How to Create a Reality-TV Villain

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photos by CBS, ABC and NBC

James Callenberger has produced reality shows for MTV, VH1, National Geographic, and Fox. Writing under a pseudonym, Callenberger breaks down how a reality-TV villain is made.

One of the great challenges of producing reality TV is making the characters likable. By its nature, reality television’s casting process attracts narcissists willing to cash in their dignity for a shortcut to fame and notoriety. There are, of course, many exceptions — entire franchises have been built on the natural charisma of standout characters like Kourtney Kardashian or Bethenny Frankel — but by and large, it takes patience, creativity, and considerable effort on the part of producers and editors to enhance cast members’ likability. 

That’s why it’s such a thrill when a reality character embraces those six magic words that announce his or her willingness to play the role of villain: “I’m not here to make friends.” A character’s villain potential appears early in the casting process. For all roles, casting directors look for people who “pop” on camera and speak their minds with little self-consciousness, because that makes for engaging conflict on camera. But for villains, you need two extra ingredients: delusions of grandeur and susceptibility to producers’ persuasion.

Implicit in the villains’ announcement that he or she isn’t interested in “making friends” is a critique of the rest of the cast members, as stated so succinctly on this season’s The Bachelorette by human meat-sculpture Chad Johnson, one of the greatest gifts that the reality gods have ever bestowed upon that show’s beleaguered producers. “I don’t care about you guys,” he tells the rest of the contestants. As those contestants proceed to vilify him in interviews, the show cuts to him lifting weights and devouring lunch meat, winking at the audience’s craving for broad archetypes and moral binaries.

There are three categories of reality-TV villains: Those who know they’re playing villains and ham it up, convincing themselves that since Richard Hatch won Survivor, and Omarosa is the only Apprentice we remember, playing the bad guy could work in their favor strategically, especially if the drama they create encourages producers to keep them around. Then there are those who have no clue. Blinded by their narcissism, they think they’re the heroes of their stories, and only when they watch edited episodes weeks or months later do they realize they’ve been playing the bad guy all along. The most interesting villains are those who suspect their behavior may indict them, but insist their standpoint is valid. These are the villains who fascinate us, as they lay bare cognitive dissonance in all its glory, constantly reframing their abysmal behavior in self-justified rationalizations. (See under: Chad.)

Once a cast member embraces the dark side, knowingly or not, the real challenge becomes managerial. Obviously, a villain doesn’t care about the other contestants — he’s here to win. But at the same time, the villain also doesn’t care about call times, silencing his cell phone while shooting, or the fact that his mic is still on while he’s chatting off-camera about how much he hates the sound recordist. The villain, in general, isn’t just the villain of the show; he or she is usually also the villain of the set.

A couple years ago, I cast someone as a series regular on a reality show I can’t name due to the pervasiveness of our industry’s non-disclosure agreements, but this guy was a real piece of work: shallow, sleazy, egomaniacal, full of grandiose bluster, completely blind to the impression he made on the rest of the cast and crew. He would show up to our shoots late, demand that the line producer fetch him a coffee, and take calls in the middle of scenes. During interviews, I doled out the verbal rope — “Do you think anyone here really understands how important you are?” — and let him hang himself.  Because he was constantly in conflict with the show’s most likable character, he made for great drama. (I’m not sure that he ever caught on that he was the show’s villain — to this day, it’s likely he thinks he’s the protagonist.)

At times, a reality-show villain can be made to seem less villainous in editing. Reality crews are, to their detriment, often divided into semi-autonomous field and post-production staffs. Because of budgets and schedules, editors can cut scenes independent of the producers who shot them, so a producer’s hero could be repurposed in post-production to be a villain, and vice versa. I recently produced a show that featured a spoiled, bratty, racist asshole who constantly hurled insults at the people working for him, but as he was one of the show’s main characters — and the material we shot in the field was thin — we had to use subsequent interview sound bites (cajoled by superhumanly patient producers) to humanize him and reframe his character in a humbler and more heroic context. I’ve been on set with plenty of despicable cast members who antagonized the crew, but because of their role on the show, editors had to find ways to make them likable to the audience. It would have been infinitely more satisfying and compelling to reveal them as they were, but alas, that’s not always possible.

However, when a producer has free rein to expose a villain for who he truly is, it’s one of the great pleasures of producing reality TV. There’s an art to crafting “franken-bites,” sound bites sewn together in the editing room from different parts of interviews, their stitches buried beneath b-roll, their telltale pitch shifts hidden to all but the savviest viewers. I can hear them clearly in Chad’s interviews on The Bachelorette; whatever he may have been talking about in real time, it ends up sounding like he’s talking shit on the show. Editorial software called Script Sync has made the process of crafting franken-bites even easier, allowing post-production personnel to search through hundreds of hours of transcribed interviews for specific phrases that can be combined to create the most deliciously damning sound bites. And nearly all cast members on reality shows sign appearance releases and non-disclosure agreements that essentially allow the producers to manipulate the footage however they like without fear of litigation or exposure of their process.

As screenwriting guru Robert McKee says, “A protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotionally compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” We need our villains to be smart, we need them to be formidable, and as with The Bachelorette’s Chad, we need them to have a defensible position. Chad opens up on the show about his mother dying of cancer, and we see his vulnerability. He exposes the façade of the show’s premise, and we see him as a truth teller. But then he starts punching doors and attacking other contestants, and we sink into the well-worn narrative patterns that these shows both demand and manufacture, and wait patiently for the satisfying franken-bites of his exit interview.