Reality TV is -- who could doubt it? -- here to stay. It’s cheap to produce and, no matter how carefully massaged by producers and “story editors,” provides the frisson of unsavvy people acting naturally.
But reality TV has reached an inflection point, whereby everyone who isn’t living under a rock now knows how to act on television. This splits in two directions -- half of reality stars act in a stagy, over-the-top manner, cannily using the medium’s tropes (“confessional” interviews to camera, for instance) to win over the audience in a way that slowly begins to feel, well, unreal. The other half just act like complete maniacs, spewing toxicity everywhere in order to get the cameraman’s attention.
Early reality programming didn’t just bear the shock of the new -- it was legitimately weird and exciting when the “Survivor” castaways ate rats or when the “Real World” cast had their first blow-up fight. Some time ago, reality TV entered its baroque period, during which the medium has more to say about the expectations it’s created than about anything one might experience in one’s own life.
A lot of it is just boring. But some of it is truly reprehensible, doubling down on the naiveté of early reality stars to present blatant racism and sexism as entertainment. Early reality TV was able to frame horrible behavior as unschooled reactions from folks like you or me. Present-day reality TV encourages it because that’s just what we expect from reality shows. Here was some of 2013’s worst.
“The Real Housewives” franchise
Make no mistake -- at its best, this show is a kind of devious fun. That’s usually when everyone on the show is in on the same game, trying to get camera time via circular fights over party invites. I’m still periodically watching a fight from a January 2012 episode of “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” over invitations to a dinner party. But more recent additions to the cast have a way of crossing invisible lines of taste in their quest for camera time: Brandi Glanville, of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills,” has lately decided that “blatant racist” is a good personal brand, refusing to call her Hispanic castmate Joyce Giraud by her name (calling her Jacqueline and “Yoyce”) and calling her a “black person” because she didn’t swim in a pool. “The Real Housewives” is at its best a smart satire of the manner in which the wealthy amuse themselves in the late-capitalist era; we didn’t need Bravo, though, to show us that dolts love offensive humor.
When one is sequestered in a house for months, one’s true colors tend to show. CBS was widely criticized this summer for casting a group of fiery, opinionated, super-racist competitors for their reality competition; the show was ultimately forced to air the criticisms on TV (they originally played only on an online feed) because it would have been bizarre to ignore just how many and how nasty the comments were. (Read more about them here.) That this sad display was on air in 2013 is more on the producers and network than the contestants, who seemed to have no idea they were being offensive; CBS had sought a group of people whose lack of sophistication would make for incendiary TV, and ended up getting what they wanted. If this is the only way to get viewers for the venerable series, maybe it’s time to let “Big Brother” go.
“The Millionaire Matchmaker”
Patti Stanger is still telling women they are too poorly dressed and plain to land whatever oily San Diego real estate developer she throws at them. Rarely is a lack of mutual attraction the man’s fault -- women are presumed to be, and groomed to be, perpetually available. Stanger frames herself as a teller of radical truths, as Bravo capitalizes on the fact that the squabbles she has with her bachelorettes are exactly the sort of thing that’s always successful: women being unkind to one another.
“The Real World”
Who even knows what’s happening with this show anymore? The trailer for the upcoming season features pregnancy scares and violent arguments, as well as the introduction of real-life ex-boyfriends and -girlfriends so that contestants can draw on their life experiences in order to effectively imitate “Real World” housemates from the early 1990s.
Jeff Probst on “Survivor”
Thanks to its simple, effective concept, which grinds forward eliminating a contestant methodically week after week rather than endlessly repeating arguments, “Survivor” has gone 13 years without an appreciable drop-off in quality. The first half of the most recent season, though, indicated the degree to which the host, Jeff Probst, has a problem with women; though winners of the series have come in all sorts, Probst has internalized the idea that the only contestant he admires is an athletic man. This was epitomized by his dealings with aggressive former NFL player Brad in the recent season; the gender dynamics of Brad bossing around his wife onscreen, with Probst’s approval, were discussed, well, at NPR’s website. Probst is not merely the weakest link on “Survivor”; he seems entirely unaware that the show he hosts was recently won by, say, a diminuitive female sex therapist and a bridal-shop owner, rather than an assortment of male pro athletes.
Say this for “Duck Dynasty” -- it must be brilliantly edited. The show’s patriarch, Phil Robertson, had no problem saying homophobic and racist things to a GQ reporter, though none of that makes it to air. What does is a cannily coded real-life sitcom about “family values” that necessarily excludes anyone who doesn’t share the central clan’s views. From their beards on down, the Robertsons’ reality is one designed to appeal to a sizable swath of the population, the part scared by progress.