Whose Reality TV? Review of Frederick Wiseman’s ‘Domestic Violence’

Reality TV, as you may have noticed if you’ve gotten hooked or channel surfed lately, is anything but. It’s television that is meant to be gawked at as much as viewed, and succeeds not by being realistic or resembling the lives of everyday people, but rather by offering a fantastical escape to an exotic island or other isolated and alternate world.

You want real reality TV? Try Frederick Wiseman Domestic Violence, a harrowing six-hour documentary that airs Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS. (Tuesday’s installment focuses on the stories of residents at a shelter for battered spouses; Wednesday’s portion trails couples in court proceedings). The contrast in mood and method between Wiseman’s work and the network freak shows is plain: the upbeat suspense is replaced by more genuine and heartfelt pacing; the quick edits and glib hosts have been removed so as to get out of reality’s way. The result is raw, bold, if at times indigestible television. “I’m not making movies about sensational events,” Wiseman told the New York Observer. “I’m making movies about the common experience.”

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