events," Wiseman told the New York Observer. "I'm making movies about the common experience."

It takes some getting used to, and requires what commercial TV almost never asks of viewers: patience and an investment of time and emotion. The reward is a subtly uplifting portrayal of women piecing together their broken lives. The 73-year-old Wiseman's works, which include Juvenile Court and Public Housing, "stand as examples of television's still-present-yet-mostly-abdicated power to transfix and inform," wrote the Observer.

Set in Tampa, Florida, the documentary begins with jerky, Cops-like shots of police responding to domestic violence calls and proceeds to a shelter where we sit in on intake sessions. At first, this feels voyeuristic. (In an interview ...

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Whose Reality TV?
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