In the Lexicon of Clichés to describe characters accused of a despicable act, “He was once on a reality show” is the new “Neighbors say he was quiet and kept to himself.”
Today the idea of a mad loner silently avoiding attention seems like a quaint throwback. In August, a VH1 dating-show contestant was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, then committed suicide. And on Oct. 15, America spent an afternoon being literally distracted by a shiny object, watching news choppers chase a silver balloon that we were told carried a presumably terrified 6-year-old boy. When we learned during the coverage that Falcon Heene’s family had twice appeared on ABC’s Wife Swap, who didn’t have the same thought That if Falcon’s parents would open their family life for a reality show, then they might also have planned … but they wouldn’t have, right Would and did, says the sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado. Richard Heene, a self-styled scientist obsessed with tornadoes, aliens and getting a reality show, allegedly spun a plan to fake his son’s Icarus-meets-Up ascent and become famous. But fame bit Heene when, on Larry King Live, Falcon heard a question directed to him by his father and made the mistake of answering honestly: “You guys said that we did this for the show.” “We did this for the show”: if some 21st century Betsy Ross were designing a new American flag, she could slap that baby on a ribbon in an eagle’s talons and call it a day. Whether it’s conceiving octuplets and shopping a TV deal or screaming “You lie!” at the President and reaping millions of dollars in campaign contributions, the equation is the same: Act out=get paid. Modern media did not invent greed, eccentricity or lust for attention. What they did was monetize them. There have long been odd families and obscure men pursuing bizarre theories and cobbling together flying machines in their backyards. But only in the reality-TV era has unstable behavior become a valid career choice. Only now are questionable parenting decisions the stuff of a lucrative family business. Say whatever you want about Jon and Kate Gosselin, their divorce proceedings entail numbers with a lot more zeroes than your typical young Pennsylvania family encounters. Whatever the legal process uncovers, the story of Richard Heene–incessantly pitching producers across Hollywood his show about a wacky storm-chasing family, parading Falcon on morning shows though the boy was sick, twice, on air–is like an updated Mosquito Coast but with the eccentric dad dragging his family into the floodlights of reality TV instead of away from civilization. And who can blame him, really When the Heenes went on Wife Swap in 2008, Richard was such a belligerent jerk that, naturally, the Heenes were invited back for the show’s 100th episode. America wanted more! And boy, did we get it.