Chase Rogan watched himself on television leading a llama up a mountain path in California. Sitting on a couch in his Lawrenceville home Tuesday, he recalled that, at the time, nothing about that seemed strange.
"I grew up with horses," the 28-year-old said. "So it wasn't weird for me to walk a llama."
Even when producers of Spike TV's "The Joe Schmo Show" encouraged him to light candles and share inspirational notes with the fluffy white animal, he just figured other contestants were doing the same thing.
Much of reality TV is beyond unreal. But in 2003, Spike TV upped the ante with "Joe Schmo," creating a fake reality show starring one person who believes it's legit.
Everyone else was an actor, playing stereotypical reality show contestants. Having resurrected the program, producers cast Mr. Rogan, who owns PureTurf Consulting, LLC.
His mission, to become America's next great bounty hunter, on the made-up program "The Full Bounty." It has played out on TV and online since early January, and Mr. Rogan, who grew up on a part-time farm in Saegertown, Crawford County, and has a master's degree in agronomy from Penn State, is the unwitting "Joe."
Tuesday night is the grand finale, the episode when it's revealed to Mr. Rogan that it was all an elaborately staged, expensive prank -- on him.
Happily, "good-natured" doesn't even begin to describe how well Mr. Rogan appeared to be taking in the experience. A televised trailer for the finale, which was taped in July, showed him slapping a piece of scenery and yelling in -- what? Anger? Excitement?
After seeing the clip, he would only grin and offer, "I shouldn't say. Sorry."
Mr. Rogan and his wife, Taylor, will be at the Sand Bar in Erie, owned by Mrs. Rogan's uncle, for the finale. The Rogans watched the first few episodes alone.
People generally ask how he could not have known what was going on? Mr. Rogan said he understands. Having watched the show now, some things appear really obvious that weren't at the time.
"I'd never been on a reality TV show. So I guess in my mind I was thinking, 'That's just the crazy stuff that happens.' "
He said a small regret is a comment he made during a taped interview. Another contestant had just chosen a prize over immunity.
"In my interview, I call Skylar naive." He shook his head. "I was actually the naive one."
Fortified with snacks and beer to view the penultimate episode Tuesday, the Rogans and their friends, Meg and Paul Tarasi of Shaler, laughed at his unflagging, earnest approach to the game.
"In every opportunity where we gave him a choice to make the wrong decision, he made the right decision ... He proved over and over again what a great guy he was," said actor Ralph Garman, who played bounty hunter and host Jake Montrose.
"I think part of my strategy was just being a nice person, which is also something I try to do in everyday life," Mr. Rogan said.
The producers even changed the reaction of one of the actors in last week's episode, to spare his feelings. In the scenario, Mr. Rogan was persuaded to help eliminate Chico, played by Lombardo Boyar, and felt so bad about it he told Chico what was going down beforehand.
Chico accepted this with good grace, which reportedly was not in the original script.
But the show is also wicked in its humor. One of the fake challenges in last week's episode gave him the chance to win $1,000 if he would use a Taser on an old man in a wheelchair. Mr. Rogan apologized, then shocked the guy, adding he was going to give him $100 if he won the cash. He made good on the offer, although the show eventually returned the money to him.
While watching last week's show, Mr. Tarasi turned to his wife and said, "Meg, I would taser you in a heartbeat for a thousand dollars!"
Mr. Rogan's personal Taser was one of several souvenirs brought back to Pittsburgh, and it proved a popular diversion when the family got together at Christmas. Flipping through his smartphone during a commercial break last week, he happily displayed short videos of relatives shocking each other.
The Taser isn't the only thing that's shocking. This being Spike TV, which is big among males 18-34, the show has featured any number of visuals and phrases "so inappropriate!" -- as Mrs. Rogan put it -- for the average Post-Gazette reader.
Such as the semi-erotic painting of Mr. Rogan astride that llama, which was his "spirit animal." It's prominently displayed over the kitchen sink back home. He also took home the "casual pouch," a Speedo-like garment with "restorative" powers that fellow contestant Lorenzo Lamas -- playing a skeezy version of himself -- was shilling on the show.
"Here it is," said Mr. Rogan, smiling as he hooked a thumb past the belt loop of his pants to reveal a bright blue edge of stretchy fabric. "I actually wear it every Tuesday."
Mr. Rogan has kept in touch with some of his fellow contestants, including Rob Belushi, son of Jim Belushi. Playing the stereotype "best friend, Allen," Mr. Belushi was strategically placed in the same pool of candidates trying out for the show with Mr. Rogan.
"It's a brilliant move, because when I saw him [as a fellow contestant], it gave me so much comfort," he said.
Mr. Rogan was approached by a casting agent while working out at a fitness club. He said he'd never had any desire to be on a reality show, let alone become a bounty hunter, but competing for $100,000 was attractive. Both previous versions of the show starred Pittsburgh natives, which reinforces the notion we are a breeding ground for reality stars.
The improvisational aspect of the actors working 10 or 12 straight hours in character gave a high-wire edge to "Joe Schmo," and there were slip-ups.
Jo Newman, who plays Karlee, a deaf woman, reacted to Mr. Rogan making a comment -- when his back was to her. Another actor quickly diverted his attention.
Early in the competition, Mr. Rogan "won" the right to stay in a luxury suite. ("Did you make your bed?" asked his wife, noting the tidiness of the bedroom when it was shown on TV. She was pleased that he had.)
The producers, of course, wanted him isolated from the others so they could go over the next day's script.
"I just thought everyone was locked in their rooms [at night]," Mr. Rogan said.
Mr. Rogan, again with a laugh, said that the actors did such a good job of improvising around his reactions.
"I give credit to them rather than admit I was foolish."
The true test came several episodes ago when he began to suspect Meghan Falcone, playing a young widow named Skylar, was an actress. Mr. Rogan said he was willing to suspend belief, although he was taped writing his suspicions in a journal.
It's human nature to go along with the crowd. If everyone is pretending to accept a certain warped reality, it's all the more difficult to question it.
"[And] I was still in it to win it," he said. "You're never going to call out the producers. You can never convince yourself that this show is staged around you. Or at least, I couldn't."
He said he hasn't gone online to read reviews of the show, but personal response to "The Joe Schmo Show" has been positive. People in bars want to buy him drinks, and he has been called "Joe Schmo" at professional conferences.
"Sometimes, I sign my emails 'Mrs. Schmo,' " said Mrs. Rogan, who is earning a degree in speech pathology at the University of Pittsburgh.
It remains to be seen whether he wins any significant money from "The Full Bounty." Regardless, he speaks enthusiastically about growing his turf business, which will soon include creating residential crop beds.
He said he also hopes to work with a partner, perhaps a group such as Grow Pittsburgh, to create community gardens and teach underserved youths to raise crops.
A reality star with social conscience? Chase Rogan might be a Schmo, but he's not your average Joe.
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @Maria SciulloPG. Rob Owen contributed to this article. First Published March 3, 2013 5:00 AM