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Death and Reality TV

What does the 'Buckwild' star's tragic end tell us about the genre?


On Monday, 21-year-old Shain Gandee, star of MTV’s “Buckwild,” was found dead inside his Ford Bronco in a muddy ditch. On the reality show—which features the backcountry exploits of a crew of West Virginia twentysomethings—Shain was the sweet, goofy one, the likeable foil to womanizing Tyler and dully good-humored Joey. Shain had a faint pubescent moustache and a drawl so leisurely it seemed digitally slowed. He pined for red-haired Cara and roughhoused with open-hearted gusto. “He has a death wish,” a friend joked in one episode, shaking her head as Shain hurtled off the edge of a bridge into the green water below. I’d only seen a few episodes of “Buckwild,” and still the news of Gandee’s death was a jolt. A week or so ago I’d watched him slosh through mud on a dirtbike and shriek with laughter as he rolled down a hill curled inside a tire.

Reality TV stars seem to die young with scary frequency. The site has a full page devoted to memorializing reality show personalities. This, after all, is a genre that attracts a certain kind of human: adrenaline junkies, spotlight seekers, fragile and overweening egos. So it seems likely that the reality TV personality is disproportionately inclined to combust. When former “Real World: Hollywood” and “Celebrity Rehab” cast member Joey Kovar passed away last year, news reports cited a cocaine and Viagra overdose (and later, "opiate intoxication"). Onscreen, Kovar had an intense, coiled energy. “People want edgy. People want attitude,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2009 about “Real World.” His death was a reminder of the particular queasiness of reality TV stardom: the pressure to behave fantastically inside an ever-encroaching fishbowl, the collision of performance and mere existence.

John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine about feeling rattled by the deaths of four reality TV stars: Ryan Dunn of “Jackass,” who died in a fiery car wreck; Mike Starr and Jeff Conaway, formerly of VH1’s “Celebrity Rehab”; Russell Armstrong, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” husband, who hanged himself in the face of financial and marital stress. “Even this poor, maligned genre receives its flickerings of transcendence,” Sullivan wrote. Since then, of course, there have been others. This past February, Mark Balelo of “Storage Wars” committed suicide; TMZ reported that he compared his own plight to Armstrong’s the night before his death. Visible demons make for good TV. But the awful fact is that the deaths, and the hype surrounding them, make for good TV too.

To see a death handled within the world of a reality show is a strange kind of dissonance. It is not just the knowledge that all this theatrical fakery contains real human stakes; it is the gap between the news cycle and the production cycle—we hear about a death, then we watch a version of it, its authentic drama ratcheted up by a creepy kind of intelligent design. There are the practical editorial questions: Do producers paste a simple “in memoriam” at the end of an episode? At the beginning? Do they trim footage of the fallen cast member, as “Real Housewives” did with Armstrong, re-editing the second season after his suicide—eliding him, shrinking his role to a series of ghostly cameos, cleansing the plot of its darkness? But still we saw the Armstrong marriage fray and unravel onscreen; their spats became eerie harbingers. 

On “The Deadliest Catch,” Captain Phil died on the show months after the news broke that he had passed away. He had a stroke and was found collapsed in his room as the cameras rolled. We saw the bustle on the ship's deck grind to a halt, the nets full of snow crabs abandoned, the tedium of a hospital after so many episodes at sea. And in May, Mitchell Guist of The History Channel’s “Swamp People” died after falling from a boat. The first episode that aired after his death was unremarkable, the same marshy vistas and snapping gator mouths, save for a brief tribute at the beginning: an image of the two whiskered Guist brothers posed on a canoe, with Mitchell in voiceover, saying: “You can go out in the swamp and you ain’t gotta worry about the hustle and bustle—when you get out in the swamp, you don’t hear none of that. All you hear is the wildlife.” Then the words, briefly, “In memory of Mitchell Guist: 1964 to 2012.” It was an undeniably poignant intro, a quiet moment before “Viewer discretion is advised” flashed onscreen and the gator-thrashing began again. 

As for “Buckwild,” the show has announced its indefinite postponement. But the “Buckwild” page on the MTV website currently proclaims “Relive your favorite Buckwild moments over again!” and “Watch the season finale: It’s the end of summer in Sissonville and the gang is all ramped up!” alongside a banner that says “In Memory of Shain Gandee.” The sad paradox of reality TV is that these are the moments when the genre comes closest to living up to its name, when all that curated drama is suddenly crushingly real. But then yesterday police reported that the exhaust pipe on Gandee’s truck had gotten stuck in the mud; he and his uncle succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. So Gandee did not die careening around on an ATV or flinging himself off a bridge into a lake. It was perhaps the biggest shock of his mundane and tragic death: He broke script.

Follow Laura Bennett on Twitter @lbenn4.