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The Elephant in the Room: We Should Probably Talk About This Reality Show Murder Suspect Issue

August 29, 2009

We do a lot of joking at the expense of reality programming around here. Because let’s face it, most reality programming is wholly ridiculous. There’s really nothing more fun (and fulfilling) than making fun of those goofballs who’ve chosen to air their personal lives or competitive sides on national television. We often speculate, on this site, about the caliber of contestant on these many, many shows. But last week the whole genre really took a hit. And it wasn’t comical.

For those of you who’ve been living off the grid this week (a world without reality television? How did you do that?), this week saw a man named Ryan Jenkins on the run for allegedly murdering his swimsuit model wife Jasmine Fiore. Jenkins, accused of the particularly grisly killing, fled to Canada, where American authorities teamed with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to find him before discovering their suspect hanged in a seedy motel room. What’s more, Jenkins had recently completed a reportedly long stay on VH1’s new reality program Megan Wants a Millionaire, which has since been cancelled by the network.

We wouldn’t be equal opportunity if we didn’t comment on this situation. If we’re going to talk about the silliness and awfulness of reality television, we should also talk about its seriousness in wake of this harrowing incident.

The first question becomes, of course, how did this guy pass screenings to make it onto Megan Wants a Millionaire in the first place? According to an  official statement the L.A. Times ran from VH1, the network claims not to have been aware of  “any issues regarding any of the contestants on this show,” which it licensed from independent production company 51 Minds, the same production  company behind reality shows Rock of Love, Charm School and The Surreal Life, among others. Spokespeople for 51 Minds claim to not have known that Jenkins, a Calgary real estate agent, had been ordered 15 months of probation and domestic violence counseling two years ago for hitting his girlfriend at the time. Collective Intelligence, a research firm hired for almost a hundred production companies and responsible for vetting hundreds of reality show contestants, claims Jenkins’ conviction went unnoticed due to “an error by a Canadian court clerk.” Regardless, Jenkins ended up on the show, where he reportedly progressed fairly far in the competition. According to sources, top brass at VH1 is currently rethinking their reality programming strategies in light of the event. In any case, one thing has become clear over the past two weeks as the story unfolded.

Reality programming has finally become very real.

For the first time, the microcosm of society represented on television, with all its dating fiascos and silly comptetitions, with all of its arguments and drunken mistakes, is accurately reflecting the world we actually live in. And ironically, it wasn’t caught on camera.

The truth of the matter is that every day, in our own individual realities, we all walk around in our own hometowns seeing the very same individuals represented in cleverly engineered reality programming: the cute one, the backstabber, the drunk, the manipulator, the quiet one. We just don’t realize it. Now, unfortunately, the number of reality show contestants has amassed to include another very sobering statistic: in a thousand people, you’re going to find one who has something very, very wrong with him.

You won’t know it, any more than you won’t know the lady standing behind you at the post office is embezzling thousands of dollars from her boss. You won’t see it coming just like you won’t see the man buying carrots at the supermarket is going to assault his girlfriend that very night. These people look just like us, and every day you lay eyes on someone who has a secret you’ll never know about.

We’ve reached the point where we now have so many reality television show graduates that they nearly form their own very specific and calculatedly diversified cross-section of the population. How many could there be now? Hundreds? Thousands who’ve collectively appeared on shows from Blind Date to Cops to Flip This House to the Bachelorette over the past ten years? Eventually, the laws of probability were going to catch up, and one of them was going to go off the grid. That’s reality.

Is reality programming the culprit? Not really. While 51 Minds should shoulder a great deal of blame, as should Collective Intelligence, VH1 itself shouldn’t be convicted here. After all, VH1 trusted that two reputable, long-standing organizations would have likely picked up on a bad egg. And as well they should have trusted those organizations, who have vetted contestants solidly over the past several years.

The culprit, sadly, is simply the numbers game. We’ve seen the same unfortunate laws of probability at work in deadly and indetectable university, school and workplace shootings.  The larger a pool of people grows, in this case the number of reality program cast members in the television ethos, the more likely it’s going to become that someone in that pool will lose it. It was bound to happen. Ryan Jenkins was the one.

The truly sobering thing to be learned from all this is the simple fact that there are some bad folks out there, and many are going to slip through the cracks without the indirect assistance of a Canadian court clerk. It’s a simple and, frankly, scary truth of life. Ryan Jenkins was obviously a ticking time bomb, and Jasmine Fiore lost her life because of it. She likely couldn’t have known that any more than 51 Minds could have. We’re all living in a world that contains some scary people, people who go unsuspected each day — and none of us has an immunity idol.

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