Mark’s an expert on reality TV, a fact he’s quick to tell anyone who’s willing to listen. He sat through every season of ‘The Bachelor’, even when he wanted to wipe the smug smile from the lucky bloke’s face. He juggled onscreen and online viewings of ‘Big Brother’ and shouted at idiots on ‘The Amazing Race’. He even watched that god-awful Australian attempt at ‘Survivor’, and if that doesn’t count as dedication, then he doesn’t know what might.
He knows how reality television is manufactured. Within an hour of entering the Reel Life compound, he’d worked out the roles they’d all been selected to fulfil. That’s how it works, you see. Some fat producer rifles through a stack of applications and pulls out names to represent marketable types. Mark hates being labelled, but it’s obvious he’s here as the mischief-maker, the one who’s going to play the game. He’ll pull the others into it too, if he has his way. Flying under the radar is a bullshit move, he thinks. Leave that to people like Tilly – people who don’t have anything else to offer the world.
Mark’s entertaining, and he plans to keep the viewers guessing. Picking verbal fights with the other blokes gave him a pretty good start, but now he’s committed to playing to the impression he knows the viewers have already formed. It’s not that he doesn’t like the role; rather, he’s enjoying it. He’s his own man, after all. Signing away a few months of his life doesn’t take anything from that. Reel Life’s an opportunity. He gets a daily appearance fee, post-show publicity and his fifteen minutes of fame, all for being himself. You’d have to be mad to turn that shit down.
So Mark plays his role, and so do the others, whether they know it or not. Tilly’s the plastic bimbo, John’s the boy next door, and Kevin’s the token gay guy. Mark didn’t pick that one at first, and he’s still beating himself up for it. The guy’s too pretty to be straight, after all; Mark should’ve guessed Kevin’s box from the moment he walked in the door. Mark’s not homophobic, mind you – far from it in his own little way. For himself, though, Mark’s into girls. Once a day, and twice on Sundays… and that’s the kind of joke that works a lot better on his mates.
Kevin would laugh, though. At least Mark reckons he might. He seems that sort of guy.
But that’s the thing, you see. Not only is the compound different from the outside world, but even the nuts and bolts of reality television seem like they’ve been turned head over tail once you’re staring at them from the other side of the camera. You start questioning your own motives, start wondering what your label really is, because God only knows what sort of shit they’re showingAustralia and how they’re choosing to edit your life.
You can’t take a breather when there’s a camera behind every wall. Mark knew that logically, of course, everybody does, but it was only once he was in here that he really understood what that meant. Just try taking a crap when you know some sucker’s checking the footage to make sure you’re not signing a message to your mum. It’s like pissing with your girl’s ex-boyfriend beside you; it never seems to work. The point is, give it a week or two and the whole artificial world really starts to mess with your mind. On an academic level, it’s fascinating to him; on a personal level, it’s pretty fucking messed up.
Kevin’s the gay one, right? That’s what Mark keeps telling himself. Jayden is too, as it turns out, although how he manages to get any cock with that hair is anybody’s guess. They’re like the known facts, or something. You don’t need to be the insider to know that two gay blokes are enough. Any more and so-called ‘middleAustralia’ will start to get twitchy. Risqué is one thing; turning the house into the Mardi Gras is something else.
And that’s why Mark knows that what he’s thinking is some kind of reaction to being stuck inside a camera-filled cage. It’s only natural to react oddly in these sorts of circumstances. It’s a little like a morning boner: uncomfortable, uncontrollable and revealing absolutely nothing about your state of mind.
Not that he’s cracked a stiffy over Kevin, mind you. Then again, it’s not like he’s going to admit it, is it? Even if he has.
Mark’s starting to second-guess himself, and he doesn’t like the way that feels. It just isn’t in the plan. He’s the prankster and the goddamn expert on this kind of thing, and Kevin’s just the country bloke who likes having sex with guys.
… And Mark could’ve done without that mental image right now, he realises. Not that it’s the first time, and that’s a little fact that he’d rather not go into with any depth. He’s starting to think that maybe the labels are all wrong. Maybe they’re fluid: in life as well as Reel Life. It makes sense in an odd sort of way, but he’s not about to announce it in his daily commentary just yet.
Admitting this place has changed him isn’t something Mark’s keen to do, not even when Kevin’s eyes hint at things that go unsaid. He won’t let the competition beat him, but even the most drawn-out games must come to an eventual end. There’s a world outside the Reel Life compound, a world that seems a little more enticing with every passing day. And, out there, boxes don’t mean so much. Kevin doesn’t live so very far fromMelbourne– although why that matters, Mark’s not about to say.
When it’s over, things will go back to normal. At least that’s what Mark’s telling himself. He’s not changing; he’s adapting. It’s all part of the game.
Tara Calaby is a classicist, educator and sometimes-writer. She lives in ruralVictoria,Australia.