Thoughts After Watching Cement Heads

I was alone with my baby boy today while my wife and daughter went to visit my mother-in-law.  When he was taking his nap for a few hours, I turned on the TV and started flipping the channels, something I rarely do anymore -- usually I'm just watching children's programming on NickJr with my five-year-old or catching up with my wife on shows we've DVRed. I landed on a reality show on A&E called Cement Heads. It caught my eye because the "characters" were funny and the setting was my dear old New York.  I felt a pang of guilt for enjoying it as much as I did -- another show to add to my embarrassing list of reality programming that actually entertains me. It started me thinking, however, about the current state of entertainment with its focus on "non-scripted" series.

A&E started off as the Arts & Entertainment Network.  Now its airtime schedule is loaded with shows like Duck Dynasty, Wahlburgers, Storage Wars, Epic Ink, and Brandi & Jarrod: Married to the Job. Maybe the network simplified its name not just because it was a convenient shorthand, but because it was proving to be a hassle to justify these types of shows as "art." That's an easy joke to make, but it does a disservice to the editors, videographers, and yes, the "talent" who work many hours to make these series entertaining enough for the masses to watch (and most importantly come back for more). A&E isn't the only one earning big bucks from this type of programming.

Still, it's a different media world now, when writers are less necessary than creative show-runners who can find a way to present almost any footage they've shot in an often exciting and engaging way. It's not truly "reality," but then again is any documentary really anything more than captured bits of life framed from the perspective of those doing the filming? Set up a camera, record what happens, and then make a story out of it in post-production. That's the business-model now.

Cement Heads follows the shenanigans of a family-run construction business. The only thing that makes this worthy of our attention, that made me stop channel-surfing, was the personalities on the screen. It was as if these men and women I was seeing were right out of central casting -- not that they had any movie star aura, but because they lacked it. They seemed like people I would run into in my daily encounters (not the polished, often fake-looking celebrities we see too often on TV, film, and stage nowadays), and yet at the same time they were also close enough to fictional characters to make me feel as if I was watching a "show" instead of being a voyeur in someone's personal life.

That seems like a contradiction, but it's what makes reality shows work -- the "casting" is key for shows like Big Brother, Survivor, The Amazing Race, Hell's Kitchen, etc. Audiences connect to these shows if the people on them are dramatic and hook us, whether as villains or as folks to whom we can relate and root to overcome the odds. Watching the first two episodes of Cement Heads (titled "The Big Bid" and "Chubby's Meatballs"), it was as if I were watching a sitcom like Everybody Loves Raymond. The dynamics of the "plot" and the chemistry among Billy the Boss, his wife Danielle, his parents Sarge and Joan, and his right-hand man the hilarious Joe "Chubby" Luciano, had me laughing out loud and wanting to see more (despite my better judgment).

Will I tune in for more? Who knows? The TV landscape is littered with so much content, who can keep up with it all? Nevertheless, networks have discovered the formula for reality programming, and the ratings are proving that these shows are somehow tapping an emotional nerve with audiences.  Cement Heads (and reality shows like it) are no worse and often better than the forced dramas and comedies of scripted series that the networks still churn out every season.