The Real Deals of Reality TV

Two days after Joe Millionaire thinned his harem to a bondage-flick queen and a mysterious pouty-lipped chickie named Zora, Frederick Wiseman-blissfully unaware of it all-sliced into a lamb shank at Lutece.

“I had it once here before,” the 73-year-old documentary filmmaker said, digging in.

Yes: The director of Titicut Follies , Juvenile Court and Public Housing knows his way around haute cuisine. So what? So what if it felt weird talking to Mr. Wiseman about his latest project for PBS-the harrowing but uplifting six-hour, two-part epic Domestic Violence -while tucking into a pretty plate of foie gras.

It didn’t matter. Amid television’s brain-dead reality wave, Mr. Wiseman was surely the one of the last honest men standing. Especially when considered against today’s schlock- Celebrity Mole , for goodness’ sake-Mr. Wiseman’s spare, narrator-less vérités of contemporary American life-first made as films, but then broadcast on PBS-stand as examples of television’s still-present-yet-mostly-abdicated power to transfix and inform. Even if fewer people have seen Mr. Wiseman’s combined 30-plus-film oeuvre than will watch the finale of The Bachelorette .

But Mr. Wiseman was oblivious to the contrast. Though Domestic Violence -a chronicle of spousal abuse in Tampa, Fla., which airs in two parts on March 18 and 19 on PBS/Thirteen-will no doubt be hailed as one of the best programs of the year by the people dedicated enough to watch all of it, Mr. Wiseman chooses to live a life utterly removed from television. He deflected comparisons between his work and current programs, reality or otherwise.

“I don’t think I even know what the names of most of these shows are,” Mr. Wiseman said. “I have watched one or two minutes of some of these shows, but it’s just of no interest to me. I don’t watch much television at all except for basketball and tennis.”

It was probably better this way. It wasn’t that Mr. Wiseman is a bystander to culture at large: He can talk lyrically about theater (he’s a playwright, too), art and, yes, fine restaurants. But it’s because he extricates himself from television and its trends and phony conventions-and to a certain extent, documentary filmmaking’s trends and phony conventions-that he’s managed to make work that’s original and daring. (Original and daring in the authentic sense, not the lame-o Bill Maher sense.)

Indeed, still making movies in his eighth decade, Mr. Wiseman, trained as a lawyer, seems preserved in some kind of reality-TV amber. He’s still going out with his tiny crew of two additional people and shooting hours upon hours, and he’s anything but showbiz. On this afternoon he was dressed in a rumpled sweater and sport coat that looked like it should contain a dog-eared copy of Proust.

“I am so far removed from the world of television that I don’t have to think about it,” he said.

This wasn’t self-deprecating schtick; He was removed. When someone brought up PBS’ recent reality-series hit- Frontier House , in which a group of modern-day settlers were schlepped out to Montana to live under strict log-cabin standards-he looked as mystified as a 10th-century time traveler seeing a DVD player for the first time. He shook his head when told about a coming publicity stunt for a Civil War movie in which actors will replicate a Confederate-Union battle in Central Park, the cost of which could undoubtedly fund Mr. Wiseman’s projects for the rest of his life.

“Oh my God,” he said. “It’s good comedy.”

Surrounded by free-spenders and sellouts, Mr. Wiseman makes the most of what he gets. And he’s the first to acknowledge he isn’t bound to the standard television shackles. As every Hollywood producer would remind, he doesn’t have to worry about ratings or focus groups or editing his films for commercial breaks or even short-attention spans. He’s hardly beholden to a network; Mr. Wiseman funds his films almost entirely from foundation grants; foundations don’t care if he gets whupped by Survivor . It wouldn’t matter if Domestic Violence bombed in the ratings; he would get to make another film.

Craziest of all, he doesn’t even have to be high in concept. Today’s television can be absurdly high concept- he’s a rich dude who lives in a castle but he’s not really rich! -but Mr. Wiseman could still get away with making films without a deep dramatic arc. As he said: “I’m not making movies about sensational events. I’m making movies about the common experience.”

But most people in television, even the good ones, have to sell the networks on the uncommon experience. Later that day, across town at the Essex House, another documentary filmmaker, R.J. Cutler, settled into a chair at the hotel’s bar. Mr. Cutler-a former protégé of D.A. Pennebaker who burst onto the scene trailing an underdog Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton in The War Room -is one of reality-TV’s players. He has experienced network cruelty-Fox dumped his acclaimed variety series American High (it was eventually picked up and aired by PBS)-but he’s been plucky, and at 41 years of age, has learned how to negotiate the system without completely selling out.

Unlike Mr. Wiseman, Mr. Cutler is thoroughly engaged in the TV mix. He has nearly a half-dozen projects in the pipeline; the previous night he’d been trailing around the comedienne Roseanne for an upcoming ABC reality-series.

“This was our first week of shooting,” he said. “It was fun. Particularly fun was closing down Sammy’s Roumanian on Monday night. She sang. Tonight we’re going to Marie’s Crisis.”

Okay, so it wasn’t Harvest of Shame . But another one of Mr. Cutler’s projects is potentially as socially compelling, even if it’s whimsical: American Candidate , an American Idol –meets– The Candidate reality hybrid for the cable channel FX, in which the audience will select an individual it feels is capable of mounting a legitimate bid to be President of the United States. Starting this spring, Mr. Cutler and his associates will put out the call for potential candidates-everyone has to meet the current standards for running for U.S. President-and by January of next year they’ll narrow an expected field of thousands to 18 finalists.

That’s when the fun starts.

“The show is designed to emulate the political process,” Mr. Cutler said. “So in the first few weeks the candidates will be retail campaigning, door to door, meeting people, holding rallies in New Hampshire and Iowa, concurrent with the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Then, as you get later into the process, they will be doing things like debating and finding their Vice Presidential candidate. There are all sorts of things like that. There’s a huge simulation where we wake them up in the middle of the night-”

Mr. Cutler stopped himself. “Actually I’m sorry I said that without asking you beforehand not to tell anybody. Cat’s out of the bag.”

It wasn’t clear if he was hamming it up a bit for drama, but Mr. Cutler continued. “We’ll wake them up in the middle of the night and drive them to a mountain retreat somewhere, where they are suddenly the President, and everyone will treat them like the President. There will be a national crisis going on, all that stuff.”

You had to wonder what Mr. Wiseman would have made of all this-if he might have crawled out of the Essex House on his hands and knees and lunged straight into the traffic on Central Park South. But maybe he would have been fascinated.

Mr. Cutler said his motives were serious. “I understand why political professionals would be concerned that in the wrong hands or the wrong design, a show like this could trivialize the process, could further disengage people from this very important business of electing our President,” Mr. Cutler said. He said he’d already enlisted the services of top-shelf political operatives to help in the planning.

One cute technicality: Because of Federal Election Commission regulations, none of Mr. Cutler’s contestants can actually admit they are running for President of the United States.

“They can’t declare that they are running for President,” he said. “They can run to be the winner of our show. They will be out amongst the people saying, ‘I want you to vote for me this week on American Candidate .’ They can say, ‘If I was President,’ but they can’t say, ‘I am running for President.’ Much more importantly, they can’t raise money. They can’t take pledges and they can’t do anything to get themselves on the ballot.”

But once the show was over, the candidate could declare for office. Could American Candidate ‘s candidate actually become a true contender for the American Presidency? Mr. Cutler said the main hurdle would be time, as the candidate would be confronted with a primary season that was nearly over and a difficult haul to get him or herself onto state ballots.

“The scenario I am allowing myself to hope for is that when you turn on the TV set on Jan. 15, where the 18 finalists are introduced, you recognize one person whose belief system sparks your own and who you find inspirational,” he said. “And then over the course of the next 13 weeks, one or more of those people really emerge as serious thinkers with fresh ideas who excite the public and when we announce our winner-if the winner chooses to run for office-that their ideas are taken seriously in the political debate. That to me is as successful as we could dream.”

It is a long shot. Though it is in 70 million homes, the upstart FX is not NBC. But whoever emerges from American Candidate may get more camera time than, say, Howard Dean.

“We feel that the person will be in a good position,” Mr. Cutler said.

Comparing American Candidate to Domestic Violence , or comparing Mr. Cutler’s and Mr. Wiseman’s work in general, is to compare apples and oranges. Though Mr. Cutler’s American High -or his postcards-from-Afghanistan Military Diaries series for VH1-has none of the shameless cheese of Joe Millionaire or The Bachelor , his work is fast-paced and rollicking, making the muted, almost ambient Domestic Violence look like the WPIX Yule Log by comparison.

But that is the universe Mr. Cutler has chosen to operate within.

“Look, networks are going to do what makes money,” Mr. Cutler said. “And what makes money is viewers. ABC isn’t doing the Roseanne project because I am making it, they are doing the Roseanne project because Roseanne is an enormous international star who had one of the most successful comedies in the history of television and she came to them with a great idea. It’s not that they woke up that day and said, ‘Let’s go for quality first.’ They wanted a good commercial idea.”

The commerciality of reality television is indisputable. It is cheap and relatively easy to produce and its hits result in the kind of publicity comets that networks covet. But its pleasures are fleeting; its satisfactions equal to an old piece of gum.

The other day on the telephone, an old reality television expert named Walter Cronkite explained the feeling. “I got somewhat intrigued by Survivor, ” Mr. Cronkite said. “And then I tried to watch one of the first of the follow-up imitations and I watched it for about five minutes. It just looked too phony to me. I haven’t even looked at these others. I don’t know what happens on these Bachelor , Bachelorette and all that stuff.”

To date, both Mr. Wiseman and Mr. Cutler have managed to avoid the phoniness. Though they may be very different filmmakers headed in different directions-with separate rules to follow-each has found a way to exist in a television landscape that rewards concept over content and the simplistic over the sublime. Yes, one of them might be trying to get a TVstar elected President. One may only be trying to show how things really are. But for at least a couple hours, both are trying take television off its narrow course, and find some open road.