Reality (TV) Is Getting Kinder

Competition shows used to revolve around simmering sadism. Recently, though, they’ve gotten noticeably nicer.

Wé McDonald performs 'Feeling Good' during Sunday's preview episode of 'The Voice.' (NBC)

After Wé McDonald sang “Feeling Good” during the 11th-season preview of The Voice, Miley Cyrus leapt out of her seat to give her fellow singer a standing ovation. Alicia Keys, visibly moved by the 17-year-old’s performance of the Nina Simone standard, exclaimed, “You’re so beautiful, and you’re so perfectly yourself.”

The whole thing was warm and wonderful and ooey and gooey and an extremely far cry from the old days of The Voice’s ideological predecessor, American Idol, in which nearly every kind reassurance from Paula would bring, soon enough, a soul-crushing snub—“I even think you would do badly in Kosovo Idol”—from Simon. The Voice is also a far cry, though, from Hell’s Kitchen, which applies the logic of drill sergeant-ing to its star chef. And from The Apprentice, which treats Trump’s “you’re fired!” as a schadenfreudic refrain.

What The Voice is similar to, though—being in its own way so beautiful, and so perfectly itself—is The Great British Baking Show, whose judges offer encouragement to their contestants even, and especially, when they fail. And The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, where one of the most common claims among the star singletons is, “I’m trying to do the right thing.” And Project Runway and Dancing with the Stars and America’s Next Top Model and The Biggest Loser and RuPaul’s Drag Race—competition-based reality shows that, episode by episode, opt for supportiveness over sadism. Sure, television’s versions of “reality” can sometimes be as cruel as reality itself; these days, though, many of the non-scripted shows on offer are finding ways to celebrate, and commercialize, kindness. Welcome to the era of empathy TV.

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The Voice is leading in that ethic. It is a kind-hearted answer to Idol’s harsh judges and even harsher popularity-contest eliminations—a show in which judges, far from mocking the show’s contestants in high Cowellian choler, literally fight each other over the right to be the contestants’ mentors. In fact, “we’re not judges—we’re coaches,” Blake Shelton explained, in 2011, during the show’s inaugural episode. Adam Levine, also an ur-coach, expanded on that idea: “We as coaches want to be able to nurture someone’s talent,” he declared. The show, as its name suggests, is premised on the notion that one’s talent is the only thing that matters—more than one’s look, more than one’s movement, more than any of the other superficial concerns that have traditionally defined the line between “singer” and “star.” As host Carson Daly put it during the show’s inaugural episode, with a note of self-congratulation seeping into the observation: The Voice is a show “unlike any other, because it puts the voice first.”

Over 11 seasons, The Voice has for the most part made good on that promise. As Keys told McDonald in Sunday’s preview for the show’s most recent season: “I just feel so much inside of you—and that’s what we need in music.”

McDonald, holding back tears, responded: “It’s phenomenal that you say something like that to me, because I was bullied for the longest time.” She added: “And I was ashamed of who I was.”

And: The conversation continued—McDonald transformed from “performer” to “person.” Keys acknowledged McDonald’s story but also focused, insistently, on the talent that would help her to transcend it. “I’m not playing,” Keys said. “I’m not joking. I’m so serious, and I’m serious in a place in my heart.” And then she explained why she could empathize so easily with McDonald: “I was working on music, trying to figure out who I am … since I was 14 years old,” the star said. “I don’t want to be like anybody else. And I don’t want you to be like anybody else.”

It was reality TV-meets-therapy session. It would be continued as Darby Walker, an indie-country singer, had her own moment to shine on The Voice’s stage. And it was reminiscent, too, of the conversations you might see in other skills-driven competitions. Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model and RuPaul’s Drag Race take care to celebrate the stories, and respect the feelings, of their contestants. Dancing With the Stars, for all its bedazzled absurdities, honors off-voted couples with the chance to perform a “final dance” for the show’s live studio audience. The Biggest Loser is supportive of competitors even as they leave the show—and offers them a chance to remain in the running, working out away from “The Ranch,” for the show’s prize money. Even The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, shows that on the one hand make a point of interviewing rejected contestants as they weep in the backs of limos, on the other feature stars who claim to be humane in their dismissals of those contestants. In the shows’ parlance, no one is ever dumped; they are merely “said goodbye to.”

And then there is the kindest cut of all, The Great British Baking Show, which in structure is akin to Top Chef—a contestant is eliminated each week in a televised war of attrition—but which in tone is akin to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. As NPR’s Linda Holmes explained in an appreciation of the serial bake-off:

Judges Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood play at being the punishing, fearsome authority figures of the piece, and they've got the expertise and the high standards for it. But both, really, are always on the side of the contestants. Both hope every time they bite into your fruit pie that it's sweet and perfect. Both are perfectly willing to admit when what you proposed sounded like it would be a disaster but turned out wonderfully. Both are bummed when you guess wrong in the technical challenge. And hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins circulate like excited big sisters, teasing and cheering and punning and, at the end of each week, crushing the departing contestant in a big hug.

You can tell a lot about a show by the way it dismisses its contestants, and those bear hugs reveal a lot about The Great British Baking Show. But it’s not the only one to send competitors off with warm hugs and well wishes. Before its booted contestants “pack their knives and go,” Top Chef’s cameras offer a panorama of them hugging the remaining chefs. After Project Runway designers are “auf’ed,” they, too, are given conciliatory embraces.

Sure, there are villain edits. Sure, there are villains. Sure, “reality” is not reality. And, sure, the farewell hugs take place in an overall TV environment that still features Gordon Ramsay, performatively mind-losing over overly coddled eggs and improperly filleted halibuts. Chopped still derives a good deal of glee from the disembodied hand that lifts the show’s cloche to reveal who, each round, has been … yes. Donald Trump, according to a Vanity Fair report, negotiated with NBC over whether, should things go his way in November, he could film The Apprentice from the Oval Office. There will still be firings, and they will still be public.

But as scripted TV gets a little more violent—as even comedy gets just a little more cruel—it makes some sense that “reality” TV would, in response, become warmer and more welcoming. It makes sense that the shows that feature “real” people would show those people on the receiving end of kindness. It’s one thing to revel in Simon Cowell’s dismissal of someone’s off-key performance as “musical murder.” There’s something extremely refreshing, however, about hearing an enormously talented singer perform a beautiful song to the best of her ability, as her family cheers her on from backstage—and then to see that singer well up in tears as Alicia Keys informs her, without a hint of irony, “You were born to show people what love sounds like.”