In the lexicon of clichés to describe characters accused of a despicable act, "He was once on a reality show" is the new "Neighbors say he was quiet and kept to himself."
Today the idea of a mad loner silently avoiding attention seems like a quaint throwback. In August, a VH1 dating-show contestant was charged with the murder of his ex-wife, then committed suicide. And on Oct. 15, America spent an afternoon being literally distracted by a shiny object, watching news choppers chase a silver balloon that we were told carried a presumably terrified 6-year-old boy. When we learned during the coverage that Falcon Heene's family had twice appeared on ABC's Wife Swap, who didn't have the same thought? That if Falcon's parents would open their family life for a reality show, then they might also have planned ... but they wouldn't have, right?
Would and did, says the sheriff of Larimer County, Colorado. Richard Heene, a self-styled scientist obsessed with tornadoes, aliens and getting a reality show, allegedly spun a plan to fake his son's Icarus-meets-Up ascent and become famous. But fame bit Heene when, on Larry King Live, Falcon heard a question directed to him by his father and made the mistake of answering honestly: "You guys said that we did this for the show."
"We did this for the show": if some 21st century Betsy Ross were designing a new American flag, she could slap that baby on a ribbon in an eagle's talons and call it a day. Whether it's conceiving octuplets and shopping a TV deal or screaming "You lie!" at the President and reaping millions of dollars in campaign contributions, the equation is the same: Act out = get paid.
Modern media did not invent greed, eccentricity or lust for attention. What they did was monetize them. There have long been odd families and obscure men pursuing bizarre theories and cobbling together flying machines in their backyards. But only in the reality-TV era has unstable behavior become a valid career choice. Only now are questionable parenting decisions the stuff of a lucrative family business. Say whatever you want about Jon and Kate Gosselin, their divorce proceedings entail numbers with a lot more zeroes than your typical young Pennsylvania family encounters.
Whatever the legal process uncovers, the story of Richard Heene incessantly pitching producers across Hollywood his show about a wacky storm-chasing family, parading Falcon on morning shows though the boy was sick, twice, on air is like an updated Mosquito Coast but with the eccentric dad dragging his family into the floodlights of reality TV instead of away from civilization.
And who can blame him, really? When the Heenes went on Wife Swap (in which two families trade mothers, who agree to live by the other family's rules) in 2008, Richard was such a belligerent jerk that, naturally, the Heenes were invited back for the show's 100th episode. America wanted more! And boy, did we get it.
Nor were TV's dysfunctional families Heene's only model. Even in professional careers, mere competence and craftsmanship is no substitute for a gimmick. You can be a brilliant chef and struggle to keep a restaurant afloat, or you can be a screaming chef or, as on Oxygen's new reality show, a "naughty" chef and be a media star. Real estate agents, tattoo artists, cake decorators the only thing standing between them and fortune is the willingness to blow a gasket once a week on cable.
And science? Pfft. You might get a few minutes on Nova if you're serious and successful. But trick out your science, real or pseudo, with stunts and a catchy moniker Legend Zappers! Storm Hunters! Ghost Blasters! and get ready to sign. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Heene's proposed show (Jon & Kate meets MythBusters) is that it hadn't already been sold.
But as fame becomes cheaper and more common, you have to ante up more in order to stand out. Heene put up his family.
None of us can really know the dynamic of the Heenes or how eager Richard's wife and children were to serve his scientainment ambitions. The kids seemed to take to their Wife Swap appearance with foulmouthed gusto. But that doesn't make turning their lives into TV a better idea or make exploiting them in a publicity scheme any less odious. If your kid is puking on the Today show while you keep talking to Meredith Vieira, it's a good sign you've screwed up.
With the Heenes, like the Gosselins before them, we're seeing a new kind of show-biz family, a sort of reality-era von Trapps, for whom living in public is a given and privacy negotiable. We can expect to see only more of this in the future. People have got to make a living, after all, and families pull together. They do it for one another. They do it for the show.