‘Siberia,’ ‘Mermaids’ and the Trouble With Seriously Fake Reality

By  · Published on July 2nd, 2013


Last night, NBC debuted yet another new series with a documentary style structure. The network is no stranger to the format, but this show is apparently more confusing for viewers than, say, The Office and Parks and Recreation. The difference is that this show, Siberia, is not a comedy. It’s a fictional show that plays like a reality game show. Any blurbs calling it “Survivor meets Lost” are unnecessary praise because that is literally what is intended. The premise is a more anarchic take on a Survivor-type show, dropping contestants in the middle of the notorious Russian region, while the pilot is nearly a play-by-play of a crash-less version of the Lost pilot, complete with a male version of Shannon (he even sunbathes while everyone else works together as a team) and an unidentified creature in the woods, a la “The Smoke Monster.”

By the time Siberia starts to get deadly, the audience should be fully aware that this is not a real reality show. That is if they aren’t already keen enough to see the impossible camerawork (common to other doc-style fiction series) or haven’t bothered looking up the program on IMDb or NBC’s website. But why would they go looking if they believed it to be just another nonfiction show? There’s not much that indicates otherwise in the opening credits (no writers are listed and the cast is listed by first name only) and while the network isn’t necessarily trying to dupe viewers, its marketing of the show isn’t exactly holding people’s hands and stressing that it’s fake. This isn’t quite The Blair Witch Project all over again, although that’s another work Siberia is clearly influenced by.

I figure if Twitter existed in 1999, we’d have seen some similar responses to The Blair Witch Project as can be found about Siberia. Numerous viewers have called it a “real life Hunger Games.” Others are asking things like, “Is this real? Are they allowed to show that?” A friend of mine even wondered if maybe the “contestants” (or at least some of them) were under the impression they were on an actual reality show. That would be pretty interesting if nobody knew the truth until they were “killed off.” It’d indeed be the real life equivalent of one movie: April Fool’s Day (sorry for the spoiler but it’s 27 years old).

But as Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” proved 75 years ago, a fiction told in newscast or documentary or other nonfiction style with serious tone is going to fool people, whether that’s the intention or not, and no matter the level of plausibility. The term mockumentary has been an umbrella for all fake documentaries, though it primarily has a connotation of being a comedy subgenre. We think of This Is Spinal Tap and films directed by Christopher Guest himself, as well as now a number of TV sitcoms. It’s typically easy to discern them as fictions because of their humor, most of which is exaggerated or otherwise obviously written. Because that’s the norm, general audiences expect it, and so it tends to only be if the movie is funny that it is understood to be a faux take on documentaries.

Mocking something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s done to be funny, but it doesn’t totally allow for truly serious purposes either. Siberia is light enough to consider it to be indeed mocking the reality game show genre, even if it’s not playing for laughs. Many fake documentary films with a point, such as Death of a President, C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America and The War Game (which actually won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967), are perfectly clear in what they are, simply for the fact that they’re either set in the future or show alternate histories involving a presidential assassination or the South having won the Civil War.

Meanwhile, the found footage model of The Blair Witch Project has become so normalized that a lot of its successors would be mistaken for real even if the majority weren’t about monsters, ghosts and other fantasy elements. Of course, a TV documentary about mythological creatures is still just as capable of deceiving people as a fake newscast about an alien invasion was in 1938, given what I’ve heard of gullible viewers believing Animal Planet’s Mermaids to be real.

And before that, there was the controversial 1992 UK special Ghostwatch, which reportedly had deep psychological ramifications for its audience in spite of being upfront about being fiction. Edward Zwick’s 1983 TV movie Special Bulletin at least had a plausible premise of a nuclear terrorist threat, so it’s understandable that it caused the biggest panic of the sort since The War of the Worlds. Same with the 1994 meteor disaster film Without Warning, which used real newscaster Sander Vanocur as himself.

I’m fascinated by serious faux docs and their impact, which is why I tuned in to Siberia (I don’t even know where I’d heard about it, but I was always informed that it was a doc-style drama series). It’s why I really wanted Daniel Stamm’s suicide film A Necessary Death to become a provocative phenomenon where people talked about the ethics of death and documentary, and if some of them were angry because they thought it was all real, all the better. One thing about serious faux docs is they don’t hold on to public interest for long. Once Peter Jackson’s Forgotten Silver and the Joaquin Phoenix film I’m Still Here are revealed to be a “hoax” (or just fiction), for two famous examples, they lose a lot of their intrigue.

There’s the dilemma, as neither of those films would have caught the attention and curiosity of people in the first place had they not been sold or been implied as being real. And if you don’t aim for that, you could just wind up like the little-seen Brothers of the Head, a music film about conjoined twins who lead a rock band. It’s a drama presented in documentary form, and though there is some very dry British humor, there was a certain awkwardness to it not being broadly comical. When you go to see a rock mockumentary you expect something silly. It’s all good and fine to buck convention, but that’s likely going to result in something that disappoints people.

Why would someone want to watch a fake version of Survivor that isn’t laugh out loud parody? It still is a clever lampoon that comments on the genre, but that’s not of interest to the mainstream television audience (and we already got a great faux doc satirizing the violence of reality game shows 12 years ago with Series 7: The Contenders). NBC probably played down the mock part for the pilot in order to hook people, and while there is the heavy feeling of it being a Lost copy through and through, Siberia does promise to be interesting long after we’ve stopped thinking about its format. I’m dying to see if it holds at least true to that.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.