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Sunday, November 11, 2012
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‘Breaking Amish’ Bends Truths In The Not-So-Real World

By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist

***

Tonight, after two months of public intrigue and scandal, TLC’s reality series Breaking Amish concludes and airs the first part of its reunion special, “The Shunning Truth.”

The “truth” is something Breaking Amish has been accused of not portraying since it premiered Sept. 9, as numerous articles, blogs and Facebook pages continuously dispute the veracity of each week’s proceedings.

The reality program follows five people, from either Amish or Mennonite communities, “as they, for the first time, trade horse and buggy with taxi cabs to break out from their respective Amish/Mennonite communities in their pursuit to chase big dreams in the Big Apple,” explains TLC’s website.

Breaking Amish will shed light on many firsts for the cast members,” continues the site. “From flying in a plane and wearing jeans, to using a cell phone and electricity, the show will highlight their transition into city culture and the basic amenities that come with it.”

Despite this claim, investigative viewers tout Facebook and MySpace photos as proof that these people left their Amish or Mennonite communities long before the series filmed.

In a statement, TLC responded to the controversy by saying, “There is a lot of information floating around about the group featured on Breaking Amish. Much of it is not true, but some of it is — and is addressed in upcoming episodes.”

Many of the accusations have yet to be addressed, and it seems they will be considered in the two-part “The Shunning Truth” special, which the network describes as, “a raw discussion revealing intimate details about their lives and relationships.”

Since the premiere of MTV’s The Real World in 1992 and CBS’s Survivor in 2000, reality programs have bombarded our TVs. With them has come an almost silent agreement between viewers and producers: Although reality series should depict reality, we understand there have to be a few edits and tweaks made along the way to keep the series entertaining.

That’s why, every year or two, a rose-seeker on ABC’s The Bachelor contends the editing made her into a much worse person than she actually is. Whether or not that’s true, viewers don’t care. They watch The Bachelor to pick their favorites, and along with that comes pinpointing their least favorite contestants. Producers know this and are happy to oblige for ratings.

“Most people understand by this point that reality shows are entertainment, but there’s a trust element there — when it’s called reality, viewers want to believe,” an anonymous reality TV editor recently told BuzzFeed. “As editors we walk the line, though, and in some shows we kind of jump over it.”

Several other series have been targeted for allegedly faking events.

In Olympian Hope Solo‘s autobiography, Solo: A Memoir of Hope, she says ABC’s popular reality competition Dancing With the Stars is fixed — viewers do not have control over who goes home, even though they are led to believe their votes influence the final decision.

A contestant of HGTV’s House Hunters recently revealed the show is also staged, as her family had already bought a home but were made to pretend as though they were still looking.

Brian Balthazar, HGTV’s programming executive, responded, “We’ve learned that the pursuit of the perfect home involves big decisions that usually take place over a period of time — more time than we can capture in 30 minutes of television. However, with a series like House Hunters, HGTV viewers enjoy the vicarious and entertaining experience of choosing a home — from establishing a budget, to touring properties and weighing the pros and cons of each one.”

MTV’s The Hills, which was a spinoff of the channel’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, battled reports of falsity throughout its six-season run. In the 2010 series finale, the show playfully acknowledged these rumors — and possibly admitted to bending reality — when the final scene revealed to be a set.

Despite such revelations, these series remain popular and haven’t been condemned by audiences. At the end of the day, it seems, reality TV is more importantly a form of entertainment — and viewers can usually forgive slight transgressions as long as they make for great TV.

But when do slight edits cross the line?

Breaking Amish premiered to decent and positive reviews. As The Hollywood Reporter‘s Allison Keene wrote, “It’s hard to judge how the series might play out once the group have each other to bond with and rely on as they face being shunned by their home communities, but watching these young adults begin to open up and experience a life they could only dream of before holds promise.”

The program is also garnering great ratings for the network. Since the premiere, every episode earned more than 3 million viewers, and recent hours received a 1.3 rating in the coveted 18-49 demo — matching that of TLC’s immensely popular Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

This reception is concerning, and though some viewers realize Breaking Amish is solely entertainment, there are undoubtedly many who think it’s educational. Not many people know about the Amish or Mennonites, and what they know is hearsay or based on stereotype.

Breaking Amish unfortunately plays right into these stereotypes, as members of the communities are depicted as unforgiving, cold people who strictly adhere to “old-fashioned” ways of life. The series portrays shunning as an all-or-nothing process, and in many communities, that’s simply not true.

What’s most upsetting and likely the cause of such strong criticism, however, is that these communities can’t do much to defend themselves since they don’t regularly use common electronics (if they use them at all).

Whereas the cast members of most reality series willingly participate, and are therefore subject to manipulation, the five cast members of Breaking Amish don’t just represent themselves — they represent entire populations of people who want nothing to do with mainstream American culture. These communities didn’t sign up to be portrayed in untruthful ways, yet that’s exactly what this series is doing.

Reality TV is primarily entertainment, but it also does have some truth to it and can be beneficial — whether we identify with cast members and situations or use it to actually learn. But when these series have such a widespread influence and take advantage of their control over audiences, viewers need to be wary.

TLC is supposed to be “The Learning Channel,” but it seems to have taken matters too far. Still, I’ll give Breaking Amish the benefit of the doubt since the program still has three episodes to air — maybe it can correct its course before it’s too late.

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