“Reality seems tired. It seems derivative,” a former network executive told Vulture in 2015. “There hasn’t been a really loud, innovative reality show in a while.”
The executive was correct, unless you consider television’s fictions—which, in 2016, became more realistic than ever. Atlanta, on FX, directly tackled one of the formerly taboo issues in television: money. Speechless, on ABC, found humor and heart in the details of living—and having a family member who is living—with cerebral palsy. This Is Us, on NBC, portrayed its central family with sentimentalism, but also with a clear-eyed look examination of the tensions that can bedevil even the closest of families. Insecure, on HBO, portrayed the ins and outs of friendship and romance in a way that was designed to hit, the show’s creator, Issa Rae, has put it, “a regular person nerve.”
Television has long had a fraught relationship with the “regular” person. Many of its shows, from Leave It to Beaver on down, have relied on the power of aspiration—the ideal family, the ideal group of friends, impossibly beautiful people inhabiting impossibly beautiful places—to amplify the appeal of the “normal” worlds they’ve served up to their viewers. Dallas, with its showy wealth and early McMansions, doubled as an advertisement for all that might be obtained by way of the money-hunger of the American ‘80s. Friends, the next decade, may have paid lip service to everyday concerns like rent costs and health insurance; it was set, however, in an apartment that no one with real money troubles could have ever afforded. Those shows and their many, many counterparts claimed to embrace averageness; they also, however, scene after scene, treated averageness as something to be overcome.