The blurred line between documentary and reality TV

By Christie-Anna Ozorio | 17 Sep 14
Living With the Enemy

Living With the Enemy | SBS

Living With The Enemy is a provocative six-part documentary series exploring the fault lines of social cohesion in Australia.”

Thus goes the SBS spiel for its new show, which is as far from a documentary as programming can be without being fictional. The series centres around the following fissures in Australian society: same-sex marriage; detention centres; immigration; Islam; marijuana; and hunting.

The premise involves two people from opposite sides of the ideological tracks who live in each other’s homes for five days apiece. The purpose of this clash of convictions is to provoke discussion, and for each party to explore the other’s point of view, although there have been more evangelistic soapbox tirades and less exploration and discussion as the series enters its third week.

In the pilot episode we met Gregory and Michael  engaged, atheist, gay activists  and David  an Anglican Minister, married with three children. Being a staunch human  specifically gay  rights activist, I expected I would have to work hard to balance my bias against the Anglican minister. Instead I found myself struggling to quell the shame and frustration that bubbled inside me every time Gregory, but more emphatically Michael, spoke. The hostility, defensiveness, and scorn rolled off them in waves when they were first introduced to David. The Minister asked them to sleep in a comfortable caravan in his front yard because he does not want his children, who he claims have not been exposed to homosexual couples yet, to be confused as to why the two men are sleeping in the same bed. Of course, the two men have the right to be vexed, embarrassed even, but what did they expect to encounter in the home of an Anglican minister? Bitching, muttering under the breath and gasps of indignation ensued, and the couple became even more closed.

The first thirty minutes neatly summarised the episode: the couple despise what David stands for and believes, and they insult him, disparage him, and talk over him for most of the discussions that he haplessly initiates. Michael, who scowls like a pubescent for most of the episode, makes one good point in all of his spite: “the guy preached a message of hate and intolerance, of bigotry wrapped up in sugar,” referring to David’s sermon on why homosexuality and Christianity are incompatible. While this is a valid moral opinion, it is the one of very few particularly valuable or constructive points that the men make. David, on the other hand, is gracious and conciliatory, and seemed to really make an effort to explore and understand the men’s sexuality, why they wanted to get married, and what their lives were like. Early on he remarks, “It seems like they’re trying to challenge people like me and are trying to affirm themselves and their relationship to me … I’m not confident they’re prepared to explore it.”

The problem is that whoever – whether the producers or casting or director – chose two men as mercurial and antagonistic as Gregory and Michael to represent the LGBTI community in Australia, and in fact to represent anyone who is a staunch ally of same-sex marriage (and homosexuality for that matter), clearly did not make the choice because they thought it would make informative, didactic programming.

Living With The Enemy is sensationalist reality television masquerading as current affairs. Gregory and Michael embody a section of the LGBTI community that is not necessarily representative, and do not help in any way to normalise or evoke empathy for the LGBTI cause. The members of Australian society who are still on the fence about same-sex marriage (12 per cent who are “neutral”along with the 36 per cent who are “against”) may not respond positively after observing their altercations with the reasonable Anglican minister, if my own reaction was sheepish and dismayed. In fact it may warrant prejudices that they already held. While David’s literalist conception and cherry-picking of Bible stories is an issue in its own right, Gregory and Michael did not take their opportunity to logically and judiciously present their arguments and cut swathes into David’s.

The show is not without its merits; observing those on the opposite poles of social issues is always informative and often serves to illustrate how extremely and fallaciously some people in our society think and debate.

However, the sensationalistic nature of the show’s editing and numerous “post-argument reaction” interviews, as well as its melodramatic and often misleading narrated voiceovers, make Living With The Enemy painful viewing for anyone unused to the superficial setting of reality television.

At the couple’s wedding David reflects, “I have no basis to object … they don’t care what I think and I’m certainly not here to spoil the party.”The narration contends, “This is the day Gregory and Michael have been fighting for, a day that David has been doing all he can to stop.” This seems to be the way that SBS’s new “documentary” will frame these six social issues. I can’t help but feel it has missed out on a grand opportunity to accurately explore everyday Australian’s opinions in a more constructive means.

Living With The Enemy screens Wednesday nights at 8:30pm on SBS One. Past episodes are temporarily available on SBS On Demand.

View the episode 1 trailer: