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When producers of reality TV are looking to reframe the narratives around their project from “trash” to “substance,” a common tactic is to refer to the show as a “social experiment.” Jeff Probst does it all the time on Survivor. Ashton Kutcher went so far as to deem a little show called Beauty and the Geek “the ultimate social experiment.”
It’s a strategy Nick Bilton, a longtime journalist making his directing debut, uses repeatedly on HBO’s Fake Famous. Whether that cements its place as the Morgan Spurlock-esque blend of weighty and frivolous it obviously intends to be or just reminds you that it’s basically an early ’00s reality show without enough process to fill multiple hours is up to the viewer. Packaging this flimsy-yet-generally-entertaining production as an “HBO documentary” probably draws an audience too snobby to watch a hypothetical Who Wants to Be a Social Media Star? on The WB.
AIR DATE Feb 02, 2021
That, and I mostly don’t mean it pejoratively, is what Fake Famous is.
Bilton, who has spent a career covering tech for publications including Vanity Fair (Graydon Carter is an executive producer here) and The New York Times, begins the series with a casting call in Los Angeles with the enticing lure, “Do you want to be famous?” They received 4,000 applicants (which seems low) and, after a series of auditions, chose three subjects with the criteria mainly that they had to be generally aspiring influencers with underwhelming follower counts, and that they had no single talent that was likely to earn them recognition under other circumstances. With training, tricks-of-the-trade and deceitful shortcuts-of-the-trade, Bilton hopes to turn these three wannabes into social media supernovas, for better or worse.
There’s a lot of disingenuousness afoot in Fake Famous; a lot of effort and a fair amount of money is poured into a “social experiment” in which the conclusions include the shocking revelation that if you take an attractive, likable young blonde with no reservations about corner-cutting, buy her tens of thousands of followers and post lots of pictures of her in a bathing suit, she very well might become “famous” enough to be sent free lip balm.
The blonde in question is Dominique, an aspiring actress and agreeably goofy personification of the girl-next-door. She’s joined by Wylie, pressured to the point of needing therapy by the standards of gay social media, and Chris, who aspires to be a fashion designer and declares without irony that he wants to achieve online fame on his own terms.
As in any good season of America’s Next Top Model — Tyra would be proud of Dominique’s ability to “smize” — all three contenders get makeovers and are put through a series of glossy photoshoots. Bilton teaches them shortcuts, like how a toilet seat and a clip art background can make it appear that you’re flying first-class or how pats of butter coated in cocoa powder can look like a fancy chocolate for a decadent picture. And that’s before we get into purchasing social engagements.
A lot of the games Bilton is playing with his three protégés are fun, but they can’t rival the games he’s playing with the audience to obscure what is manifestly and instantly clear: that he chose three people for his “social experiment” and two of them are duds. Even if you think that they’re interesting duds — and they are, which is why I’m not “spoiling” the nature of their dud-ness — at a very early point, Bilton the filmmaker has to start compensating for how his three-pronged narrative suddenly has only one prong. And that’s before COVID-19 hits, forcing both abrupt truncation and an artificially imposed thematic conclusion that, as I’m willing to bet Bilton the journalist would probably confess, the rest of his story didn’t earn.
There’s an argument to be made — one I’d even be willing to listen to — that attempting to graft hollow self-seriousness onto an exploration of the hollowness of online fame is appropriately ironic. There’s a more persuasive argument to be made that attempting to graft George Floyd and the isolating realities of COVID quarantine onto a story that’s really mostly about taking selfies in front of the Paul Smith “pink wall” is borderline gross. If you’re lumping social media social activism in with general influencer culture, you’re either making your thesis too broad or you need to better justify that thesis.
Nothing in the three portraits of Bilton’s aspiring social media superstars comes close to the nuance and empathy in a documentary like Jawline, which did a much better job of blending “You’re so old!” informational aspects for the geriatric (anybody older than millennial) audience and actual relatability for younger viewers. Still, Bilton gets some interesting tidbits of information from various expert talking heads ranging from Justine Bateman to journalists like Taylor Lorenz and Sarah Frier. Liz Eswein, herself an Instagram entrepreneur, makes many of the best points, basically explaining influencers as infomercial hosts, both a damning and surprisingly apt description.
I was engaged, but completely unconvinced by Fake Famous. But I also have only 200 Instagram followers, so what do I know?
Premieres Tuesday, February 2, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO