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Tell Me a Story and Make It True: Applied Narrative in Reality Television

by Ethan Tussey

by Jeffrey David Greene for IN MEDIA RES

When I watch Restaurant Impossible, I know what to expect: an hour of entertainment fueled by the tough-talking chef, Robert Irvine, as he attempts to “rescue” a failing restaurant through tough love and remodeling.

It’s schlocky, formulaic, and I absolutely love every minute of it.

But as I’ve shown in the companion video to this post, Restaurant Impossible can be boiled down to a structured set of elements or scenes:

  • The Setup
  • The Sad Story
  • Irvine finding and locating problems
  • The initial conflict with the restaurant owners
  • Further Problems and Realities Exposed
  • A breakthrough moment (with tears or without)
  • The Remodel/Reveal Scene
  • The Conclusion: Renewal, Resurrection, and Success

Restaurant Impossible rarely strays from this formula, and I actually think that’s what brings viewers back week after week. As an audience we like hearing the same stories told over and over again; being soothed by a blanket of narrative security. In this way, Restaurant Impossible can be viewed through a structural lens. As Vladimir Propp formalized the functions that make up a folk tale, we can also decipher the “elements” that are integral to a show like Restaurant Impossible.

And it is here that I find a clear division between documentary film and reality television: the manner in which narrative is applied. The role of a documentarian is often journalistic in function. If a dramatic narrative happens to appear naturally, that’s great. Reality television, on the hand, is principally meant to entertain. There’s a veneer of truth, but the creators and producers of reality television often author and incite their dramatic moments at many levels of production.

That’s not to say that documentarians don’t try to tell engaging stories or cast a particular light on an event. For example, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters documents the highly engaging story of an intense duel between competitors over the highest score in Donkey Kong.

King of Kong has many of the trappings that one might expect from good fiction—a hero, a villain, confrontation, etc—but we’re led to believe that what we’re watching is fundamentally true and that the documentarian just happened to be there to record it.

Restaurant Impossible, on the other hand, is here principally to entertain. Free from any journalistic function, the show’s creators can develop a narrative and apply it from the outset.

Common Narrative Elements in Restaurant: Impossible

Common Narrative Elements in Restaurant: Impossible

from Restaurant: Impossible (2011)
Creator: Cyndi Butz, Paul Perrymore, Jodi Goren-Rode
Distributor: Food Network
Posted by Ethan Tussey