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Reality TV and the Empire of Assumed Authority

Reality TV and the Empire of Assumed Authority

ID’s viral Nickelodeon documentary and Matt Walsh’s new court show expose the ethical bankruptcy of nonfiction television.

“Nickelodeon wasn’t there to educate you,” former Double Dare host Marc Summers says just before a three-decade-old clip of the network’s trademark green goo dousing Steven Spielberg. “We were there to have fun, to get slimed, to be entertained.” For the filmmakers behind ID and Max’s, Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, an interview with Summers was essential. As the only adult in the room to get it during the golden age of Nick, he’s the authoritative source on the network, the cable-based parent for the millennial generation.

So, it’s quite odd when Summers disappears from the 5-part docuseries a half hour in. Directors Emma Schwartz and Mary Robertson make it seem as if he’s just so disgusted by the phallic imagery of a clip featuring Ariana Grande trying to juice a potato with her hands from her juggernaut 2013 show Sam & Cat that he had nothing else to say. 

However, Summers revealed the real reason shortly after the show went viral late last month: he felt ambushed—the mark of a bait and switch meant to sully his persona and that of the cable station that rocketed him to fame. Of course, Schwartz and Robertson categorically denied the allegation. Their intent was sterling.

Nickelodeon may not be there to educate us, but filmmakers like the minds behind Quiet on Set see it as their bounden duty. And, like the majority of crime shows and salacious docs with the primary intent of driving a wedge between us and our nostalgia, they must obliterate notions of truth and context to have any shot at dominating the pop-culture conversation.

Since its premiere, Quiet on Set has captured the attention of the media and public alike. Publications as storied as The Cut and The New York Times devoted thousands of words to detailed summaries of each episode–what apparently passes for legacy media cultural criticism at the moment. Featuring interviews with the now-grown child stars who made up the stable of Nickelodeon during the reign of mega showrunner Dan Schneider from 1994-2018, its endgame is to build a case against the children’s TV guru, crafting a one-sided kangaroo court that had no real intentions of parsing out a greater truth.

Indeed, the series became such a cultural force that it tacked on an additional chapter and trotted out Soledad O’Brien as host to give the proceedings a bit more prestige. This special episode begins with a montage of average TikTokers opining on Nickelodeon's ethics. Not to be outdone, O’Brien excoriates the legacy media’s complete disinterest in covering the series of child endangerment scandals that plagued the network throughout the early 2000s (that she spent the period hosting a CNN morning show with the resources to have taken the lead on said reporting doesn’t seem to register). 

The problem with Quiet on Set isn’t that it's an unwarranted hit piece. Schneider has a clear history of verbal abuse and toxicity. Nickelodeon hiring three pedophiles who were all arrested within a matter of months speaks to the failures of laws and policies meant to keep child actors safe. The bombshell revelation that former superstar Drake Bell spent his teen years being routinely sexually abused by Nick dialogue coach Brian Peck is equal parts astonishing and heartbreaking as are the recently unsealed letters of support the convicted pedophile received from Hollywood players like James Marsden, Alan Thicke, and Boy Meets World stars Rider Strong and Will Friedle. 

The issue is that Schwartz and Robertson have built a narrative framework under the guise of formative journalism that hinges on a complete denial of context. Throughout its talking-head-heavy trip down memory lane, the filmmakers show the same batch of questionable seconds-long clips culled from the nearly 1,000 hours of programming Schneider created for the network. There’s Jamie Lynn Spears and the female cast of Zoey 101 in short skirts. A weird joke in which a pre-arrest Peck gives guest star Ray Romano a pickle through what looks like a glory hole. Grande lying on a bed while pouring water on herself. Kids getting slimed and squirted with substances across several series.

As the biggest name among the show's interviewees, Bell gets the lion’s share of attention. However, most of Quiet on Set’s testimony comes from actors who had minor roles on hits like All That and The Amanda Show or journalists like Business Insider’s Kate Taylor and BuzzFeed’s Scaachi Koul. To her credit, Taylor has earned her expertise, the reporter who worked to unseal Peck’s letters of support and cover the scandals since Schneider parted ways with Nick. But, though she speaks the most authoritatively on problems plaguing the network, Koul lacks bona fides, a master of compelling narratives with all the substance of the listicles that made her outlet famous. 

In truth, Koul’s primary function is to obscure any critical assessments of the series’ arguments with a flashy, jargon-forged veneer. Schneider was clearly a ruthless and often abusive boss, but, as Brett Martin’s book Difficult Men detailed, so were the creators behind the most influential TV shows of the era from Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos to Mad Men and Breaking Bad. A filmmaker could reproduce Quiet on Set’s episodic structure and rhetoric wholehog and apply it to any given hit television show completed before the #MeToo era with little variation.

There’s a reason that even after the fall of Schneider, two of Paramount+’s biggest hits have been a reboot of his iCarly and Good Burger 2, a sequel to the cult classic based on a sketch from the showrunner’s breakout series All That. There’s also a reason that since the Schneiders, Joss Whedons, and Matthew Weiners got what was coming to them, no television series released in the past decade has had the same cultural impact they routinely engineered. Excellence doesn’t excuse bad behavior, but it's also not a result entirely achieved by manners. 

More revealing about the show’s ethical dubiousness are Koul and the former cast members’ lobbing of accusations of sexism and racism against Schneider. As the “culture writer” admits, Schneider’s work with Amanda Bynes was a pioneering depiction of women on television–a breakdown of the Shirley Temple-Siren dynamic on which the entertainment industry was built. But even though he was one of the few showrunners to hire female writers in the 90s, he allegedly paid them less. Also, the guy who built his brand on The Amanda Show once said women weren’t funny, a statement that needs no further assessment just like Schneider giving SNL legend Keenan Thompson his big break and spinning off Good Burger into a movie franchise. 

Amid the sleek outrage, it’s difficult to ponder Quiet on Set’s array of contradictions. Does ID and Max’s parent company, Warner Media, have a vested interest in a takedown of rival studio Paramount’s crown jewel of children’s programming? Do the former child actors interviewed have a beef with Schnieder because they didn’t reach the same heights as Thompson, Bynes, Grande, and Bell–the sole Nick A-lister who agreed to an interview and makes clear his former boss was the only one remotely interested in his wellbeing after the assault allegations came to light? Does sensationalizing Bell’s story to the point the revelation of his identity is the second episode’s cliffhanger constitute its own form of exploitation? What role do opportunistic stage parents and the public at large play in this voyeuristic claptrap that most benefits personalities like Koul and O’Brien?

The last person I expected to provide any insight into such questions was the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, but his new sendup of court shows, Judged, is the shot through the heart of the reality TV apparatus that exposes its ethical rot. The running gag is that Walsh doesn’t have a law degree, utterly unqualified to do this job in the first place. A hybrid of Abraham Lincoln and Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, Walsh has long been a commanding presence–not someone in need of glomming onto a reality show as a talking head to get a few more X followers and a better agent. 

Like Judges Wapner, Judy, and Brown before him, Walsh’s half-hour series finds him settling real-life petty disputes with a heavy dose of blistering asides. Better described as a docucomedy, it has as much in common with Night Court and its recent reboot as its daytime TV predecessors. Walsh is far more concerned with letting us know he’s playing the expert than feigning his expertise, leaning into the artifice in a way most damning to reality programming, whether intentionally or not.

Unlike most conservative alternative content, Walsh’s nonplussed attitude makes the show hilarious. He looks in awe at the worst half of a bickering couple who tells him that, if her ex didn’t want her to drive his car, he should have hidden the keys. He can’t hide his contempt for the woman suing her former friend who ODs on lip injections for which she couldn’t read the directions because they were in Korean.

However, most telling about Judged is that these people want to be on television. Any embarrassment about their actions is subservient to their fifteen minutes. While the series does exploit their antics for laughs, one gets the impression that Walsh would rather live in a world where shows like this don’t have to exist. His responses sometimes cross the line into the ungentlemanly (the images of these plumped-up lips have enough pathos without an outright admonishment). Regardless, Walsh is under no illusions he has any authority whatsoever, an attitude his more mainstream contemporaries would do well to learn. 

Quiet on Set is streaming on Max. Judged is streaming on Daily Wire+