An accidental Netflix discovery provides us with a surprising nugget of TV gold. A reality TV show initially envisioned as being nothing but Hollywood Wild Child teenagers being superficial nightmares becomes rudely interrupted by their involvement in a high profile criminal court case (The Bling Ring, no less!). You couldn’t make this show up if you tried.
I must confess, my love for reality TV shows is a bit of a problem. I cut them out of my life a while ago like a weekend jogger cutting sugar from her diet, but every now and then I stumble across a reality show which defies my resistance against the delicious, toxic brain slop which reality TV offers.
Luckily, or unluckily, I was couch ridden recently with a heinous bout of what can only be described as a respiratory dam break – shivers, nose tampons and all – when I discovered the vapid and insane delights of Pretty Wild purely by accident. Let’s all be thankful that Netflix exists so that in the event that you desperately want something completely docile and remiss of any intellectual reward whatsoever that it’s right there under the ‘reality television’ category.
Do nothing brain, it’s okay, we have bright lights and bad music, superficial, one dimensional characters and the sweet, easy ride of manipulative and contrived storytelling. Hand me the vaporub and lets do this.
Everyone is already over this show in the US. It’s got the sort of camp, cult status that keeps Tumblr aflood with reblogs, but as far as I’m aware the UK completely missed out on it. I’m a little behind the times on this one – even with Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring lifting entire scenes wholesale from it – but it’s so blissfully bizarre a show that I can’t help myself but share it.
Pretty Wild is a phenomenal master class in accidental genius. It would seem that the show was initially created to simply follow the exploits of an untraditional family set up, telling the story of an ex-playboy model / Religious Science Minister mother raising two wild-child daughters attempting to break into the modelling industry whilst living it up in Hollywood. It’s easy to imagine that the producers at E! were salivating at the prospect – lots of sexy montages of swimsuit photoshoots, lots of scenes where the girls date z-list musicians and club promoters followed by shots of them stumbling out of party upon party. I bet they were counting their money before it had even aired.
What the show actually does is present the conceit of celebrity ‘reality’. What nobody at E! had bargained for was that one of the daughters – Alexis Neiers – would get embroiled in the high profile Bling Ring court case (to be more precise, she was accused of stealing from Orlando Bloom’s house, specifically) in which a bunch of over-privileged Hollywood kids got caught breaking into and stealing from a tumult of celebrity homes. Apparently the swat team raided the house just one day into filming. I mean, you can script ‘reality’ as much as you want, but when the SWAT team comes a knocking, well, your story becomes one helluva sinking ship.
Throughout the short 9 episode series, nobody in the family wants to admit to the reality of their lives, with everyone all too willing to discard who they actually are and what is actually happening for whatever the show team is telling them to be and do, instead. Ah, the safety of the stage.
Every episode takes the same structure: opening with silly, throwaway moments of family life before moving onto to the ‘lead’ narrative of the story (like the model twosome getting hired for some modelling job or them getting ready for an important, yet often wholly depressing, date) before all the superficiality of their lives gets rudely interrupted by an unwelcome reminder that Alexis is in the middle of a massive court case and will probably go to jail. And then everyone cries. In fact they howl. I’ve never heard anything like it, save for the time I saw My Girl for my best friends 6th birthday and the entirety of the under 10 female audience erupted into a mass hysteric screech in the final scenes (RIP Sweet Prince).
Until the very final episode, Alexis is in complete denial about her indisputable potential jail sentence, playing up to the celebrity that has been delivered with being a tabloid fascination and potential felon with all the well rehearsed perfection which our generation has learnt from TMZ court case videos and red carpet interviews – addressing her milieu through fashion and poses. She maintains her complete and utter innocence, rebuking any responsibility for her actions by stating that she too is a victim in this case, being just the once drunkenly misguided into criminal activity by a bad crowd (hell, we’ve all been there girl).
The truth of Alexis’ life catches up with her in moments so nightmarishly cringe-fuelling that some episodes feel as though they could have been written directly by King of awkward Larry David.
For example, one episode follows the girls as they organise a sweet sixteen party for their youngest sister Gabrielle, and they go all out to make it special for her. They even manage to hire one of her favourite DJ’s for the party: Paul Oakenfold! (Wowee!) Except, for some reason Paul isn’t too much in the mood for a party. Turns out that his home was one of the ones broken into during those very same Hollywood Hills robberies and wouldn’t you know it – he recognises Alexis from the media coverage of the court case! Didn’t she rob his house?! Oops! There are lots of tears. Alexis doesn’t understand why one little mistake needs to ruin her entire life! Life is so unfair, you guys. Paul Oakenfold still DJ’s at the party though, presumably because he needs the money to up the security on his flash Hollywood home to incorporate sonic death lasers and some of the booby traps from Cube into the mix.
In another, some nightclub owner dude from a previous episode who Alexis had a fling in Tijuana with (I kept expecting to see an OD’ing Marissa Cooper being carried out of a back alley in every scene because apparently I’ve watched too much O.C. and it has ruined my actual real life knowledge of everything) decides to visit LA to see her. Alexis is beyond excited. She even does some Yoga to limber up for proceedings (yikes!). Somehow she forgets two realities of modern life: 1. A quick Google search on anyone is only a finger shuffle away on any number of devices that people carry on their person at all times and 2. People always screen dates via Facebook stalking, google results or archived Myspace pages that nobody can figure out how to delete.
Suffice to say, Alexis grandiose decision not to tell her brand-new-definite-love-of-her-life-forever-possible-boyfriend that she’s involved in a high profile court case (HE’LL NEVER FIND OUT!) backfires horribly. He’s offended. Disgusted! She’s offended that he’s offended and disgusted that he’s disgusted. She bursts into tears and keeps looking toward the camera crew as if to say ‘err…line? Please?’ except it seems like everyone’s got nothing. There was probably a camera operator swinging a white flag from his belt and mouthing ‘I QUIT’ at her between dramatic extreme close ups of her ruined make up. Alexis and her sister leave the restaurant like a 90’s music video cut scene, flipping their hair everywhere and making classic quips like ‘you can get the bill, right?’ ZING. All the women who independent, throw your hands up at me.
I’ve truly never seen anything like it. The whole show is a train wreck where reality is a tracking camera on rails zooming speedily towards an actual fucking train. It’s also edited in such a way that few of the other family members seem the least bit concerned for the most part regarding one of it’s members going to jail, interspersing scenes of Alexis getting bad news from her lawyer or finding out that Orlando Bloom is willing to testify against her in court with ones in which the (alleged) less criminal daughter, Tess Taylor, does nudey DIY photoshoots in the bathroom with her grinning mum on camera or where poor suffering little Gabrielle goes bra shopping.
Perhaps the finest moment of the entire show comes in the form of a now legendary Vanity Fair article. The whole series is worth it for this episode alone. You can read the whole thing here and I recommend that you do, it’s a spectacular bit of reading full of manipulative journalism in itself, which somehow takes the position of being less contrived than the reality show which films the journalist (Nancy Jo Sales) clearly salivating over the holes Alexis is naively digging for herself during the interview.
Poor Alexis is delighted over the news that Vanity Fair want to interview her. A cover piece! All about her! She’s beaming and smitten with the idea – at no point does it seem to enter her mind that the interview might not be the best of ideas or that journalism often has a cruel bias to want to ruin rather than excel people – particularly when they’re overly privileged white girls back peddling their way out of a criminal offence. The idea that the interview and article as a whole might actually blow up in her face doesn’t seem to enter her mind even the once, as far as she can tell it’s simply an opportunity for her to clear her name and project her completely obvious innocence.
Nancy Jo Sales and Alexis enjoy a nice chat together with the teenager keenly suggesting that she’s ‘wholesome and down to earth’, and just enjoys shopping and clothes like any regular teenage girl (whoops). A consoling hug off the journalist following a outburst of tears cements the fact that they both made some sort of positive connection. Cancel the lawyer, ma! We free! Everything goes according to plan.
Until they receive the issue, that is. Excited beyond belief they squeal and jump about with joy whilst they flick through trying to find the article – and then their faces drop. Uh oh. It seems Nancy Jo Sales wasn’t Team Alexis at all! What a bitch! And worst of all – worse than all the allegations and her name being dragged through mud in the article – is how she got the outfit she wore to court completely wrong. 6-inch Louboutin heels?! AS IF!
Everyone is screaming. It’s such a scene of complete and utter high pitched chaos that you half expect their dogs to tumble into the room entrenched in flames whilst a car smashes into the front of their house. Alexis leaves a mighty angry voicemail to Nancy Jo (which she has to re-record because her mum keeps butting in to shout stuff. God, Mom!) in which she lambastes her for filling the article with such vicious, damaging lies (THEY WERE KITTEN HEELS!).
The show shuttles into an eventual decline, one where you can see that all the scripts in the World can’t remove a troubled youth from her existence. As the case fast approaches it’s court date and Alexis begins to realise her unavoidable fate, she becomes addicted to painkillers and lies in bed completely zonked out and remiss whilst the family mutters to each other about how worried they are for her whilst occasionally resuming the fed lines which you can only presume an off-camera producer is feeding them nonchalantly (whilst reading the latest issue of Vanity Fair and cackling loudly, I imagine).
An intervention takes place in which everyone screams at each other and Alexis gets aggressively pushed into a closet (hard love, people) before she starts pulling clothes straight out of it and into a bag so she can high tail it out of there to get doped up somewhere else in peace.
You want to feel bad for everyone, but you don’t. Reality shows produce a manipulated version of life which makes you want to reach for the popcorn rather than the tissues when you watch an individuals existence detriment into ruin.
The show finishes with Alexis – sober! – pleading guilty to the charges and accepting the prison sentence handed to her, likening her jail time to that of Buddha spending ’60 days sat under a tree’. She provides statements to the press wearing oversized sunglasses, with all the cool guise of an ingénue reading from a well rehearsed script.
Undoubtedly, the show is a camp, frivolous and hysterical mess but what Pretty Wild ultimately presents to us is the conceit that belies every celebrity and our culture which emulates and worships the lie. Be it the photoshopped model who doesn’t even resemble her own centrefold or the A-list actor projecting an identity which he doesn’t actually live, we accept and consume the superficiality and are told to use it as an aspirational cookie cutter for our own lives.
The women of Pretty Wild are very much products of this culture themselves – they’re personifications of the aspiration and ambition of fame, attempting to ‘come out’ into society like celebrity débutantes, ready for their moment in the spotlight at whatever the cost.
Alexis Neiers is so devoutly enamoured with the projection of her own image as decided for her by the makers of her own reality show that she’s willing to reject her own reality in favour for it. In fact, the whole family is. They all seem to truly believe (just as they follow the teachings of The Secret: the belief that positive thinking creates positive results and grants you whatever it is you want from life) that if they live the life drawn up for them by the show, that maybe the show can also script for them a happier ending than the actual one they’re gravitating towards.
Reality shows like this make it impossible to sympathise for any of the characters – themselves being flimsy, one dimensional versions of themselves after all – and by scripting their life for them and presenting them as caricatures of themselves they’re in turn completely dehumanised and turned into grotesques for the rotten fruit pelting of the audience.
Alexis Neiers is presented with multiple versions of her own reality throughout the show: she has the version that her photo shoots embody, the one that Pretty Wild sells as a show, the hollow tabloid construct, the one that Vanity Fair are keen to push to sell magazines and then there’s the version that the Courts hear. She has no idea who she’s supposed to be and there’s plenty of people waiting in the wings to exploit that fact and to paste their own version onto.
What makes the show all the more arresting is it’s parallels between the court case of the Bling Ring itself and the kind of motives which were presumably discussed throughout it. You have a bunch of kids who so aspire for celebrity that they’re willing to break into the homes of celebrity’s to experience it like a private tour, replete with souvenirs from a criminal ‘gift shop’ at the end of it. Our culture promotes the entitlement of this, providing intimate access to all manner of personal celebrity information, habits, relationships and mudane everyday life. We even allow the perpetuation of celebrity creation by allowing for reality shows to create stars out of ‘ordinary people’. Pretty Wild mirrors this sickly cultural fascination in on itself into an endless reflected chamber where fame is neither the pane nor the person, but simply the infinite replication of itself.