Cast of Chaos

Reality TV is, of course, an oxymoron. There’s reality—pimples and disappointments and paper jams. And there’s TV—Jennifer Aniston. These two concepts were meant to inhabit parallel planes and never intersect. That’s the natural order of the universe, like hot air rising and white pants attracting food. Tampering with this law of nature is an abomination.

Like all natural disasters, reality TV engenders chaos—the sort of localized apocalypse where middle managers are extraordinarily nice to others with no real power. Other symptoms of reality TV in humans include a tendency to stand in long lines, a willingness to share the sort of extremely personal information the government has spent millions of dollars trying to secure, and the most outrageous optimism regarding the interest others might have in those personal details.

All of these symptoms presented at the open casting calls for The Apprentice the other day at the Carlson School of Management and the Arrow Pontiac GMC dealership in Inver Grove Heights. To cope with the stresses placed on the innocents who were unaccustomed to the debasements of the casting call, every one of the four hundred real-people hopefuls repeated such soothing mantras as, “It’s just for fun,” “Those aren’t real,” and “It’s only ketchup.” Very much the same language parents use to assuage the overexposed child. But it didn’t work. They could not find their footing in the hall of mirrors that is reality TV.

“Of course,” the Kendra wannabes snorted, “everyone knows the entire show is scripted and they’re just looking for a ditzy blond or a tattooed dude to draw in viewers. It’s all about ratings.” This was a savvy crowd. They were pretty sure they had reality TV’s number. But a quick poll of the candidates’ qualifications for filling the role of a real fake person revealed they had wandered back to familiar turf, listing such water-cooler victories as successfully managing birthday card routing and selection as I.T. Hero of the Week, achievements that lose ten pounds on TV. Some said they were “just there for the fun of it,” a brand of entertainment that involved arriving at the Arrow Pontiac dealership by 4 a.m. and standing in ninety-degree heat for seven hours or so.

A delivery driver spent the time waiting for her three-minute interview trying to mine some quirk of her everyday life so that she could spin it into something more made-for-TV—the bitch, the driven career woman, the nice girl, the hippy. There was cavalier talk among candidates of being the hunted and the hunter, the participant and the observer, the dabbler and the desperate simultaneously, but for the non-psychotic it just wasn’t working.

This casting call was working, though, for Chandra Holt, of the tight white suit and stiletto heels. She told me the key to being chosen for The Apprentice was confidence. She surveyed the room and declared she was the prettiest one there (she may have had a point, but still). She went on to say she was a merchandising manager at Target, earning her MBA at the Carlson school at night. She managed “a lot of people.” She managed a big budget. She was also, by her own admission, the smartest person in the room. When I noted her busy schedule, she quickly let me know that was only the tip of the iceberg—she predicted a top-ten place at the upcoming Lifetime Fitness Triathlon. There is confidence, and then there is megalomania. When I mentioned the proclivity of reality TV actors to backstab, Chandra lit up like a klieg. “I love when they do those little asides, little digs like that. I’m really sharp, really good at one-liners.” She snapped her fingers, click, click, click.

I had hoped to chat with the two casting agents—Cara and Toby, California girls with their sunglasses on their heads—as a regular person rather than a candidate. Unfortunately, the girls were pure business and spoke only with application-bearing candidates, so I filled out the one-page application, complete with marital status and most embarrassing moment, and got in line. When my turn came up, Cara and Toby perkily called me in and quickly noted my occupation—writer. I confessed, and indicated I was, in fact, performing my occupation even as we spoke. Apparently they missed the exit from TV world, in which people audition to be actors, to the real world, where writers interview people for a story. The disconnect continued. While I asked about the validity of the marital-status and most-embarrassing-moment questions, and how they felt after a ten-hour stint of interviewing real people, Cara and Toby shared that it was possible that I would be selected for a spot on The Apprentice—but not likely, because of my lack of business background. Cara looked at Toby and said, “All of the Apprentices have had business experience, haven’t they? I don’t think there have been any writers.” Toby agreed, “No, we’re looking for really sharp people who can get the job done.”

Despite the close call, Cara, Toby, and I were never in the same conversation. Reality and TV marched on in different directions, and order remained in the universe.—Sarah Barker