Reality television has long been an index of capitalist banality. It’s telling, for example, that the reality TV star and wealthy populist share certain aspirations: the promise of augmenting one’s social position without tampering with—or even addressing—the capitalist order and its power relations. Nowhere is this more obvious than The Apprentice, which brought the two together in a spectacle so complacent that it never bothered to update its Gordon Geckoish aesthetic. The Apprentice set a standard within the genre of reality TV for its blustery tackiness—never missing a chance to pan over Trump, his properties, various limos, luxury cars, private planes, and helicopters—but the effect of this was to strategically blur the line between reality television and infomercial; it became, in a way, a billboard for a fairly ordinary idea of boardroom capitalism, with its business school paper pushers and wannabe executives clambering over one another to become Trump’s lackey, all in a somehow nondescript yet hideous Trump office building. Tasteless and stupid, sure, but as far as images of capitalism go, it was all fairly boilerplate.
Or it certainly wasn’t Brechtian. The Apprentice, in other words, didn’t tell us much about our economic system we didn’t already know. What it excelled at, however, was dramatizing, with pornographic vigor, the relationship between boss and subordinate. Virtually everything else was elided. Trump, for his part, was presented as already rich when the show was first broadcast in 2003; his exploitation of New York City’s debt crisis for the purpose of amassing property in the 1970s was of no importance for The Apprentice, its creators, or its audience. But what’s left out of television, or movies, is often as important as what’s shown: there would be no Trump without the debt crisis of the seventies. And, as it happens, there would be no Sidney Torres without the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina.
Torres’s company, IV Waste, specializes in squirting a lemon-scented spray around the French Quarter to mask its storied miasma of piss and vomit.
A fortyish Johnny Depp doppelganger with a trimmed beard, a man-bun, and tight-fitting designer clothes: enter Sidney Torres, who “is out to prove that the American Dream is still very much alive,” according the first line of a FoxNews.com article promoting his real-estate flipping reality show, The Deed. The son of a wealthy New Orleans lawyer from a powerful family, Torres has evolved, over the last twenty years, from a notorious New Orleans real-estate developer and entrepreneur into a persistent reality television personality. Later this spring, The Deed will return to CNBC for a second season.
The premise of The Deed: Torres lends his money and expertise to aspiring house flippers and developers who find themselves in a financial pinch. “Real estate is a risky business,” Torres warns in the show’s introduction. “Bad decisions, budget overruns, and construction delays can cost you your money and your sanity.” But Torres is “here to help,” he proclaims from atop the balcony of (presumably) his mansion.
Yet, tellingly, Torres’s expertise is not limited to real estate; he’s also a sage magician of TV itself. “I use my experience to guide rookie homebuilders and developers on what to do and not do, and what sells,” he told The Advocate. “These individuals want my money, but when it comes time to take my advice, they want to do it their way. They get aggravated with me and want to argue, which makes for good TV.”
Still, The Deed doesn’t stray far from the established tropes of the reality genre: manufactured drama is followed by confessional shots of Torres debriefing tense interactions with the episode’s subjects. And then there are, whenever possible, expressions of Torres’s dominance. These often take the form of paternalistic input: “I’m trying to help Russell become a developer, but I’m not sure he wants my advice.” Or more bluntly: “It’s your house, but it’s my money.” In other words, Torres’s authoritarian personality is a given, an extension of his wealth and his role on reality television.
But for however much The Deed is a real-estate show about helping people achieve the American dream by flipping homes—in “up-and-coming” and “formerly working-class” neighborhoods—it is also a PR campaign for Torres and his familiar brand of anti-PC capitalist politics. (“I’m not going to do things that are politically correct. I’m going to do things that are right.”) In this respect, it is a kind of heir-apparent to The Apprentice, which, again, broadcasted a banal if enduring fantasy of the boardroom. In the case of The Deed, we might consider that the opportunity to be followed around by a camera crew while suffering the platitudes of a shiny blowhard is a common manifestation of the American dream—or at least its farcical inversion. Like most reality television, The Deed is more a reflection of the realities that often inhibit said dreams. In the way that shows like Storage Wars opened a window from which to view the fallout of the financial crisis better than most news coverage or network programming, The Deed—if you look behind the scenes at Torres himself—offers a fairly sharp image of what Naomi Klein famously termed “disaster capitalism.”
The ripe New Orleans real-estate market The Deed relies on is a function, in part, of post-Katrina gentrification. But perhaps more saliently, Torres’s career is an immediate product of the privatization boom that swept New Orleans after the hurricane. He even earned his nickname, “Trashanova,” by collecting millions in garbage contracts for his hauling company, IV Waste, which sought to clean up the French Quarter as public services found themselves overwhelmed in the wake of the storm. In Torres’s formulation, “We were the first and only company that cleaned the French Quarter to a Disney World-like clean and made it smell lemony fresh,” by which he means that IV Waste specializes in squirting a lemon-scented spray around the French Quarter to mask its storied miasma of piss and vomit.
Torres’s latest entrepreneurial intervention is just as revealing. In 2015, he launched a tech startup designed to fight crime (sometime after his own home was burglarized), alongside a $100,000 campaign to ridicule the local government for its insufficient policing efforts. As New York Times Magazine writer David Amsden tells it, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu responded to Torres with a “schoolyard dare”: ‘‘He made millions and millions and millions of dollars off garbage contracts in the French Quarter,” said Landrieu, “Maybe he should just take some of that money and do it himself if he thinks it’s so easy.” (As Amsden explains, this “dare” effectively gave Torres “extraordinary influence over matters of public safety.”) And so the French Quarter Task Force was born; according to news clip posted on its Facebook page, it’s like “Uber for cops”—it allows users to report crimes to off-duty members of the New Orleans Police Department, who are paid handsomely by Torres.
Torres is known for watching his hired off-duty officers via GPS from an iPad in his mansion.
To make matters worse, and in keeping with his character, Torres is known for watching his hired off-duty officers via GPS from an iPad in his mansion. From behind a screen, he is able to micromanage the force—he has no reported police training—and to locate his employees so that he might chase them with a camera crew. (At one point, it should come as no surprise, he pitched a reality program about them.) Of course, the idea of Torres as private police chief only further elucidates the formal qualities of The Deed: the surveillance of its characters, the tyrannical (for reality television) rulemaking on behalf of Torres. But it’s always the context, with reality television, that gets excised first.
Despite a lot of talk and speculation of a potential run for mayor, Torres hasn’t yet announced a bid. But he has started “The Voice of the People,” a political action committee that relies on familiar right-wing buzzwords and promises to “hold City government accountable to make sure city funds are spent appropriately.” And although, according to Foxnews.com, Torres doesn’t like to share his political views, he did donate $50,000 to Trump’s very expensive inauguration. For now, though, he’s told The Advocate that he’ll stick with reality television until he decides to run. It’s a strategy, we know too well, that has worked before.