The other day while flicking idly through the TV stations, I settled on one of those “Cops-like” reality shows that appeared to be about the lives of Repo men. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it was oddly captivating.
I watched as a guy who looked like a Latino gangbanger — replete with do-rag and cool guy shades — drove around the streets of LA with a dude named Matt, who appeared to have modeled himself on wrestling icon Stone Cold Steve Austin. Bald, with the manicured mustache of an outlaw biker or a participant in a Gay Pride Parade, Matt quivered with aggression. Rippling with the muscles of a steroid monkey, his arms covered in tattoos, he wore a pair of overalls without a shirt, looking like some hillbilly moron from a slasher flick.
These two guys, who kind of looked like they were in costume, pulled into a driveway and began to hook-up a car to their tow truck. And then, out of the blue, an immense black man appeared and tackled Matt from behind. The two of them wrestled about on the front yard, as all manner of profanity was bleeped out, and cameramen ran in and out of the frame. The other Repo agent came to Matt’s aid, and managed to keep his attacker at bay with the threat of pepper spray. There was virtually no coherent dialogue as this was taking place, just a frenzy of movement, shouting and posturing.
And then, for a little bit of clarity and post-game analysis, we cut to an interview with Matt, who tells us that at this point he spotted one of those electronic anklets that people sentenced to home incarceration must wear on his attacker. Back in the thick of it, we see Matt now trying to goad the guy, tempting him to cross the line. The black man says nothing, but paces like a caged brute, until he grabs a hose and starts to spray the Repo men.
And then we cut to commercial.
The whole scene, which never achieved any sort of closure, was a disorienting blur of improbable events. It was weird, but I didn’t think any more about it, other than to note just how stupid everybody involved in the confrontation was.
The next segment featured a new Repo person named Sonia. She looked like a retro roller girl who had seen better days. Weighing in at around 300 pounds, she had luridly dyed hair that sprouted out of her head in pigtails and an array of the counter-culture tattoos of an outsider. She looked exactly like the sort of person you’d see in a dive bar, somebody who could be either an Indie hipster, or, well, somebody who worked in repossession.
Sonia pulled into the driveway of a fetching looking woman in a sundress who was reclining on her porch. And yes, it is LA and everything, but she just didn’t look like somebody who was about to have a car repossessed, she looked like an actress who had yet to make it big. It felt like a soft-core video was about to unfold, and sure enough, that subtext was realized when we found out that the car that was about to be repossessed did not belong to her husband, but to her lover, Pedro! She urged Sonia to be quick about the repossession, so that it was over with before her husband came home, but it was too late! On cue, her husband— handsome and wearing a suit that didn’t quite fit— returned home from work and freaked out! Utterly horrible acting ensued, and it became clear that what I had been watching was entirely phony.
The show was “Operation Repo,” a TruTV offering. This station, which in a previous incarnation was Court TV, showcases “real-life stories told from an exciting and dramatic first-person perspective,” by which they mean fake stories made to look real. “Operation Repo” is actually based on the Spanglish show “Operacio Repo,” which ran on Telemundo.
In the American version, which retains its Latin flair, a fictional repossession team from the San Fernando Valley portray scripted re-enactments of repossessions. Essentially, it’s a soap opera that contains elements of pro wrestling sold as a reality TV.
The producers do everything that they can to convince the viewer that they’re watching a typical documentary/reality venture. Cameramen and boom microphones are intentionally placed in the frame, suggesting that what we’re watching is so chaotic and unpredictable that the cameramen must run for their lives, too. While this riot of senseless activity is taking place, they frequently cut to interviews with the members of the Repo team, (my favorite is the massive and heaving Luis, who is always interviewed with a Blue Tooth in his ear, lest he miss an important Repo call) who describes the insider analysis on the anarchy we’ve been watching.
The show rockets along, zipping by in 30 disorienting minutes so that watching you really don’t know what the hell is going on. One minute a fight is taking place in the parking lot of a fortuneteller, and the next moment the team is repossessing Go-Karts, and everywhere there is screaming and swearing and bouncing cameras. It doesn’t make any sense at all, and it hardly matters. Drawn by the native charisma of violence and swearing, you watch, and once you figure out that it’s all a sham, the show’s over, and really, who cares if it’s real or not?
The reality shows that are foisted on us are all fabrications, programs cluttered with bad actors with big ambitions, all enacting a scripted narrative that’s supposed to resemble some sort of classy soap opera. “Operation Repo” is simultaneously smart and stupid. Honest in a way that most reality TV is not, they seized that template and ratcheted up the content, amplifying the whole experience into a surreal and kitschy trip that’s harmless and fun. It’s aggressively idiotic, of course, a ridiculous exaggeration, but that is what we’re looking for when we tune in to the reality genre anyway, and “Operation Repo” has the significant advantage of knowing exactly what it is, even if their audience doesn’t.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.