My So-Called Life as Liz

If you are over twenty years old, you may not be aware of the show My Life as Liz, which is part of MTV's lineup that includes Jersey Shore and The Hills and recently began airing on MTV Canada. My Life as Liz stands out from those others shows for two reasons. The first is that its protagonist, Liz Lee, is neither suntanned nor obnoxious, but rather a self-described high school outcast whose tastes lean more towards “goth” than “guido.” The second and, for our purposes, more interesting thing about it is that while it claims to be a reality show, many viewers suspect that it is in fact scripted.

It's an open secret, of course, that reality shows such as Survivor and The Hills are at least semi-scripted, though it's unclear in each case whether the participants are actually working from written scripts or scenarios or the producers are turning reality footage into something more narrative in the editing suite. Similarly, quite a few scripted shows such as The Office and Parks and Recreation use the conceit of being fictional reality shows, with cut-away interviews with the main characters and occasional nods to the ever-present camera. (Though just as in genuine reality shows, on the whole the characters behave as though the cameras are not there.) My Life as Liz, though, is a more complicated case. It presents itself as a genuine reality show -- no writers are listed in the credits, and the performers are not listed as actors -- but many aspects of the show suggest that it is, if not scripted, at least carefully staged.

The show blurs the distinction between reality and fiction from its opening disclaimer, as spoken by Liz: "The people, places and stories you are about to see are all real . . . at least the way I see it." That leaves a lot of wiggle room for the show to play around with reality, but from that point on the show plays itself entirely straight: aside from sequences where Liz addresses the audience directly, scenes are shot with all of the conventions of scripted drama. To begin with, an improbable number of cameras capture each scene in two-shots, close-ups and long shots, and are on hand even when characters receive middle-of-the-night phone calls. (Executive producer Marshall Eisen has said “We had a lot of cameras in a lot of those places.”) Moreover, the show's storylines often follow plots that were already old chestnuts in the days of The Brady Bunch: Liz receives an anonymous invitation to the Valentine`s Day dance, but this turns out to be a trick by her nemesis Cori; when Cori and her clique enter the talent show with a crowd-pleasing dance number, Liz shows them up by singing an alt-rock ballad and is cheered by a legion of fellow-nerds; and in the show`s two overarching stories Liz pursues a moody loner while her chubby best friend pines after her, and she slowly becomes friends with a member of Cori`s clique who is shown to have hidden depths. It might be a fun party game to try to pick out the various ingredients that went into this stew, from Beverly Hills 90210 to Revenge of the Nerds to Heathers, but it does not inspire confidence in the show`s veracity.

What may be most interesting about the show, though, is how viewers have responded to it. In fact, it provides us with a perfect view of how young people use critical thinking skills to authenticate information "in the wild." The show clearly raised flags in quite a few young viewers, with topics such as “Is My Life as Liz Scripted?” appearing on forums such as Uaddit and Yahoo! Answers, receiving a wide range of responses. More interesting than the positions commenters took is how they arrived at them. One skeptic pointed out that while many scenes would require several cameras to capture the footage seen, the cameras somehow never film each other; another noted that passers-by never react to seeing the camera crew; a third that cameras improbably capture a scene in the girls' bathroom where Cori is overheard confessing to playing her trick on Liz. One alert commenter even points out a continuity error in which the colour of Liz's fingernails changes between two scenes ostensibly shot on the same day. As much as this is a testament to young people's critical thinking skills, it also illustrates the lengths people will go to in order to keep believing something they want to believe: many commenters on these same forums insist that the show is “mostly true” (with only the most obviously staged scenes being fake), “semi-scripted,” or “a mix of scripted and real.”

Despite this, MTV is sticking to its position that My Life as Liz is not scripted -- though they refrain from calling it a documentary: Dave Sirulnick, MTV's executive vice president of multiplatform, news and documentaries, said "We don't look at it as just a reality show -- that doesn't capture it. We weren't going to call it a sitcom, because it's not." On the whole, though, it seems as though many viewers recognize that the show's nature is at least problematic, so does how it is labelled really matter? The issue is that by creating the impression that the show may be real, the producers are making it difficult to assess it as a media product.

Consider three basic principles of media literacy: that media are constructions, that media have commercial implications, and that values and ideological messages underpin all media. Anyone who's ever taught media education knows how hard it is to get students to understand the first of these -- it's not uncommon for students to express surprise that scripted shows have writers, never mind reality shows. How much more difficult, then, to convince them that something that pretends to be real is a carefully planned, edited and marketed product? And yet doing so is key to recognizing the commercial and ideological dimensions of the show. For instance, whenever Liz is listening to music -- whether it's while driving or lying on the bed, depressed over the latest turn her life has taken -- the name of the song and artist appear at the bottom of the screen, making it possible for Liz's fans to go straight to iTunes and buy the song in question. This is, essentially, advertising -- no doubt the songs have been carefully selected to appeal to the show's audience, and quite likely fees were paid to have them included -- but how can viewers respond critically to advertising if they don't know that's what it is?

As noted above, even the more skeptical viewers believe that the show is at least somewhat real. (A popular theory is that the performers are re-enacting Liz's actual high school experiences.) This shows how the pseudo-documentary format makes it more difficult for viewers to decode the implied ideological messages of the show: if viewers take this to be a representation of Liz's real life, will they be disappointed that their own lives are, by comparison, so free of drama, or don't unfold in neat storylines with clearly recognizable heroes and villains? (Of course, that is how most teens see their own lives -- but surely a genuine documentary provides a more accurate view of life, rather than reflecting our own views.)

Perhaps we can do a bit of judo on My Life is Liz, and turn its problems into strengths: it provides us with a wonderful teaching opportunity in which we can ask students to debate the evidence surrounding its status as documentary or fiction and discuss the implications of their findings. In fact, it's hard to imagine a better text to use to introduce students to many of the principles and skills associated with media literacy. What a pity that, under Canadian copyright law, teachers aren't allowed to show it -- or even excerpts of it -- in class. The show is at least available from the MTV site, so if it isn't blocked at your school -- and until and unless the new Copyright Act closes that loophole -- you can stream it from there.