Even reality TV is not always real. Just because it is promoted as real, does not mean it is. In the past six years we now have to be concerned with what is real and what is promoted as real.
Maybe the Moon landing was faked? Reality ain’t what it used to be. MTV’s The Real World, is often credited as the first contemporary reality show, premiering in 1992. Cops came before The Real World, but it was a pseudo-documentary of the world of law enforcement and ran for over 30 years, before being cancelled in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder. Fox is bringing it back! What a surprise!
Judy Berman wrote in Time magazine: “Yet despite all the antipathy directed at these programs, they’ve conquered the culture and claimed their prize: our attention.” She goes on to say: “Shows are still edited to reinforce stereotypes, from the vapid blonde to the angry Black person to the sassy gay man. Docusoaps thrive on the notion that women are vain, petty gossips. Conspicuous consumption is celebrated and obscene wealth is portrayed as an end in itself.” What’s not to love?
Speaking of love. I just finished watching the latest season of The Bachelorette, what a dumpster fire that was. The network sidesteps up the unraveling of the program’s format and legitimacy by fawning surprise at the wild, unpredictable nature of the show’s storyline. To imply these shows are reflect the genuine pursuit of romance is not being honest; these are heavily-produced fairytales.
Let me back up a step. I will admit to watching a few “reality” shows since 2000. The first season of Survivor, I found it interesting, but I was amazed at how quickly the participants began to embrace the ability to create drama and personalities that developed followings and colored the competition. Human nature quickly morphs and adapts, like a virus.
I thought American Pickers and Pawn Stars were fairly safe, not much drama, but then again, the behind the scenes production and pre-planning remove much of the suspense and risk from the premise of these shows. The same with Storage Wars and Undercover Boss (I watched both), the appearance is a bit misleading. Little is left to the imagination or chance. I don’t really count The Insomniac with Dave Attell, Good Eats, $40 a Day, Modern Marvels, Dirty Jobs or Mythbusters as reality television, but maybe they are. Candid Camera might have been the first, so as a child, I was watching reality TV. Scarred at an early age.
Back in the 1950s, some game shows were found to be feeding contestants the answers, to ensure certain people win. Disc jockeys also received “payola” for playing certain songs. Cheating even happens in professional sports as a way to gain an unfair advantage. Parents buy admission for their kids to get into prestigious schools. You get the idea, but I digress.
So, that was my experience with reality TV. Until the past year. I’ll blame the pandemic or my girlfriend, but not my weak constitution. “It’s mindless escapism.” No truer words spoken. These shows: Jersey Shore, Housewives of wherever, 90 Day Fiancé, Love is…and Sister Wives, to name a few, could just as easy give way to these creations (these are jokes): My 2 Ton Love Muffin, The Blind and Deaf Bachelor, Deadliest Bar + Brothel Rescue, I Married a Giant, Cons and Pawn Brides, Can You Dance Better than Elaine?, Watch Me Eat My Weight in…, House Husbands of the Amazon, Fetishes of the Wealthy and Survivors of Self Surgery. Must see TV!!
Are reality shows a guilty pleasure? Do we despise these participants initially, but begin to “like” certain ones and boo others? Is the behavior so outrageous, things we would never say or do, but can’t tear our eyes from the screen? Absolutely!
So, let’s agree that these shows are not totally real life. How much of drama is real and how much is played for the camera (with the help of producers)? That’s really the question. Is the object to hook us to watch, and then root for a participant, and maybe follow them on social media?
Arguably, the most popular shows are those where men and women are put together by various methods, and test whether these kinds of relationships work as well, or even better, than the old-fashioned method of meeting in bars and hooking up over the internet. The couples “court” in front of the cameras and are guided by production staff lurking just out of camera range. There is a lot of drama (shocking, I know), intimacy issues, arguments and discovering personality quirks.
Are these participants legitimately looking for love, or ramping up their social media exposure? A mate or a social media influencer? A marriage or a new career? This is the new order of being famous for being famous.
Social influencer is a recent addition to our vocabulary, but the role of someone who earns money for getting people to like, get action or buy something is as old as commerce. Movie stars and athletes used to be influencers, who peddled products and along with society big-shots, set fashion standards and shaped attitudes. Influencers are now born overnight, they become instant sensations on television or a social media platform like TikTok. Followers = influence = fame and wealth. Reality TV is a great place to grow influencers and gain tens of thousands of followers.
One of the fun aspects of reality TV is when you throw people from different backgrounds together and see how they work together, compete against each other, resolve issues, form alliances and see what values they rely on. It usually isn’t pretty. In the first season of a Survivor, it didn’t take long for survival instincts to take over. In the film Patton, George C. Scott famously says, “America loves a winner!” How true is that.
Bergman also wrote: “To the extent that the U.S. has become a harsher, shallower, angrier, more divided place in the 21st century, reality TV—which has helped normalize cruelty, belligerence, superficiality, and disloyalty, and rewarded people who weaponize those traits—bears a share of the blame.”
Among reality shows, Queer Eye isn’t about relationships per se, but the changes they help individuals make in their lives. This is often a total makeover. I enjoy Queer Eye because its heart is in the right place. There is nothing cheap or tawdry about their purpose or how they go about helping transform a life.
I do not despise reality TV shows. Many of these shows are sad, broken people given a platform, not looking for help but rather validation. Other shows construct fairy tales, or try to, that appeal to the fantasy in our lives. Not all people on these shows are sad cases, but there are quite a few. Others are given an opportunity to chase a dream or get 15 minutes of fame (that often is extended indefinitely). Do we see ourselves in some of these participants? That’s a scary thought.
Meanwhile, it’s showtime.