Undermined by Reality

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality". And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

Life can be a bit of a tightrope walk for some actors, especially those appearing on children's television. Some fans have the unfortunate habit of mixing up the fictional entity with the real person who plays the fictional entity, and can get rather disappointed, rightly or wrongly when their idols fall off of the pedestal. The companies producing the shows are aware of this, and sometimes hold their actors to nigh impossible moral standards, punishing them for "crimes" such as trying to live a normal, adult life.

However, there's a flip side to the coin. Sometimes, the premise of a television programme, book or song really can be undermined by the actions of the presenters, or even by the actions of those who work behind the scenes.

When a show is actively preaching to its viewers, it's not unreasonable to expect the people doing the preaching to uphold the standards that they're promoting. If they don't...well, then you've got the real life version of Holier Than Thou, but with more air time. If the talk show marriage counsellor verbally abuses his wife, or the professional dog trainer ends up in court after his Rottweiler attacks a child, it's easy to understand why viewers might decide that they're better off not taking advice from these people.

The trope also applies to figures such as presenters when they themselves are being held up as role models, rather than a character that they portray. Those who front children's television shows have to be particularly careful about their real-life conduct—there'll be red faces all round if it turns out that the woman sternly warning children against the dangers of drugs is using some less-than-legal substances. It's not particularly fair that other entertainers, such as rock stars and soap actors, can get away with these things (and far more) while others are pilloried for it...but it's Truth in Television. If a builder or window cleaner gets into a violent brawl while off the job, their employers won't care as long as they can still do their jobs. If a teacher or doctor is found in the middle of a fight, however, their career could be on the line.

It's worth noting that occasionally it's not actually the actors'/production team's fault that things go wrong. Sometimes, life's just decided that it's not going to be their week. This is especially true on shows that involve people outwith the actual members of the show who could say or do anything they like on or off camera. The programme isn't really responsible, but they'll be held to account regardless.

Mainly, it's non-fiction shows, or songs, that qualify for being Undermined by Reality. Fictional shows only really merit the trope if the actor does something that's actually illegal, or at least morally reprehensible enough that it's not just the usual suspects who are up in arms over their off-screen behaviour. If the actors are being held to ransom over normal, fairly innocuous behaviour simply because said behaviour doesn't mesh with their fantasy persona, then that's Contractual Purity.

See also: Funny Aneurysm Moment (where the irony of a situation is particularly cruel but affects the actor rather than the production), Holier Than Thou (for the fictional equivalent), and Artist Disillusionment/Fan Disillusionment (for the likely results of this trope). For the advertising variant, see We Care. See Role-Ending Misdemeanor. One reason Dead Artists Are Better.

This page is not an excuse to be Complaining About Shows You Don't Like.

Examples of Undermined by Reality include:
  • Extreme Makeover: Home Edition ran into a snag when a massive house it had built for two cohabitating families began fighting, causing the larger, adopted family to move out. ABC legally washed its hands of any responsibility.
    • 'One of the more special houses they had built was about to be foreclosed. It wasn't directly the show's fault, but they paid the mortgage on that one, and they will probably tone down future makeover houses just a little so that the people moving into them can afford to maintain them.
  • Even the most venerable of children's shows can fall victim to this, as Blue Peter found out when presenter Richard Bacon was caught taking cocaine in 1999.
  • Professional Wrestling is very vulnerable to this phenomenon. In the past, when Kayfabe was maintained, heels and faces wouldn't be allowed to be seen out in the real world together, and popular wrestlers were required to live their gimmick (not so bad, if you play a beer-swilling redneck, but think of poor Gorgeous George...). In the modern age, despite the fictional nature of the characterizations being acknowledged, there are still many situations where Real Life Writes the Plot after faces are caught doing something they shouldn't, and a quick Face Heel Turn occurs (Edge and Lita springs to mind—after the two were caught having an affair, Lita had a Face Heel Turn and was paired with Edge (already a heel), whose character changed from "bitter asshole" to "sleazy man-whore").
  • Michael Jackson's reputation as a true eccentric was seen for years as just a funny bunch of quirks that his genuine talent and extensive charity work, especially with children, balanced out. Then he was accused of molesting children in 1993. He was never prosecuted due to the evidence being sketchy and settled a civil suit out-of-court, but his career was never quite the same; a second round of accusations that resulted in a court trial came along in 2003. While he was declared not guilty in 2005, his career never even approached his former heights until he died, at which time his popularity again rose and it became risky to say anything about his checkered past.
  • Life is hard for straight actors who play gay roles. Every interviewer will insist on asking them if the love scenes (or more often, kissing scenes) were difficult to play. If they say yes, they risk undermining the role, and sometimes the interview will attempt to frame this as homophobia. If they say no, this may be inferred as coming out, and will certainly start (or fuel) rumors. If they try to Take a Third Option it may be seen as a cop-out. At any rate, reading such interviews can spoil a viewer's enjoyment of an otherwise immersible romantic scene.
    • There's a reverse problem for gay actors. They no longer have to hide their sexuality to work - but it can be difficult or impossible for them to secure non-homosexual roles. (Of course, some Straight Gays can have the problem of people insisting that they're not gay enough for certain roles, as is the case for John Barrowman when he tried to get a main part in Will and Grace.)
  • In 2003, Marvel tried to get a lower import tax rate on their X-Men action figures by claiming that they were not dolls, but toys. U.S. tariff laws defined a "doll" as a figure representing a human, while a "toy" represents an animal or creature. So in summation, the crux of Marvel's argument was that the X-Men are not human, which directly opposes the main Aesop of the X-Men series. The judge ruled in their favour.
  • Notably averted by Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, who really was as wholesome and benevolent as the show made him out to be.
  • Any time a "Family Values" Moral Guardians individual is caught with another man, woman, or child (or animal).
  • In Dreamgirls, Effie White is the lead singer and most talented member of the Dreams, but their corrupt manager Curtis demotes her to backup singer in favor of Deena Jones, who is more marketable. This is unambiguously presented as a Jerkass move on Curtis's part, and it ruins Effie's life. Then, in the movie version of Dreamgirls, Jennifer Hudson played Effie, the lead character of the movie, but the studio designated her a "supporting actress" and gave top billing to Beyonce Knowles (playing Deena), who is more famous. Then again, Hudson won an Oscar for her performance (for Best Supporting Actress; had she been nominated for Lead Actress, she likely would have been blown out by Helen Mirren,) while Knowles only got a Golden Globe nomination that most people assumed her manager father bought for her, so perhaps it averages out.
  • Averted on That '70s Show when actor Tommy Chong was sentenced to prison time as part of a Federal crackdown on businesses selling bongs. Tommy Chong feared he would lose his role on the program, but the producers reassured him that he had been cast as an aging hippie in part because of his drugged-out comedy persona in the first place, and actually doing time for marijuana related charges would not affect his place in the cast.
  • The American military's (former) "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has cost quite a few gay soldiers their jobs, running opposite of their desegregation efforts in the fifties and sixties.
  • A celebrity defined by Contractual Purity (even one that may break out of it on occasion), such as a Disney Channel or Nickelodeon star might strike up an Odd Friendship with another celebrity, or a friend outside of show business, or a childhood friend, who might not always live up to the same behavioral standards (particularly if they live their lives in private) or cultivate the same Contractual Purity as the teen idol does in the spotlight. This can also extend to family members, associates or their co-workers, or to the musicians in their backing bands if the teen idol is pursuing a singing career. This is particularly evident on Twitter, where Idol Singers are Twitter-friends with their backing musicians and dancers, as well as their relatives or love interests. This might mean that though the Idol Singer might at least not be as likely to smoke, drink, swear or share a more adult sense of humor (even those idols breaking out of that role) in the public eye, as their associates, friends and family are. Although obviously what comes out of the mouths or postings on a Twitter or Facebook feed, or their actions in public aren't things the superstar can control, it might reflect badly on that star if their companions choose a different lifestyle or use less discreet language than that celebrity does.
  • Disney is often accused of this, from Walt Disney's infamous legal battles and sometimes-questionable behavior, to various legal troubles today. See Walt Disney's involvement in the "Hollywood Blacklist" and Disney animators' strike during the McCarthy era, and concerns about the way employees are treated at Euro Disney.
  • A much darker example. "Pack Up Your Troubles" ("in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile") is known as one of the most optimistic songs ever written. Its writer, George Henry Powell, later committed suicide.
  • The numerous corporate tie-ins to the Green Aesop film The Lorax. He speaks for the trees, and Mazda!