With at least six hours of reality TV on every week, not counting repeats, it’s suddenly commonplace — even hip — to bash the genre. Never mind that “COPS” has been on TV for 11 years and MTV’s “The Real World” for nine; suddenly, voyeurism is horrific and the shows are anything but real. Such criticism makes for an easy column or pithy office chatter, but it’s not very productive. And until the last “Survivor” castaway leaves Pulau Tiga (or, soon enough, the Australian outback in “Survivor” 2) and the last high note is sung by “Making the Band’s” O-Town, reality TV is here to stay, at least for a while.
Instead of just griping about how fake these shows are, we should make the best of the situation. Those among the current array each have their ups and downs, and could all learn a thing or two from one another. And there’s still plenty of time to make last-minute edits and to revise future series concepts, which will make things better for all of us, fans and detractors alike.
In the spirit of making reality TV better, here are nine things — one for each season of the flagship “The Real World” — that reality TV shows need to learn from one another:
9. Lay off with the hosts.
“Big Brother” clearly wasn’t edited a bit after “Survivor” started. If it had been, we wouldn’t have had a series premiere featuring a full hour of two completely dull hosts walking us through the house and the show. On “Survivor,” fans have had a sort of love-hate relationship with Dimples — better known as Jeff Probst, the show’s khaki-wearing host — who gives the castaways instructions for their challenges and moderates the voting at the end of every episode. He can get kind of annoying with his sly Q&As and overly dramatic vote reading. The “Big Brother” hosts have about as much personality as Probst’s smile spots. Both had obviously memorized their lines for the premiere but were trying to come off as spontaneous, funny guides. They sounded more like two TV journalists trying way too hard to be hip.
8. Forget introductions, but feel free to provide reminders.
The first, boring episodes of “Big Brother” and “The Real World” this season prove that we don’t need drawn-out introductions. Just throw us into the damn show; we’ll catch up. And please don’t tell us what’s happening or what’s about to happen. Give us the credit “Big Brother” denies us with its unnecessary and alternately patronizing and cheesy explanatory voice-overs. (“William sizes up Jordan’s assets.”) Still, some simple memory joggers are OK. With so many cast members to keep track of, reality TV shows would all be better off using on-screen text to remind us of names and locations, like “Survivor” does.
7. Cameras + Ikea + people does not = engaging television.
Example 1: “Big Brother.” Example 2: Various episodes of “The Real World” episodes from New Orleans, Hawaii and Seattle.
6. Awareness of “The Project” is OK.
On “The Real World,” breaking down the fourth wall — the barrier between crew and cast, television show and “reality” — has always been a huge deal, even though it has basically happened almost every season. In New York, Becky’s fling with a director cost him his job, and similar crossovers, from love affairs to producer interventions, have dotted the show’s nine years. Yet on both “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” exposing the false illusion between the cast’s soap operas and the actual production process has been treated as a terrible sin. Most of the other shows have, thankfully, dropped the pretense. We know the casts are on TV, and they know they’re on TV, so we might as well just dispense with the fourth wall. Plus, it’s interesting to watch cast members screw with the process or hear them talk about why they’re on the shows in the first place.
5. Too much is too much.
After nearly a decade of MTV’s insane “The Real World” and “Road Rules” repeats — before the new seasons start, there are entire weekends of back-to-back, 24-hours-a-day repeats — you’d think it couldn’t get any crazier. Enter “Big Brother,” which is on five — five! — nights a week and 24/7 on the Web. While the webcasts can be entertaining diversions, five nights a week is too much, especially when nothing happens. No other show has attempted multiple episodes in one week, and there’s probably a good reason why.
4. Editing is a good thing.
Sneaking a peek at the “Big Brother” webcast can be a thrilling diversion from actual work. But since it’s basically impossible to watch all the time, editors and story editors were brought on to give us the best scenes and the juiciest story lines in easily digested chunks. Editing should keep us interested and engaged — and save us from getting fired.
3. Time is important.
We’re people, so we like linear things. Which basically means editors shouldn’t screw with time for the sake of a story. Last season on “The Real World,” we had to use Justin’s hair color to keep track of what happened when. “Survivor” is easy to follow and interesting partially because of its linear nature. Even on that show, the editors undoubtedly play with time for story purposes — editing together comments, conversations and action that didn’t occur in that order — but it’s done to give the show a solid sense of forward motion.
2. Diversity is crucial; tokenism is not.
While the often-criticized formula stereotypes of “The Real World” — the angry black male, the ignorant white female, the gay guy, the player, etc. — have shown up nearly every season, the series has become progressively less and less interesting. Why? Because the cast has become much more narrow, despite its external diversity. Once we had people with lives — in the New York season of “The Real World,” Eric Nies was a model, Kevin Powell a writer — who signed up to be on a reality TV show. Now we have people increasingly closer in age who want to define their life with the show. And that makes for boring TV. The cast of “Survivor” is diverse in age, experience and background — and, yes, in race, religion and sexuality — which yields plenty of interesting conflict.
1. Regular human behavior is never, ever enough.
In other words, give the casts something to do. By the Miami season of “The Real World,” the producers realized the formula needed new life. In came the $50,000 to start a business (which, of course, the slack-ass cast lost because of its laziness), and the cast has had projects to tackle ever since. “Making the Band” and “Survivor” are both more interesting, in concept and implementation, than the current “Real World” and “Big Brother.” That’s partly because the casts are there for a reason: on “Survivor” to win a million dollars and to, well, survive, and on “Making the Band” to form a new boy group. A sense of purpose keeps us engaged, because they’re there for a reason, and so are we. Plus, we like to see real people in artificial situations. We want to see them eat oozing worms; we generally don’t want to see them change their contact lenses. We watch reality TV to escape. If the human drama of everyday life were enough, we’d turn off the TV and stare at ourselves in a mirror.