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The genius of ‘Reality TV’

January 29, 2010

Whoever invented the phrase ‘reality TV’ was a stone-cold genius. It’s an oxymoron, but like other bits of literal nonsense–zen koans, the Christian trinity–it gives off a powerful illusion of depth. It says: “These shows transcend TV. Indeed, they transcend entertainment. They reveal something fundamental about the nature of reality in a postmodern age. They are an important, if embarrassing moment in Western civilization.” Perfectly pitched to a society of anxious but TV-addicted pop philosophers, ‘reality TV’ is an irresistible invitation to pontificate about reality and it’s degradation. It brilliantly turns high-minded criticisms of the genre to its advantage, for there are few things as interesting as dispatches from the front lines of the apocalypse.

Of course, this idea that reality TV reveals anything deep about reality is itself an illusion. For one thing, as this article points out, most of people’s worst fears never came to pass. There’s been nothing like The Truman Show. There have been a few short-lived shows were the participants are deceived about the premises, but never where they’re deceived about being on a reality TV show. In any case, the most successful reality shows aren’t like this. Moreover, it turns out that audiences are more interested in drama than spectacle. It was feared that since anyone can be on reality TV, people would be pushed to do ever more humiliating things. That’s been proven true, but only up to a point. The shows that thrive most on pure spectacle, things like Fear Factor and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?, have mostly fallen by the wayside. The truth is that, as with many things, being a reality TV star is harder than it looks. Reality shows are meticulously cast. The most successful shows are those that mint their own stars, people with outsize personalities who create emotional tension, the more soap opera-like the better. Audiences are more sentimental than bloodthirsty.

Indeed, most reality TV is a kind of modified soap opera. It thrives on the same empathies, on the same outsize gestures, and on many of the same storylines. But the premise of reality gives cover to viewers who are far too sophisticated to invest themselves in actual soap operas. We want to see bad behavior, but only if it’s real. Of course, this can only last so long. Eventually we remind ourselves that a) we really shouldn’t enjoy bad behavior so much and b) it’s not that real anyway. It’s at this point that I think the illusion about the great Importance of Reality TV kicks in. We tell ourselves that we are watching only to keep tabs on the metaphysical fraying of reality. It also introduces a new villain to the soap opera, the best, most shadowy one of all: the one behind the camera.

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