Shain Gandee died doing precisely what made him the star of MTV's "BUCKWILD" reality show: tearing through mudholes in his truck, taking chances most others wouldn't, living free and reckless.
MTV has not said whether cameras were rolling the night Gandee, his uncle and a friend left a bar at 3 a.m. to go "muddin'." But the line between television and real life blurred in one fatal moment when Gandee's vehicle got stuck in a deep mudpit. He and two passengers were found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Was Gandee living for the cameras that night, or for himself? Did his on-camera life, and the rewards it brought him, make him more reckless when the camera lights were off?
And how does the audience fit into this picture, the 3 million weekly viewers who made "BUCKWILD" a hit, plus the many millions more who have made shows from "Jersey Shore" to "Dancing With the Stars" to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" a living, breathing part of our culture? How has reality TV shaped perceptions of real life — and of our own lives?
Everywhere you look these days, the lines blur.
Evan Ross Katz is a fan of "BUCKWILD," which followed a group of self-described rednecks' "wild and crazy behavior" in rural West Virginia. Katz watches about a dozen reality shows for his work as a freelance pop culture commentator, and he says Gandee felt more real than other stars.
"I want to believe that was him in real life," Katz says. "Sometimes you just get this impression. I really do believe you can tell when people are being genuine or not on these shows."
"I found him to be strangely genuine, by far the most genuine of the group. Some of them wanted to pour it down your throat, like, 'We're the wildest kids in West Virginia.' I don't think he showed any sort of agenda to prove he lived this different life. I just think he organically did."
Katz, 23, is roughly the same age as the modern reality TV genre, which MTV is credited with launching in 1992 with "The Real World." Like many other viewers, he knows that reality television is carefully shaped by producers looking for storylines and conflicts. He watches ironically, sometimes condescendingly — "look at their stupid life, they're stupid" — and takes it all in with a grain of salt.
Yet still he is drawn to the personalities and the dramas, especially the combative women on "The Real Housewives" series.
"I never expected to become invested in them the way I do," Katz says.
"Housewives" fights may affect the way he deals with drama in his own life: "When someone takes a small situation over the top, it's the worst. You feel like you're on one of these shows. But if two of my friends get into a huge fight in front of me, I let it go for a little while before I jump in."
"Is that a byproduct of reality television? Probably," Katz said.
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