What We Really Think About When We Watch Reality Television These Days

What are we really doing when we're sitting in front of the TV laughing at yet another smackdown between the Real Housewives of Wherever? Sometimes it's simple, sometimes it's more complicated, and the truth of the matter is, it probably varies for each of us. We look at 10 shows.

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Andrea Siegel has a great, very funny piece in The New York Times Magazine that's been circulating around, presumably as everyone realizes how great and funny her piece is. In it, she considers our (comparatively) long-held entertainment predilection of watching reality TV, using the examples of Survivor, which has been around since, God, we don't even want to talk about it, The (almost as long-runningBachelor, and Say Yes to the Dress. But we're not just watching these shows so we can see people attempt to survive, or get hitched, or find the perfect wedding dress. We're watching them to learn about far more interesting things that pertain to all of us, she writes. Stuff about human psychologies.

As Siegel explains of Survivor, "Here was a show that pretended to be about physical endurance and exotic adventure — and that featured some rat roasting by the Pagong tribe that got the media pretty excited — but all of that was obviously just set dressing. What Survivor is really about is the inescapability of your being yourself, even when you have told yourself you can be someone different for 30 days." Richard Hatch has responded in the comments to Siegel's piece; he can't help disagreeing with her take—but then, we could have expected that, knowing him from the show. He writes, "For viewers, Survivor is a rare opportunity for introspection and meaningful engagement." Again we have human psychologies!

Watching The Bachelor, Siegel writes, she learned not about dating or marriage but "about forgetting who you really are when everybody around you gets lost in the same overpowering fiction." And Say Yes to the Dress? It's not about dresses at all, but "about the trouble with family ... which is that psychological entanglement can keep loved ones from being able to separate their desires from your own." Human psychologies plus weddings, the ultimate in powder-keg TV. And it delivers: "In these moments I am presented with a metaphor for familial relationships so powerful I always end up yelling at the TV as if it holds all my relatives," writes Siegel.

But what of the other reality TV shows we've spent time with again and again? What do they mean, what do they have to teach us, what strange relationships have we formed with those humans and their supposed conflicts and accomplishments? What are we really doing when we're sitting in front of the television laughing at yet another smackdown between the Real Housewives of Wherever? Sometimes it's simple, sometimes it's more complicated, and the truth of the matter is, it probably varies for each of us.

House Hunters. Remember when everyone was suddenly, inexplicably horrified that House Hunters was not a font of veracity, that some of the houses weren't even for sale and that the deals had been nailed down prior to the filming of the shows, sometimes? That the dramas (my apartment is TOO SMALL) had been in some cases trumped up, or weren't real at all? I didn't care then and I don't care now because House Hunters is not about watching someone buy a house, and it's not even about real estate. It's about our inherent dissatisfactions with the way we live in contemporary America. Listen carefully, and you hear the following: Trope-ish jokes about how the wife will take up the entire walk-in closet. Hankerings from the husband for a man-cave, a place of his own, a garage, a place to park his bike. The inability to fit one's bedroom furniture in the master bedroom of a place that's affordable. Hatred of gross carpeting, which stands for much, much more. There are remnants from the mortgage crisis. Some of those remnants are not even remnants. Tales of lives divided, tales of lives coming together, tales of lives ... House Hunters is about the struggle to survive in a changing America, about keeping up with the Joneses, and about how we need to retire the phrase "man cave" from our vocabularies post-haste. To some extent, it's also about the elite snobbery of those who watch the show (at least, in regular House Hunters, if not the international version). Really, guy in Texas who thinks that 5-bedroom house for $200,000 is small? You're insane. And it's about schadenfreude. Pretty much every reality TV show is, in some form or fashion.

The Real Housewives of Whichever Place. This show is about a strange combination of jealousy and schadenfreude, because in it (particularly in Beverly Hills, which is back on now), the "characters" are far richer than we are, and than the majority of people watching. And yet, they are hardly better off than we, are they? They fight. They get drunk, bad drunk. Terrible things happen. They snipe at each other, have nervous breakdowns, and push and shove and flip tables. They are jealous and petty and claw and talk behind back and divorce their husbands, and then sometimes they make up (with each other) and sometimes they pretend to make up and sometimes they don't at all. They are estranged from each other, their children, everyone but Andy Cohen. They are not an example for living one's best life, in most cases—they are examples of what not to do. Because of that, usually, they are hopelessly, mindlessly entertaining, and terribly dangerous. They make us feel better about ourselves at the same time that they make us feel worse, and they also prove that money does not buy happiness. (But if we had that money, we'd be happy, for sure.) Fortunately, we'll never find out if this indeed is the case and can instead maintain the blissful ignorance that our watching of this show—a Lifetime movie combined with a Disney Sunday night movie full of mean stepsisters and addictions and abusive behavior combined with a Girls Gone Wild: The Later Years—must be based in. This show is about, in a word, purgatory.

LOLWork. I've only watched a portion of this show once but I'm pretty sure it's about that nightmare in high school in which you ended up at the career fair and no one hired you but in the end it turned out the career fair was really a prison and you get out at the last minute before the bars clank down and all your fellow students are trapped there forever, waggling their fingers between bars, drinking milk from little cat bowls on the floor, screaming in agony, and, just before you wake, crumbling into tragic little piles of dust like the Wicked Witch of the West, or was it the East? Or it's about the time you never got picked in volleyball, but later realized thank God you never got picked in volleyball. Or it's about cats, and people who love cats, and working on a cat farm.This show is surreal, or maybe it's parody, but, yes, it's some kind of meta commentary on the Internet viewed through TV and back again through the Internet, but I don't want to think about that, so it's about cats. Existentially.

Top Chef. (And, to a lesser extent, Project Runway.) These are some of the last remaining of the rather quaint, old-school competition shows in which people with at least some level of talent are put into sleep-deprived and increasingly challenging conditions to continue to showcase their particular talent to the best of their ability (and not get kicked off the show). So they're a bit like Survivor in that we keep seeing people who persist in being themselves (and all the emotional and interactive dramas that ensue due to that persistence), but also, they have to be good at what they do, what the competition is about. These are fake trials, trials that don't really matter, but trials with results that can matter hugely, shows about the increasing disconnects between our dreams of success in America and our real lives, and the levels to which we must go in order to accomplish what we think we want, which was somewhere between real and not-real in the first place. Having done that, or failed it, participants generally waft back into the ether from whence they came, perhaps to appear again on a show of "masters" or "all-stars," because now they've been co-opted fully into the reality TV wallpaper, they are the cyborgs of our time. These shows are also, to some extent, about looking at pretty things on plates and runways. So, they're modern art, or maybe literature, with the spin-offs like Life After Top Chef the tragedy-based American Beautys or Philip Roth novels to the original's mostly bloodless reverse-Hunger Games. Cook, or die trying.

Dating Shows, and Dating Advice Shows. Again with the schadenfreude, but in this case it's knowing that we're so much better off than the poor fools on this show or that one at the same time that we sit back and let our hearts and minds fill with the romantic advice people like Patti Stanger and Steven Ward proffer. These are the educational fare of the reality TV genre. Should we, too, wear our hair long and straight to snag men? Should we not rush to physical relations because if the milk is free, the cow won't get much air time? Should we learn to love ourselves before we can love others? Perhaps, but watching the show won't teach us anything other than, yes, contentment at the suffering of others, and that humans are all lonely beasts bent in some way or another on upending their own happinesses given the proper opportunity. And maybe how to flat iron our hair. Oh, yes, and about pervasive gender roles (why are the majority of these shows about women, for instance, and why do they come with such a dose of mockery at the expense of their subjects?), and about the expectations of men and women in modern society, and do we really need to find love and get married to find happiness anyway? If you're trying to learn this from a TV show, however, something-something schadenfreude.

Hoarders. These shows about the epic ruins of humanity are either the best or the worst. I think they're the worst, probably, because they're about that need to feel something, anything, in these days in which the swirling media circus surrounds us at all times and leaves us full of ennui, emptiness, maybe a strange numb sensation in our right ankle. These extremes, then, make us feel something. Sorrow. Disgust. Amusement. That sch-word again. This is House Hunters gone terribly, terribly awry. "Terry's fridge is packed with dead cats, and she has another 50 live ones," for example. What do you feel about that? It doesn't really matter, because the key thing is that you feel something. If you cannot: Are you human, at all, or are you a dead cat in a refrigerator? Discuss.

There are others, of course, endless reality TV shows of disaster or how-to, of young people living and of old, of the ways in which we do things now, or based not in life but in games, which are a kind of way to live. Suffice it to say, if we're watching a reality TV show, we're probably old enough to realize that it may not be "real" in so much as it might be completely, partially, or totally faked, or at the very least, scripted and/or edited. But real or not, there's something we take away from these shows; we can't help ourselves, given the slightly codependent relationships we've developed with them. We see ourselves, maybe, or what we do, or what we definitely don't, want to be. And as in life, what we get from the relationships we have with those shows depends not only on them but on us, too. They're not real, but they're not just plain old TV, either.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.