This review starts with a confession. I am a competition reality show junkie. Not The Bachelor or crap where they just have to live together, but the ones where they actually have to do something to make it to the next episode. Project Runway, Amazing Race, you name it, I’ve probably watched it. And the most embarrassing admission… I love those stupid MTV Challenge shows. I love them enough that I have favourite competitors (Evan and Cara Maria). I’ve watched pretty much all of them. Anyone who even knows what this show is has probably watched The Real World at some point in their life. I remember watching the very first one – when it was still new. Nothing like this had ever been shown on television before. It was so new it wasn’t even called reality tv. I was in my mid-teens and was the exact target audience. Beginning to think about university but not in a serious way. Wanting to get out of my parents’ house, but again, not seriously. Getting to live with a bunch of people my age in a house without any parents was the dream. I’ve watched episodes of newer seasons of The Real World here and there over the years, late at night when there’s nothing else on, but the last time was probably the season with Paula, so it was a while ago. I don’t know how I stumbled across The Challenge, but I did, and now I anxiously await the next season, all the while chastising myself for contributing to the viewership of something that is so blatantly awful and supportive of a misogynistic culture.
Anyway, what the hell does this have to do with Barnholdt’s book? Simple, this book is obviously based on The Real World and other shows like it. It even references the one season show MTV spent taping a semester at school with a bunch of freshmen. I’m not super surprised that show didn’t last. No matter how good the school is, all I remember from that show is how much the kids partied and blew off their classes. It doesn’t reflect that well on the school.
In Watch Me, there is way more class attending than was portrayed on that show. So, here’s the premise – Ally is selected for a reality tv program filming at her school. She has a long time, long distance boyfriend at a school several states away. He’s a hot shot athlete. She’s an undeclared cotton fluff. Whatever they were in high school, their perfect match isn’t the same anymore. A lot of the criticism around this book is about Ally not having good communication skills. Well, I say so what? How many eighteen year olds away from home for the first time are excellent communicators? And if she and what’s his name had been able to have deep, meaningful talks, there wouldn’t be a book. Okay, I went and looked it up, his name is Corey. The fact that I couldn’t remember the name of a major character is part of the actual problem with the book, but I’ll get to that later.
I did not hate this book, for the reasons described in the first paragraphs. I felt a little kinship with it, associating the characters with the people on The Challenge, recognizing the whole time that I should not like it. I’ve talked about not feeling guilty about things you like, but I feel guilty about this one. I just do. It’s an uncomfortable place to be.
Back to the book – Ally and Corey have been dating for almost two years – tangent, it was almost two years at the audition, and then months later it was still almost two years. What does Ally consider almost? – and in high school years, this is pretty much forever. But it’s nothing compared to those first months on your own. When I went away to school and moved into a college dorm, it was a whole new world. Life experiences were crammed in as tightly as possible. You were meeting all these new people. Testing your boundaries. Learning to manipulate a meal plan. And doing things – enjoyable or not – you may never have had the chance to try before. It was a literal teenage wasteland.
Ally’s experience had the added difficulty of everyone knowing who she was and not being able to make friends as easily. The one friend she does make betrays her by writing an expose in the school paper. Everyone has a friend that ends up turning on them for a stupid reason, but this makes Ally unable to trust anyone easily. Her suspicions of cheating flare after reading the message boards. Corey is trying to prove himself as an athlete, which means less time for Ally and more attention from girls who don’t know/care that he has a girlfriend. Whether or not he actually cheated is never confirmed, but the fact that they broke up was not surprising. He was kind of an ass about the whole strip club thing and for a couple who were supposedly so happy together, their communication skills were balls.
Their break up was not the problem. What was problematic was that she fell for Drew, who appears to do nothing but workout and let her watch crappy tv. He’s present so little in the book; it’s hard to understand what Ally fell for. Where does this guy go all day? What’s he taking in school? How come Ally never asks him questions about anything not directly related to her. Sure, she asks him about his dad, but only because he was a photographer and she is now interested in becoming one. Ally’s interest in photography, and Drew’s connection to this new passion, could have been milked for far more interesting scenes. However, what ends up happening is just broad strokes of their time together. And she doesn’t thank him for the book until he asks her about it? No wonder her parents didn’t want her on the show; they were pretty crappy at instilling any kind of politeness in her.
The problem with lack of details is true with all the housemates. They’re shallowly written and add little to the story. The situation with James and Simone should have been a big emotional moment and ended up being kind of trivial. This whole losing your virginity while on screen and immediately getting dumped is reality tv gold. And Jasmine coming to terms with actually being in a relationship? She and Ally could have bonded over that. One coming out of the only thing she’s known while the other is entering into that world. It could have been a moment of growth for both characters. The interaction between the characters is almost only ever about Ally and what she wants and thinks. I guess this is my biggest criticism of the book. The characters as shallow, but in that growing up, learning who you want to be kind of way, so that’s fine, but their relationships are severely under developed. The relationships are shallow and that means that there’s no opportunity for growth by any of the characters. This is a light, easy, mediocre read that will only appeal to people who like the reality show genre.