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Something is brewing among the biggest purveyors of reality television. TLC has now joined the likes of National Geographic, History and Discovery in climbing out of the mire of unscripted primordial ooze by creating its own scripted series: Surviving the In-Laws. The show is not yet ready to stand upright though; the two-part series (which TLC will air back-to-back) is acting as a backdoor pilot. If popular, it will not only likely get a full series order, but also serve as a pioneer for more scripted fare.
TLC is usually the television equivalent of a Victorian sideshow, what with the channel’s love of the strange, the taboo and the Honey Boo Boo. But what’s interesting about Surviving the In-Laws is that on a channel where exposure is the thing, this series has a clandestine nature. The episodes start off with the note that each of the vignettes (two per episode) are based on real stories with identities changed to “protect the guilty.” The very idea that people want to be protected and that they don’t want the spotlight may be the most interesting thing of all.
It’s nice to get some interest somewhere though because the vignettes themselves aren’t particularly fascinating. The show trades in the cliche of horrible in-laws, with a showcase of quirky irritations and light bickering from overbearing mothers, badly behaved step-relations and interfering grandparents. One husband puts forth his case meekly: “I love my wife, but I’m scared of my Mama.” The episodes bounce from one family to the next, with each tale of woe playing out as a one-off joke that doesn’t allow viewers to connect beyond a brief and superficial feeling of either sympathetic understanding or a relief that this isn’t them.
Each story is narrated by a young, seemingly well-off couple who do their one-on-one interviews from the comforts of a couch. Their stories are then supplemented visually with handy “home video footage” of the problems they’re discussing. Occasionally though that’s replaced by professional footage, which gives viewers the opportunity to be there when the inevitable fights start — just like the kind of “fortuitous timing” that happens in a particular brand of reality show — but given the rest of this show’s format, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Surviving the In-Laws relies heavily on reality TV constructs — nerves are short, tensions are high, explosions of emotions happen, everyone cools off and nothing is solved. Rinse. Repeat. Even the editing and choice of soundtrack during the dramatic moments is familiarly reminiscent of what’s used on TLC’s unscripted series. Like NBC’s faux-reality show Siberia, Surviving the In-Laws feels too much like a standard issue reality show when it’s not, especially because it’s also not trying to be a satirical send-up of the format (like Yahoo’s Bachelor-parody web series Burning Love). Its impression is ultimately a muddled one.
Surviving the In-Laws is an evolutionary step for TLC away from reality toward the fully scripted; however, it’s still so tied to the channel’s reality roots the movement appears to be in the most nascent of stages.
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