Sunday, August 05, 2012

TV: When reality TV was too real

Last month our "TV: Siblicide" was much read and praised in the e-mails.  Ty told us the consensus was: Ava and C.I. should really cover the reality shows all the time.

And we thought you people liked us!

Getting through the fakeness of 'reality' TV is something we have to build up stamina for.  It's like training for a marathon: You give up smoking, you walk the course for three days, then you run it and pull something so you skip three days of any activity before you finally drop back to walking it, then someone tells you the real trick is carbs so you eat a ton of pasta the night before, which may be why you oversleep ending up late and barely make the start of the race, you run full out from the stress and by the half-way mark you can just walk, you see a trail to your left and figure you can go off on that, sit down, wait an hour or two and then sneak off.

Along with the fakeness there's the yawn factor.  If your idea of a good time is chanting "Jerry! Jerry!," then 'reality' TV is for you.  But some of us just with these people would confine exploring their inner narcissist to a small circle of friends.


Ty wrote back the regular readers and explained we just don't like 'reality' TV.  At which point, reader Ella wanted to know if we thought there had ever been a real reality television show?

Yes, it aired in 2011.  Apparently enough people didn't watch.

But there was no pretense as two people offered themselves -- warts and all -- to the American people.

We're talking about last year's Ryan & Tatum: The O'Neals (Oprah Winfrey Network). As two who know Ryan and Tatum, that  reality show was very painful to watch and we wondered about the two therapists who failed to grasp the obvious.  It's really easy to sum up their problems.  Tatum, except with her children, can't find lasting love because of what she went through.  She craves it but she doubts it exists.  Ryan can't get why Tatum needs to have reassurance and proof of lasting love.  He won't accept that his going from woman to woman -- whether the marriages or the flings -- destroyed her and, honestly, screwed her up for years.
People often don't get that.  Ryan certainly doesn't.  But even people who know them frequently miss it.  Tatum was born to Ryan O'Neal and Joanna Moore.  Before she was five, her parents were divorced and Ryan was married to Leigh Taylor-Young.  Only to leave her as film stardom finally arrived (Love Story, What's Up Doc?, Paper Moon) -- and by 1971 he was having public affairs which Tatum is aware and was aware of then.  The divorce would come two years later, but the marriage was over by the start of 1971.  Then came a never ending chorus line of women, most famously Diana Ross. (And most tellingly.  We'll address that when we get to Ryan's issues.)

During this wife-free time, Tatum is hauled everywhere by Ryan.  Not just to the sets of the film they make together (Paper Moon and Nickelodeon) but to industry events, to parties, to interviews.  And Ryan knows the game, he knows you say what's heart warming and makes a good quote.  Tatum's a child.  She has a gift for acting but don't pretend she understands illusions.  This simple public patter, just p.r. spin, really did a number on Tatum who hears her father sharing these supposed real emotions with the world and believes it to be honest.  During the reality show, Tatum grew very angry when he lumped her in with his ex-wives and "girls."  She insisted she was his daughter and that's a different relationship and it should be respected as such.

But the therapists missed that.

That moment is key because with everything happening -- including Ryan's proclaimed eternal love for each woman he bedded -- for most of the 70s, Tatum remained (publicly) the most important female in Ryan's life.  That changed when Lee Majors asked him to check on Farrah Fawcett.  The two began a long-standing romance.  It was Farrah and Ryan followed by the photographers and showing up in People (which predicted they would be the first of a series of couples to break up -- they outlasted the other celebrity pairings).  Though the tabloids and Ryan have frequently tried to make it appear that there were problems between Tatum and Farrah, the two women didn't have a problem.  (Farrah probably understood Tatum better than anyone other than Tatum's brothers.) Especially after Tatum moved out, Farrah would constantly tell Ryan to call Tatum, to make plans with Tatum.

Let's move over to Ryan.  He went on CNN last year and stated he believed that his "family" had caused Farrah's cancer.  Farrah finally left Ryan due to the crazy.  Farrah was a woman of action.  She didn't sit around and mope and whine.  If she wanted to change something, she did.  So Ryan's constant problems with his children (all of them) and his refusal to address this, his desire to instead play one off the other and point to whichever one he happened to be speaking with that month as proof that the problem was with the other two children, wore on Farrah.  Not the kids.  She wasn't in a sexual relationship with the kids.  She was their father's live-in partner and she could get as involved as she wanted when she wanted with them.  But she was having a full-time relationship with their father and if her cancer was caused by personal turmoil (we don't believe that's the case), then it's Ryan's fault, not the kids.

And let's be really clear, since Ryan likes to infer that his children are drug addicts, most of Farrah's friends (including one of us, C.I.) had no problem with Farrah dropping by but made it clear they needed a heads up if Ryan was coming.  Why?  To clean out the medicine cabinets in the bathroom.  If you didn't, you'd find Ryan had cleaned it out for you.  Heaven forbid that you had menstrual cramp medicine in an unmarked bottle.  Ryan would take it.  From Malibu all the way up the northern coast of California and in NYC, Ryan was infamous for swiping pills from medicine chests.  He has had a drug habit for years.  That impacted his relationship with the children and their own with him.  For him to whine, as he has, on camera about Tatum's drug usage is really something.

One of the many insights Farrah had into Ryan was that the former boxer approached life as a boxing match.  He bobbed-and-weaved his way through life.  If things got too painful or costly for Ryan, he bobbed and weaved and you were out of the picture.  That's true of his ex-wives, true of   many of his co-stars, true of his family.

We said his relationship with Diana Ross was telling.  It was.  He was in love with Diana, he insisted.  She was everything he ever wanted, he told friends and press.  And he dumped her.  People do fall out of love, it happens.  But that wasn't what happened with Ryan.  he never loved Diana.  He liked her.  He found her attractive.  But what he wanted was for them to team up for a film.  They started sleeping together as he kept pressuring her to do the film.  And when he finally got a strong "no" on the film, he broke it off with her.

That's the bob-and-weave Ryan O'Neal way. Love is a series of glancing blows in Ryan's life.

A grown woman with three children and a successful career, Diana Ross was still taken by surprise to realize all those things he told friends and the press about how great she was and how he loved her and how he needed to be around her was all just spin for his career.  She managed to get through that major f**k over.  But Tatum was a little girl.

Understanding that life on the set when the director yelled "ACTION!" was make believe was one thing.  Understanding that every word out of your father's mouth to the press was always career spin?  She wasn't prepared for it.  No child would have been.

And adult Tatum still has trouble processing it.  'Dad said he loved me.  Dad said we had fun together and I was the only one who understood him, that he could talk to me for hours and hours.  Then Dad meets Farrah and suddenly I'm not wanted.'

Ryan never gets it and the tabloids never did either.  By the time Ryan and Farrah were in their relationship, Tatum was a young adult ready to date and party and much more.  She was not jealous of Farrah.  She didn't need to go to premieres with her father.  She didn't need to go on the town with her father.  She was in the natural phase any young adult goes through as they establish new relationships as an emerging adult.  The fact that he was in love with Farrah was something of a relief to Tatum because it gave her some breathing space.

But breathing space quickly became an isolation chamber.  Ryan was busy selling the p.r. on the Farrah and Ryan teaming.  His career wasn't going anywhere and he needed the 'heat' from this new relationship.  He'd eventually talk Farrah into doing a TV show (the one he kept whining about on the reality show -- whining that Tatum's ex-husband John McEnroe wouldn't appear on) at one point just because, as everyone knew, he needed that job really, really badly.

John McEnroe.  Tatum married and had kids.   She didn't need all of Ryan's attention.  She didn't even need 60% of it.  But she did need to know her father cared about her and wanted to see her.

But he was too busy fanning the star making machinery on Farrah and Ryan against the world.   That's what landed him (nude) on the cover of People with Farrah in August of 1983 -- not the three flop films he'd made in the previous three years.  (We're referring to box office.)

If we're being hard on Ryan (a) he's the parent and (b) he's not going to be around forever.  The recent prostate cancer should have him trying to improve his relationships.  So Fine was a bomb in 1981.  Partners was a bomb in 1982.  Though each film has its problems, both are strong films.  Ryan's also starred in the classic comedies What's Up Doc? and Paper Moon, the solid efforts of The Main Event, Chances Are, Irreconcilable Differences, and Faithful and the all time tear-jerker Love Story.  In all of those films, he's more than worth watching.  We say that because (a) it's true and (b) Ryan can only talk his own movies.

You caught that if you watched the show.  Unless you were like those two therapists who appeared to miss everything.  In therapy, Ryan's acting like he's on the couch with Johnny or Merv and plugging his films. 

His films mean that, as long as films interest future generations, Ryan will be remembered as a very attractive looking man who also had a very solid talent for light comedy.  But he's not going to be remembered well by his family if he doesn't grow the hell up.  What was attractive as late as 29 is no longer cute at 70.  The bob-and-weave might have helped him survive in earlier times but now it only ensures that he pits family member against family member and ensures that no one is happy.

Tatum's not without fault, nor Patrick, Griffin or Redmond.  But all were children.  And used as props.

One episode opened with Ryan in his car, driving to a joint-therapy session with Tatum.  As he drove, he explained that the session had to go well because he needed her to attend an event with him that night.  As the session quickly goes to hell with Ryan unable to apologize for the time he took a hand to his pregnant daughter, Ryan explains he's annoyed because now Tatum's not going to go to the event with him.

Tatum is not a prop.  Yes, Ryan and Tatum attending an event together will ensure that photographers take pictures and some outlets will publish them.  But she's not a prop.

Ryan treated women in his life like props.  (Farrah wouldn't let him do that to her.  When Ryan talks about Farrah being the stronger one, he's being very honest. And that's probably why she left him and not the other way around.  They got back together in the '00s.)   He treated his children like props.

He can die selfish if he wants.  Or he can grow up and realize that his children are individual people who need to be prized as such.  He can grow up and grasp that he should spend less time on plastic surgery and more time working on building relationships with his children.

To be really clear, Ryan O'Neal is a great pal around friend.  He is usually in great spirits or forces himself to be (which can lead him to snap when reality intrudes).  And if he'd been an uncle to his three children, he'd probably be a success.  But he is their father and the requires a little more than he's ever been willing to give.

Those dynamics are their lives and Ryan and Tatum -- even if the therapists couldn't see them -- didn't make any effort to hide who they were or try to be someone else.  That's why Ryan and Tatum: The O'Neals was that rare thing: a real reality show.  And, apparently, real reality was too much for most Americans which is why there was no season two of the show.

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