That Sense of Oncoming Doom

(Or: what happens when the audience knows something that the reality TV cast does not)

House of Ho and The Event (both are reality shows on HBOmax) spring from different families in the reality ecosystem. HoH evolved from the Kardashian’s branch (but is far smarter and more interesting); The Event is built on a straightforward here’s-how-professionals-do-it documentary genome. What they have in common is something reality tv will be wrestling with for years to come — but more on that in a minute.

HoH concerns the multi-generational Ho family. Binh and Hue Ho came to Houston from Vietnam as young adults in the 1970s, for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has paid even a little attention in history class. Their beginnings here were meagre but Binh grew his money into an empire. Along the way, Binh and Hue had three kids — sons Washington and Reagan* and daughter Judy.

The second generation is old enough to be out of the nest. Sort of. While Reagan is off living his own life who knows where, Washington, his wife Lesley, and their young kids live just around the corner from Binh and Hue. Judy, who is in the process of divorcing her husband, is living in Washington’s house with her kids. Adult siblings living together after a few years of living apart is as fraught as you would think — but not in a bitter, dysfunctional way.

What’s most obvious is that all of the Hos really care about each other, even though they practically live in each other’s pockets. And while the show is loosely framed as a Kardashian-style celebration of excess, what comes through is how all of their money doesn’t paper over the real life crap that every family deals with, like marital struggles and establishing boundaries. Nor does it make up for the specific tensions of first-generation kids dealing with their immigrant parents.

So much of what the Hos go through — from Washington’s drinking problem** to Judy’s failed marriage — challenges the clan both as emotional events but also as cultural taboos. HoH digs into that conversation when fluffier shows would cut away to another shopping spree. What makes HOH work is how the tension isn’t created by the producers setting up situations whose manipulation you can all but see*** but because the Hos are willing to be honest about all of the different forces guiding their behavior.

I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit that I also enjoyed the clothes and the shopping. I really miss going place and doing things, even if I will never be able to drop $1000s on a pair of shoes.

The Event is decidedly less emotionally fraught. Celebrity Chef Wolfgang Puck has a catering company. Said company does work for events like the SAG awards, the Westworld premiere, and some weird venture capital convention. The show shows you some of how they make the magic happen and all of the pitfalls along the way.****

I like watching people who are really good at something do the thing they are really good at. I don’t care at all if it is a thing I care about in general. For example, Forged in Fire, which is a show about bladesmithing, is one of my favorites. I have zero desire to make a knife, sword, or saber. And, yet, I can’t not watch smiths make their magic.

In this case, I’ve been a cater waiter and worked more than a few events. So I bring a little bit of knowledge into the conversation. But you don’t need to have plated hundreds of servings of rubber chicken to figure out that Puck and company are very good at a very hard job. They aren’t, however, perfect and the most interesting part of the The Event not how everyone behaves when the plan works but when, say, a rogue windstorm carries away the prep kitchen.

And that is what reality TV will be wrestling with for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is that rogue windstorm. The difference is that the audience knows it is coming while the participants have no idea its out there. Both House of Ho and The Event were filmed in late 2019/early 2020. Once I figured that out, I was pre-occupied with when and how this ginormous plot twist would impact the people on the show. Would Judy have to cancel her 40th birthday party because of the ‘rona? How would Puck’s crew get all of those people in a kitchen, much less have an actual event?*****

It’s like the double-exposure-linear-time-is-a-kick-in-the-head emotion I had the day that Jon Stewart announced that he was leaving The Daily Show. Stewart told the audience at the taping that day, which meant that the news had already broken to the world at large before the episode aired, which meant that the audience he was talking to didn’t know but he knew the audience at home already knew and it all just kept echoing around during the episode itself. In short: very weird.

For the next little bit, reality TV is going to feel like that, only moreso. We know what’s coming but the cast doesn’t and how that knowledge echoes with itself is a whole new part of the experience that the producers could not have anticipated.

Do you have thoughts about how we’re experiencing time? About reality TV? Comment, please!

Leave a comment

* The first generation of Ho boys were named after presidents. The second generation is named that way, too, regardless of gender. While part of me found that too cute to exist, most of me wasn’t mad at it. Naming your infant Roosevelt takes some moxie.

** I wish they’d spent a little bit more time on the how this. Eventually, Washington just says “I don’t drink now” and I’m totally calling bullshit.

*** Two other reality shows about Asian-Asians and Asian-Americans (Bling Empire and Singapore Social) hit streaming services at about the same time. They are not at all good, mostly because the cast is so very young and only concerned with partying. There’s just not a lot of there there, once you get over how pretty everyone and every thing is.

**** There is a moment in the first episode when the SAG producers change their minds about the menu that made me laugh out loud because it could not be more LA.

***** I actually flinched when they showed how close the tables were for the SAG awards. All of the aerosols! So many secretions!