After the “is the breakup real or is it fake” brouhaha surrounding “Gene Simmons Family Jewels,” I decided it was worth looking for a reality TV show that was, at least in part, indisputably real. While “Giuliana & Bill” (a new season kicks off on the Style network Mon. July 18 at 8 p.m.) has its scripted moments, last season the show was forced by circumstance to get real – and was all the better for it.
When this “real-life romantic comedy” (that’s the network’s description, not mine) debuted in 2010, it was supposed to be a light, frothy reality show about the glamorous, first-world sorta-problems facing a cute married couple trying to make a bicoastal relationship work. He lives in Chicago! She works in Los Angeles! How will these crazy kids with money make a go of it? Cue adorable theme music while Giuliana yanks on Bill’s hat! Aww!
That the Rancics were hot and bothered to start a family undoubtedly made network brass (and Giuliana herself, who is an executive producer) positively giddy. I’m sure they imagined all the cute arguments about where to put the bassinet, the tears of joy during the first ultrasound and the big finale when Giuliana gets rushed to the hospital and produces a perfect little Rancic.
But reality has an unfortunate tendency to get in the way of reality TV, and said spawn has not been forthcoming. Instead, the Rancics have become poster children for the modern infertility crisis. Instead of charming outings to shop for baby gear, we got egg harvesting, hormone shots and, last season, a miscarriage. The couple who seemed to have been touched by a sprinkling of Hollywood happy ending fairy dust was suddenly shown to be powerless in the face of an obstacle that no amount of hard work or money or spray tanning could overcome.
To the Rancics’ enormous credit, they’ve opted for transparency in this hellish ordeal. Giuliana grimaces through her hormone shots and cries to her therapist, quietly asking why she’s being punished. We even watch as she’s being revived from general anesthesia with no make-up and her hair tucked into one of those ugly hospital rain caps.
Suddenly the cutesy moments and quibbles that had fueled earlier episodes of the show gave way to real pathos. While both Rancics tried to find the silver lining with a steely determination that can only come with knowing you’re being filmed, ultimately they let the American public see a glimmer of the very real emotions experienced in times of loss – denial, shock, hopelessness and sorrow. Dramatic tension that’s largely absent in celebrity reality shows that don’t involve dancing or drug recovery suddenly entered the picture. Are they pregnant this time? And, after the miscarriage was revealed, the questions got harder: could Giuliana stomach the idea of moving into a big house in the suburbs Bill had bought when they believed a brood was forthcoming? Could Bill? Would they adopt? Go through a surrogate? Or just give up?
Of course, the goal was never to turn “Giuliana & Bill” into a Health Discovery network show. And, while some moments of playful, flirty fun are as much of a relief for us as they probably are for the Rancics (one trip to Ikea fit the bill), a later episode pulled out the familiar reality TV tropes to ill effect. A road trip that is arbitrarily decided upon as a good way to “cheer up” felt heavily orchestrated, and watching Giuliana beg to be released from the RV Bill is driving in order to toddle up the hill in her high heels feels joyless and jarring. One is reminded of Giuliana’s therapist saying, “I get the feeling a little bit that you try so hard to be so up,” and her efforts to be little girl happy smack of an effort to convince us (as well as, perhaps, herself) that she’s still the carefree newlywed she used to be.
But just as you can never go home again, “Giuliana & Bill” can’t easily return to the purely fluffy stuff. We’ve seen too much, and we have to believe (or at least hope) that the Rancics are a little older and a little wiser now, that their laughter is harder won. No need to whoop it up for our benefit. It turns out the real deal is much more compelling than the obviously scripted, sitcom-ready stuff anyway. Here’s hoping that the new season will be a little richer for their trials. It will only make their determination to choose happiness, especially in light of the darkness they’ve seen, that much more impressive.