Watching "The Real Housewives" with David Foster Wallace: Why reality TV is good for America, after all

David Foster Wallace's seminal essay on scripted TV, written before the reality TV explosion, helps us see why

Published July 12, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)


In 1993, long before reality television became the phenomenon it is today, David Foster Wallace sought to explore the impact television as a whole has had on society and, in particular, on American fiction. The resultant essay, titled “E Unibus Pluram,” took special pains not to descend into lazy “anti-TV paranoia,” “far cruder and triter than what the critics complain about.”

Foster Wallace distinguishes between his negative judgments of the product and condemnation of its consumers. Noting that television follows an advertising-driven revenue model, he argues, “I'm not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be really similar in their vulgar and prurient and stupid interests and wildly different in their refined and moral and intelligent interests. It's all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor viewers are responsible for quality.”

Still, he finds fault with television not merely for failing to meet his aesthetic sensibilities, but for deeper, more insidious flaws. Namely, he argues that TV provides “illusions of voyeurism and privileged access,” without the social costs incurred by such observations in real life. The danger being that “the people we're watching through TV's framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them ... Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers.”

Modern criticisms of reality television, trite as anti-TV paranoia of Foster Wallace's era, are not entirely separate from these concerns. They generally adopt one of three forms: that reality TV is dumb, and therefore makes the viewer dumb, that it is mean, and therefore makes the viewer mean, and that it is, for these reasons and more, Bad for America.

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Foster Wallace is tremendously misguided in his depiction of scripted TV as a medium grounded in judgment rather than empathy. He is right to note that the illusion of television “require[s] real complicity from viewers.” And sympathy for the people whom we espy is born out of that complicity, a compassion that stems from the false sense that we are observing people's most private moments without permission, undetected. Furthermore, as television is in the business of sustaining interest by defying expectations, it is constantly providing its characters with more back story, more nuance and depth, than we bother attributing to the characters who populate our non-fictional worlds.

This includes the actual people who comprise the casts of the various "Real Housewives" shows, be they located in New York, Beverly Hills or anywhere in between. Reality TV generally, and the franchise specifically, is more susceptible to Foster Wallace's critiques in that its appeal is almost entirely that of judgment. It is a crash course in human behavior, with audience's close study encumbered by neither sympathy nor compassion. It makes good use of what he terms “classic televisual irony...sights that undercut what's said” via interviews with cast members, whose voice-overs on a scene often expose the profundity or their delusion. It is no wonder that many critically acclaimed sitcoms have adopted a faux-doc style to exploit the transcendent human truth that people constantly lie -- to audience, to each other, to themselves.

And the reunions! Oh, the reunions! In which, at the end of each season, viewers watch giddily as housewives are subject to a replay of their worst, most hypocritical, most embarrassing moments and a cooly detached interrogation performed by viewer's proxy, host Andy Cohen. Recently, claims that tape that proves a rival housewife a liar or a snake simply did not make the show's final cut have been spliced with gleefully edited “lost footage,” holding cast members to a standard of accountability of which CNN journalists ought to take note.

This open acknowledgment of editing tricks serves to dispel the very illusion that Foster Wallace bemoaned some 20-odd years ago. During a recent reunion special, Cohen made the distinction explicit, asking daytime soap star and newest cast member Eileen, “Coming in, blocking a scene, memorizing your lines, and doing a scene. Now you come in, you don't have a script. No one tells you where to stand. No one tells you what to think. What's that like?” in a display that would have done postmodernism proud.

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The franchise that would eventually become emblematic of Bravo debuted in 2006, offering an insiders' look “behind the gates” at “the American Idle.” By 2008, it was conveniently able to latch onto a shifting zeitgeist that was beginning to question, with renewed fervor and urgency, the legitimacy of a system that had produced such catastrophic results. (As Janet Maslin wrote in August of 1990, in an article Foster Wallace cites as emblematic of crude anti-TV paranoia, “In times of social and cultural transition, such as passing from the excesses of the '80s into the uncharted '90s, it's harder than usual to keep appraised of just where reality lies.”)

The Season 2 reunion special of "The Real Housewives of New York City," airing in May of 2009, did not shy away from the subject. Cohen cheerfully referred to one newly unemployed cast member as a “victim of the economy,” the sarcasm apparently lost on her. Later, he read aloud a viewer's question for the housewife who spent “money the most freely,” asking whether she felt “responsible for the crash.” The reunion's tone implied that one not only could, but was meant to, simultaneously watch the show while being critical of the cast, and what it represents.

Rather than taking the approach adopted by “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and its spinoffs, wherein tribe matriarch Kris Jenner is an executive producer and thus retains control over her family's brand, the housewives lack such power. Cohen, himself an executive producer, maintains a strict delineation between himself and the cast. In one testy interaction during the last NYC reunion, housewife Ramona, being pressed for details about her husband's affair, shot back “How's your love life? Who are you going to have sex with tonight?”

“I'll tell you,” he responded, “when I go on a reality show with whoever I'm having sex with.”

It may seem counterintuitive that our empathy for the “people” on scripted TV is matched by the schadenfreude we feel toward the people on reality TV, or seem to support the argument that such programming makes us mean. But it is Foster Wallace's perceived danger of scripted television that makes us feel that the object of observation is not complicit, and therefore owed leniency and restraint. Here, they readily offered themselves up for judgment. And, unlike the subjects of, say, TLC's poverty tourism, who used the show as a gateway to a level of material comfort the housewives take for granted, the agreement was in no way exploitative, even economically so. Yet they entered it, having no reasonable expectation that the camera's gaze would be anything other than cruel and unflinching.

Why? As Beverly Hills housewife Brandi said of a stratospherically wealthy cast mate, “Money can buy a lot of things, but it can't buy fame ... and she wanted it desperately.”

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“The characters are our 'close friends',” Foster Wallace writes of television, “but the performers are beyond strangers, they're images, demigods, and they move in a different sphere.”

The case that reality television is Bad for America directly contradicts the notion that it has turned us into a sneering, inescapably ironic audience of meanies. It attributes a naïve earnestness to viewers, suggesting that when character and performer are one in the same, they are unable to reconcile their scorn for the former with the reverence they've always felt for the latter.

But audiences are fully capable of a more nuanced perception. When Cohen is occasionally faced with a housewife who is professionally accomplished, he has the habit of listing said accomplishments before asking, incredulously, what ever could have made them want to do this show? This season of the "Real Housewives of New York City" has seen the return of Bethenny, who springboarded her appearance on the show into her own brand and talk show. The fact that her return to the show is perceived as a failure, the very idea that she could have outgrown it at all, reveals that the average viewer is very much in on the joke.

Today's television landscape is no longer one of mass appeal, but of syncretic diversity. With a wide variety of channels and choices, there is room for programming that meets our vulgar, prurient, stupid interests and our refined, moral, intelligent ones, and everything in between. And with that variation brings a greater variety in fame. When Cohen hosts his talk show “Watch What Happens Live” as a follow-up to whatever reality program premiered an hour before, welcoming Brandi, Eileen or Bethenny on one night and Allison Janney or Jon Hamm or Julianne Moore on another, it is absurd to imagine that viewers sit so unironically rapt that they can't tell the difference.

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These technological developments did not appear so suddenly that, two decades ago, they were entirely inconceivable. Digital distribution and a shift to a subscription-driven revenue model would eventually solve many of the problems Foster Wallace diagnosed with television, predictions he dismisses out of hand. He attributes them to conservatives' “twin tired remedies for all U.S. ills: … (1) the discerning consumer instincts of the little guy would correct all imbalances if only big systems would quit stifling his freedom to choose, and that (2) tech-bred problems can be resolved technologically.”

That Foster Wallace was so wrong about the television market specifically but so right about the tendencies of markets generally exposes the flaws in his uncharacteristically technophobic logic. Writes moral philosopher Michael Sandel, “At a time of rising inequality, the marketization of everything means that people of affluence and people of modest means lead increasingly separate lives...It's not good for democracy, nor is it a satisfying way to live.” An exception is the television marketplace, wherein the mere presence of subscription channels has increased the quality of programming across the board.

Foster Wallace is right that the free market is not a cure-all, but not because the consumer instincts of the little guy are insufficiently discerning. It is instead because the little guy's choices are downright insignificant in comparison to the whims of the big ones. The market itself is nothing but a great big system, a horribly ineffective and unjust sorting mechanism. Ineffective because worth is a poor proxy for value and unjust because it can make giants or dwarves out of anyone when we are, all of us, precisely the same size.

This is, of course, precisely why highlighting the frivolity and excess of life behind the literal and figurative gates is a laudable goal. To attribute pettiness to anyone who dares question the allocation of resources is a perspective so oversimplified that it verges on dumb. To deny viewers superiority to those whose wealth towers over their own, even when that superiority is well-documented, is mean. To instead be exposed to people who the system has done pretty well by with a point of view that is often cutting but never aspirational, and therefore somehow redemptive, is meaningful. Important. Good for America.

The social critique is valid because these people exist as characters and not merely performers because we, not as audience but as society, rewarded them for their lack of redeeming qualities with grotesquely luxurious lives. Whose behavior we, all of us, sanctioned long before Cohen pulled back the curtains into the world of the rich and formerly famous to reveal people who are petty and mean and often horribly stupid, exposing an incongruity that is, for lack of a better word, surreal.

Or, as Eileen put it, throwing up her hands with exasperation in her finale parting words, “You can't write this stuff.”

By Silpa Kovvali

Silpa Kovvali is a New York-based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The New Republic, amongst others.

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