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Reality Check: When real life overtakes reality TV stars

  • Author: Emily Fehrenbacher
    | Reality Check
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 10, 2014

I would like to start this column on a somber note. Typically I spend most of my 600 words yukkin' it up about the shenanigans of the people who choose to sign away their privacy, personalities and often their dignity to producers and editors for very little money in order to entertain the rest of us.

And we'll get there, but first a discussion about the complicated emotional roller coaster that comes with being a longtime reality TV fan.

Diem Brown and Ryan Knight, famous for their turns on both MTV's "The Real World" and "The Challenge," died recently. Brown's death followed a 10-year period of cancer (which was chronicled over her years on television), while Knight's was reportedly drug- and alcohol-related (his addictions were also detailed during his years on television).

I and the rest of the Reality TV Book Club (my friends who also enjoy the lower arts) were saddened by these losses. We found ourselves re-watching previous seasons of "The Challenge," obsessing over their TV exes' Twitter feeds and searching the Internet for any clues about their lives in their last days.

Two things strike me about my reaction to these deaths:

1. I didn't know these people, yet I mourned for them the way you would high school friends whom you lost touch with -- searching through newspaper comments and social media for clues as to what their lives were like.

After all, they've been in my living room for almost 10 years, traveling with me from coast to coast and from one Craigslist-purchased couch to another. In fact, I probably know them better than some long-lost high school friends -- because how often do your friends sit down, confessional-style, and narrate their feelings over video clips of events that just happened?

2. Both Brown and Knight will appear on the upcoming season of "The Challenge" with their aforementioned previous lovers in a game called "Battle of the Exes 2." I'm way less excited to watch a television program in which my favorite silly people compete in silly competitions when what's happened to them since filming is anything but silly. I want to just be a fan, and I understand that they are not my friends, but I'm conflicted.

It is really easy to write off the genre of reality TV, call it nonsense and say that it's all fake, overproduced, scripted fiction. But while the characters/contestants/roommates on these shows can seem more like actors playing roles than anything else, they are still real people. Often, they have all-too-real problems.

Brown may have been the first person some young women "knew" with ovarian cancer. Knight's passing casts a dark shadow over shows like "Slednecks," which glorify and encourage the kind of hard-partying behavior that probably ended up killing him.

We are never far from the line between "real" and "reality." Especially in Alaska, where the "stars" often walk among us and their foibles appear alongside "real" news. It was just reported in this very publication that a member of the "Bering Sea Gold" cast was arrested in Nome on heroin charges. Even on a Discovery Channel program about underwater gold mining, reality TV can't escape the real, flawed humanity of its on-screen talent.

Remembering that this column is supposed to be about entertainment, I will end things on a lighter note: After appropriately grieving and celebrating the lives of Brown and Knight, I did end up watching this week's episode of "Slednecks."

The episode revolved around two fights. Fight number one: Sierra and Samantha battle over the timelines in which they sexed with Kelly. Fight number two: Trevor takes on Jackie's boyfriend, Mike (What? Since when does Jackie have a boyfriend?), over the comedic value of adults wearing diapers. Trevor solves this puzzle by giving Mike a matching blue helmet so he can inexplicably wear it around during daily life.

The ridiculousness of what I just wrote does not escape me. The shenanigans of these people made me me laugh, and reminded me that it's still OK to enjoy reality TV.

Emily Fehrenbacher lives in Anchorage, where she reviews Alaska reality TV and can be reached at (subject line: Reality Check).

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