If a very dedicated and patient mad scientist had traveled back in time to the 1980s to engineer ideal future reality stars, the experiment would’ve produced Erin and Sara Foster. Considering that the sisters have, at different points, been related by parental marriage to the reality trifecta of the Hadids, Jenners, and Kardashians, something like The Bananas Fosters or whatever seemed almost inevitable. Instead, the accomplished, comely sisters always steered themselves in the opposite direction, eventually arriving at their satirical series, Barely Famous.
“Frankly, it’s embarrassing to be on a reality show,” Erin says. “We interact with people all the time who have them, but it’s sort of this unspoken thing–you just don’t say to someone, ‘How’s your reality show going?’ Nobody really acknowledges that they’re taping one, and you all kind of talk around it because nobody wants to say the words out loud.”
“You don’t go do a reality show when you’re getting to do what you love,” Sara adds. “You don’t do a reality show when things are working out.”
Things have worked out fairly well for the Fosters over the years. Sara has starred in movies and TV shows, like The Big Bounce and the revamped 90210. Erin has done plenty of acting as well, but made the leap to professional TV writing as a staffer on NBC’s The New Normal. When that show went off the air in 2013, Erin had a baptism-by-fire bout with her first development season as a writer. None of the shows she initially pitched caught a foothold in the room, though. What she arrived at next, and what lead to Barely Famous, now in its second season, was a simple mantra taught in every English Comp class: write what you know.
As established, the Foster sisters have never appeared on a reality show, but they have always been reality show-adjacent. The daughters of infinitely platinum uber-producer David Foster, they watched in the early 2000s as The Osbournes and The Simple Life kicked off an ongoing fascination with famous families on TV. Later, the Fosters’ father had a (very) short-lived reality series of his own, and eventual stepmom, Yolanda Hadid, made a name for herself on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The more production companies smelled familial blood in the water and tried to woo the sisters into a reality series, they more they bucked away. And it was only in taking an introspective look at how peculiar this scenario was that Erin Foster had her eureka moment, and a meta one at that. Her show would be about sisters surrounded by reality TV, filming a reality show . . . about not being on one. It would be Curb Your Enthusiasm filtered through the prism of Bravo.
It would need some more thought.
“Originally we wanted to do a show about the making of a fake reality show, but once we started shooting it, we realized that when you break the fourth wall, a little goes a long way,” Erin says. “Once you get past that device, you really just want to watch these two delusional girls living their lives in L.A.”
First, there was the matter of whether the two would play fictionalized versions of themselves or characters created out of whole cloth to fit the bill. What tipped them toward their real names appears to be the opposite of vanity.
“At the end of the day, we thought Sara and Erin Foster doesn’t really mean anything to anyone, so it added a certain Larry David-ness to play ourselves,” Sara says.
Barely Famous, which airs Wednesday nights on VH1, premiered in the spring of 2015 to rave reviews in the Hollywood Reporter and Entertainment Weekly. Over the course of six episodes, the show managed to skewer some the more ridiculous, and ridiculously fake, aspects of reality TV, in a playful way that probably won’t hurt any lower-tier Vanderpump feelings. As the Fosters have run-ins with celebrities and reveal their character’s self-importance episode after episode, the joke is almost always on them.
The satire is most effective when the show feels like a typical reality show. The music, for instance, as light and airy as a marshmallow macaron, is dead-on. That way, when the Fosters do address the fakeness of their target directly, it’s that much more effective because it seems like an accidental slipup. Sara will pop into frame during Erin’s supposedly private testimonial or the two will ask a producer what they should be talking about. The pair has a list of little moments they’d like to integrate into the show–like a “waking up” scene in which the makeup team is still in frame–but only if those moments fit into a scene organically. (The makeup one hasn’t made it yet–but just wait.)
The show is scripted but with lots of room for improvisation built in. The pair and their producers map out the cascading story lines in each episode and plenty of joke pitches, but the dialogue is made up on the spot. Or, most of it is.
“Well, I have dialogue written out for me,” Sara says.
“Sara doesn’t trust herself as an improviser, so she needs someone on set to feed her lines,” Erin clarifies. “But then the stuff she comes up with on her own always is the best stuff–she just doesn’t have the confidence in herself everybody else does.”
Because of how natural the dialogue feels, though, and the fact that the stars are playing themselves, there is a chance certain viewers could get confused about the fake reality they’re seeing. The Fosters were sensitive about misinterpretation last year, but it’s something they’ve processed and let go of in season two.
“Anyone who has five brain cells who watches our show will not think it’s real,” Erin says. Then she sits with the idea for a moment and reconsiders. “But then, I guess there were also people who thought Burning Love was real, so who knows?”
As for Sara, she seems to be more concerned with the viewers of actual reality shows and the message they’re receiving from them.
“I have two daughters who are gonna grow up in a time when they know about people for all the wrong reasons,” she said. “It used to be you had to earn your way for people to know your name. They had to be a fan of your album or your show or movie, and nowadays, it doesn’t work that way. You get famous first and get jobs later. And then living your life is your job.”
Luckily for viewers, it’s also a time when fake-living your life is a job, too.