Conflict is drama—and high drama is the essence of reality television. That has been the accepted wisdom in Britain for two decades, since Big Brother cooped people up in a shared house and forbade them access to anything that might stop them from getting on one another’s nerves.
Audiences have been conditioned to accept that reality television must involve dislikable people being immiserated. “It’s a shame,” says a TV producer in a comedy sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look, reviewing the rushes of a show in which everyone is tediously competent. “I thought it would be interesting to watch talented business people competing for a prestigious job.” Luckily, his colleague has a brilliant idea: “What if, instead, it was idiots competing for a relatively junior job?” And so The Apprentice is born.
When Big Brother first launched in 2000, its cruelty felt unusual, and the program led the way in exploiting Britain’s fault lines of race, sex, and class. (One early contestant, Jade Goody, was attacked for being low-class, called stupid and fat, reviled for being racist, then pitied for developing cervical cancer. She died in 2009, leaving two small boys motherless.) But the show’s very success rendered it obsolete. It popularized a tone that has pervaded public life. Everywhere now feels like Big Brother—what is Twitter, if not angry people trapped together, desperate for any distraction? And the TV genre’s endless ability to create fresh hate-figures has an obvious human cost.
The ITV program Love Island, a dating show, is one example. Its former presenter Caroline Flack killed herself over the weekend, according to an inquest. She was facing trial next month for an alleged assault on her partner (about an incident that she claimed was an accident), and was at the center of both a tabloid storm and a campaign by men’s-rights activists. Two former Love Island contestants have also killed themselves in the past three years.
The appeal of reality television is that everyone you’re watching is a “real person,” not some Hollywood megastar with a gazillion publicists. But that leaves contestants (and even presenters) terribly exposed if they don’t live happily ever after, or if they come out of an edit looking like an asshole. Feeling the full, scorching heat of public attention—particularly if you are designated as a reality-television “heel”—is a brutal experience: little money, poor long-term career prospects, and a vague, indefinable sense among people in the street that they know you, and don’t like you.
The strange thing is that the entire premise underlying reality television’s deification-and-degradation cycle—that every show needs goodies and baddies, and that conflict is essential—is clearly not true. Many of the most successful reality-television shows in recent years have been “warm-bath television,” soothing, even numbing, experiences. Look at NBC’s Making It or ABC’s Family Food Fight in the United States, or The Great British Bake Off in Britain. The latter has spawned several replicas, including The Great Pottery Throw Down on Channel 4 and The Great British Sewing Bee and The Big Painting Challenge on the BBC.
Netflix’s new offering Next in Fashion continues this trend. Eighteen fashion designers compete to secure funding for their own label, under the direction of the hosts Tan France and Alexa Chung. As with the worldwide phenomenon MasterChef, Next in Fashion’s contestants are genuinely talented. As with The Great British Bake Off, the sweetest characters are the most successful. The camaraderie is obvious.
At first, the designers are put into pairs, and most work happily together. When there is genuine conflict, the show seems faintly embarrassed by it. The camera doesn’t linger on the one mismatched pair—the Scottish single mom Hayley and the American former model and soldier Julian—whose personal taste could not be further apart. (Julian loves loud, clashing colors; Hayley firmly does not.) You can almost feel the producers’ relief when attention shifts instead to Angel and Minju, from China and South Korea, respectively, who name their team “Dragon Princess” and radiate pure, uncomplicated joy from every pore. The show is more interested in genuine virtuosity—some of the clothes are incredible, such as Minju’s wedding dress, which unfurls like a lily—than low-level interpersonal rivalries.
In the fourth episode, the contestants are asked to design streetwear. Here, the show’s inclusive atmosphere is so strong that it collides with its status as a competition. The bottom two includes a pair of African American women, one of whom makes the case that in the fashion industry, “it’s mostly one voice that’s heard. The high-end brands and designers are taking ideas from us every single day and it only becomes cool when it’s high-end. For a lot of us—minorities, the underprivileged—we want you to see us, but it’s so hard to be seen.” The guest judge, Kerby Jean-Raymond of the brand Pyer Moss, is so affected by this speech that he refuses to send the women home. He walks off set, followed by the rest of the judges. The credits roll.
At the start of the next episode, viewers see France return to explain the “tension” among the judges. He starts choking up as he tells them that he is a designer too. At this point, the contestants rush over to console him. His tears subvert the standard formula of reality television, which normally maintains a strict hierarchy between contestants (supplicants) and judges (overlords). So does the outcome: As a result of the judges’ failure to reach a unanimous decision, no one goes home that week.
That rejection of cutthroat competition—the thing audiences have been told is the lifeblood of reality television—is the clearest example of how the genre has bifurcated into two modes: warm bath and trial by fire. Which is winning, though? Personally, I prefer soothing, friendly television to the fightier kind because, well, look at the news. The novelty of watching talented people behave professionally is appealing. Elsewhere, Big Brother has faded away. Love Island was already in trouble before Flack’s death, having overextended itself by adding an extra wintertime show to its annual schedule. The idea of Gordon Ramsay shouting about someone being an “idiot sandwich” now feels tired and dated. The BBC’s biggest reality competition is currently Strictly Come Dancing, which is usually won by likable grafters who bring their family to the live recordings.
Reality television is often called a “guilty pleasure.” But there’s a difference between a cupcake and a cigarette. It’s heartening to see that so many TV competitions now reject the Apprentice formula, showcasing real creativity instead of cheap baiting. There’s only one problem: Is this all escapism? If reality television has become nicer, is it only because the rest of the world has become more like the nastiest version of reality television?