It’s just a TV show. It’s just a song. It’s just a movie. I’ve made these excuses to protect my faves and guilty pleasures; there is content I enjoy that I know isn’t particularly wholesome. But while I don’t think escapist entertainment needs to pass a purity test, I do believe our entertainment choices matter. Giving attention to people elevates them, their points of views, and their values.
Like many others, I’ve written about the mud-wrestling match between Donald Trump and Omarosa. I mused that if fewer people had watched The Apprentice, perhaps America wouldn’t have taken this path into the darkest timeline. When it comes to national politics, name recognition is half the battle, and popularity—no matter its source—is a plus. Notoriety can take you places. And there’s no industry that spins out more shamelessly notorious people than reality TV.
I’m old enough to remember when the reality TV boom started with The Real World on MTV. Except we didn’t call it “reality TV” then. The program was filed under “documentary,” a label that didn’t quite fit, even then. The Real World cast people with different backgrounds and political views in the same house hoping for fireworks, and they got them. And it was raw: No one knew what was going to happen, least of all the cast.
I remember when The Real World changed after Season 4, which was shot in London. Everyone cast had been too laid back, too well-adjusted, too mature. For the most part, they all got along and lived their separate lives. It was one of my favorite seasons, but I don’t think that was the feedback the show’s producers got. The following season, set in Miami, had the roommates working together in addition to living together. That element of forced companionship, a subtle form of sequestration, was what really amped up the pressure and the drama. Its sister show, Road Rules, added a cramped RV and competition into the mix, setting the stage for Survivor, which was when the “reality” label took hold and the format went truly mainstream.
MTV then flipped the genre on its head in 2002, when it began airing The Osbournes: a series that documented the family life of retired Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne. Celebrity reality shows are so ubiquitous now that it’s easy to forget what a revolutionary concept this once was. Ozzy Osbourne wandering around his mansion mumbling incoherently and occasionally shouting “Sharon!” was absolutely riveting. And hilarious. But it was occasionally uncomfortable, too — particularly when the show addressed Osbourne’s history of drug abuse.
Voyeurism has always been a part of reality TV. Many of the conflicts that made for “good TV” only benefited the audience; not so much the people involved. Some moments need not be preserved for posterity.
As reality TV shows — and their casts — aged enough to warrant reunion specials that aired years or even decades after the original, it became clear that some cast members had fully embraced the personas they’d portrayed on-air and weren’t able to move on from the franchise they’d built their careers on. They’d do it all again, and more, in a heartbeat. Their willingness to expose themselves made them more deserving of our judgment, it seemed.
The inability to pin down what’s actually happening — to separate what’s real from what’s fake — seems to have infected everything.
A mean-spiritedness became associated with the genre. People were being cast specifically to be humiliated and ridiculed; no show was complete without a villain — no matter that they had to return to ordinary life once the nationally-broadcast show wrapped. The notion that reputation was important eroded. As long as what we saw was entertaining enough, the personal integrity of the performers — and they are performers — was irrelevant. Besides, the cast members were in on it; everyone had their roles down pat.
Reality TV became truly insidious when the genre began producing genuine celebrities. There was life after the show, a life where people with no talent beyond shamelessness could profit like bandits. It was one thing for multimillionaires like the Kardashians to cash in, but there was something particularly disturbing about the spectacle made of cast members on shows featuring average people. A classist sneering seemed to undergird everything: Wealthy, educated executives propping up ordinary people, sometimes children, as avatars of “what’s wrong with society.” It wasn’t enough for audiences to look or even gawk anymore. Heaping scorn, laughing at, not with, reality stars…feeling superior to them was the point.