Critic's Notebook: TV's Fabulously Fake Summer

From left to right: Courtesy of VH1, Netflix and ABC
From left: 'RuPaul's Drag Race,' 'Glow' and 'Boy Band'

Television has long been obsessed with authenticity, but this summer's most vital shows are defined by artifice, embellishment and make-believe.

Most people today would agree that diversity in pop culture — meaning an entertainment industry that showcases a variety of stories and perspectives via characters and creatives whose numbers reflect those of the real world — offers significant benefits. But there's far less consensus about what those benefits are and how they should be measured. When it comes to television, diversity is usually gauged through statistics: How many more shows center on queer experiences this year compared to last? How much less are women or actors of color paid compared to their male/white co-stars? How many series does Shonda Rhimes currently have on the air? 

Numbers are important. But it’s also worth asking if television's recent embrace of inclusive programming has changed the medium in unquantifiable ways. Are the diverse stories that we're telling now, for example, championing different values or worldviews than those of yore? I'd like to believe so. And three of the freshest, funnest shows of the summer suggest that's the case as well. 

Curiously for an industry predicated on making stuff up, Hollywood suffers from an age-old hang-up about authenticity as an ideal. The pillars of prestige TV hinge on their protagonists' journeys toward their true selves: The Sopranos often found Tony in a Freudian trek through his own unconscious, his dreams and memories refusing to be repressed a second longer; Breaking Bad traced Walter White as he connected to the sociopath within; at least in its early years, Mad Men presented Don Draper as the ultimate hollow man — a master of surfaces who kept his birth identity a secret, even from his wife. More recently, in series as disparate as Legion, Catastrophe, This Is Us and 13 Reasons Why, characters must stop lying to themselves and others in order to become "real" men. (Not coincidentally, the quest for authenticity seems to be a mostly male-dominated narrative.) 

But let us thank the television gods that this summer has brought us a trio of shows that flout the authenticity race, allowing us to embrace artifice as a virtue and thus experiment with relatively novel stakes and values. And while it may just be a passing — and seasonally appropriate — trend, perhaps this thoughtful shake-up of our values will lead to new and different types of stories.

RuPaul's Drag Race (VH1), recently nominated for a whopping seven Emmys, kicked off this proudly fake summer. Nine seasons in, the reality competition is as influential as it's ever been, in large part because of its spectacles of transformation. The cuts from a queen in full makeup to him in male-presenting street clothes are a series mainstay, as well as one of its biggest visual draws. Those cuts also help celebrate the artifice inherent in drag — and, if you're feeling cerebral, the masquerade that is the binary gender system. (If any man can temporarily present as a woman or vice versa, what right does anyone have to dictate what a man or a woman should look like?) 

In the Drag Race universe, artifice is pleasure, beauty and a talent that often takes years to cultivate. The selection of this year's winner underlined the show's all-accepting messaging in lipstick red: Sasha Velour, a Lady Gaga-esque queen whose looks veer more toward the avant garde than traditional glamour, took the crown outfitted like an albino lizard alien in her wedding dress, her immaculately painted head shorn of hair. The season finale was a stunning reminder that some of our most memorable aesthetic experiences are those so not-of-this-world we need a singular visionary to dream them up. 

Somehow lauding artifice even more earnestly than Drag Race is Boy Band (ABC), the new reality series hosted by Rita Ora that aims to cobble together the next One Direction by season's end. The synthetic nature of this endeavor is blatant: It's hard to overstate the extent to which boy bands, which cater to young female audiences, have historically been denigrated for their "fraudulence." The laundry list of complaints reaches back at least to the Monkees: being grouped together by a producer rather than coming together organically; not writing their own songs or playing their own instruments; looking better than they sing. Unless their names are Michael Jackson or Justin Timberlake, they tend to be categorically dismissed as sham musicians.  

Boy Band isn't the first reality show of its kind; Lou Pearlman put together O-Town nearly two decades ago on ABC/MTV’s Making the Band. But the current celebration of this most artificial of musical groups — and the utterly unreal brand of nonthreatening masculinity it peddles (the Boy Band boys willingly embody easily marketable identities) — feels like some kind of progress. Boy Band signals that, as consumers, we're sophisticated enough to accept that not every musician needs to be a crackerjack singer, dancer, songwriter and showman — especially when said musician is still a teen. Musical authenticity is overrated when all you want is to just feel gooey for three minutes. And whatever the actual motivations of the Boy Band contestants, the complete lack of embarrassment those boys evince about being converted into pin-ups for girls honestly feels like a social development from the future. Girls' sexualities deserve to be taken as seriously as boys' do. 

Reality TV has taught us to suspend our disbelief, if only temporarily, to enjoy "unscripted" (in actuality, carefully choreographed) shows. A willing acceptance of artificiality is practically written into the genre. Thus, it's all the more noteworthy when a scripted series embraces artifice, as GLOW (Netflix) does. The fictionalized retelling of how the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) league emerged in the late 1980s details its creators' calculated rejection of authenticity. Who cares if wrestling or racial stereotypes or soap-opera storylines are "fake," if they're staged or simplistic or convoluted? It's not their artifice that counts, but the power they invoke. 

Most of the joys of GLOW’s wonderful debut season lie in the characters' learning how to harness the emotional intensity of those contrivances into a viable entertainment product. Thus unhappy new mom and failed soap-opera actress Debbie (Betty Gilpin) gets to feel like she's the height of desirable womanhood when playing the all-American Liberty Belle, while struggling thespian Ruth (Alison Brie) finally learns how to exploit the fact that people don't like her as she struts around the ring as the heel (i.e., wrestling villain) Zoya the Destroya, a fur-capped Soviet gladiatrix. To their spectators, Zoya and Liberty Belle are little more than Cold War anxieties come to life in glittery spandex. But for Ruth and Debbie, those national caricatures are lifelines to personal fulfillment and professional accomplishment. After all, as GLOW creative director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) says of his new project's appeal (a statement that also applies to these artifice-cherishing shows themselves): "It's not about the lie. It's about where the lie takes you."