The New Reality TV

Many of 2016’s freshmen shows went out of their way to reflect the world not as audiences might wish it to be, but as it really is.

Matthias Clamer / FX

“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.

Many of the new shows of 2016, though, took that approach—the everyday, gilded with the shiny stuff of fantasy—and stripped it of its varnish. The concerns that were so often, in the past, relegated to the plot lines of individual episodes (a job-loss here, an illness there) were put center-stage as series overtly emphasized what used to be matters of taboo: money, infidelity, weight, special needs. In a year in which so many things beyond politics themselves were political, many TV shows continued a trend that had been brewing with the rise of social media and Peak TV. Perhaps realizing television’s power to change the way people see the world, show creators rejected easy aspiration and blithe escapism—they instead got insistently, and compellingly, real.

And so: HBO’s Divorce attempted to portray the ending of a marriage with unvarnished—and often unbearable—honesty. ABC’s American Housewife forthrightly (if clunkily) made its main character’s weight a central fact of its show. Amazon’s Fleabag was in many ways a tonal follow-up to the streaming service’s 2015 show, Catastrophe—which offered an unflinching look at both friendship and, more significantly, grief. Netflix’s The Crown was an only lightly fictionalized representation of the early days of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. FX’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson recreated, with for the most part remarkable fealty, the “trial of the century.”

2016 was also a year that found true-crime documentaries continuing their cultural ascendence. In the footsteps of 2015’s Making a Murderer and The Jinx, there was Amanda Knox on Netflix, and The Witness, and Team Foxcatcher, and ESPN’s magisterial 30 for 30 documentary O.J.: Made in America. There was Ava DuVernay’s 13th. There was Weiner, which, after its run in theaters, aired on Showtime.

This all came at a moment that found American culture at large celebrating—reveling in—the real. The world of Facebook updates and “It Happened to Me”-style essays and #confessyourunpopularopinion is also a world that, when asked how it’s doing, might give a more honest answer than the traditional “Fine, and you?” The age of social media, allowing people such unprecedented access to the details of each others’ lives, also encourages them to shed the polite niceties that can so often can double as light lies. Why bother with “I’m fine” when a status update knows otherwise?

And TV’s creators, increasingly, are reflecting that impulse in their output, rejecting the old, aspiration-tinted juggernauts that sold fantasy in the guise of normalcy. Instead, TV is offering, more and more, shows like Atlanta, which depicts the lives of its charactersand in particular the crushing weight that comes from never having enough money—with unvarnished honesty. Or like Fleabag, which strategically blurs the line between empathy and awkwardness. Or like Designated Survivor, which is premised on an extraordinary event—the destruction of Congress during the State of the Union—but which goes out of its way to emphasize the human-level consequences of that massive act of terror. Those shows are responding to “how are you?” with the real answer—which is sometimes more uncomfortable than the bland alternative, but which is often much more relatable.

It’s an approach that isn’t, of course, a universal trend. One of the consequences of the age of Peak TV is that there will be many, many types of shows on air at any point, and many, many genres to contain them. Shows like Atlanta and Insecure, with their admirable detail-orientation, are airing at the same time as shows like Game of Thrones and MacGyver and Timeless and Stranger Things, which take the fictional affordances of TV—dragons! time travel! communicative Christmas lights!—to many of their logical extremes. And many new-in-2016 series—like Son of Zorn, which finds an muscle-bound (and animated) action hero attempting to win back his (live-action) ex-wife and son, and like The Good Place, which is set in a Disneyesque heaven—are experimenting with whimsy that borders on magical realism.

But even some of the most fantastical new shows of 2016—Stranger Things, Westworld, The Get Down—are tinged with, and in their way premised on, reality. They are simply, in their execution, more intentional, and more precise, about what is real and what is … not. And the other shows, the more realistic ones, are unapologetic about reflecting the world as it is, rather than as it might be. This fall, discussing some of the more experimental comedies that NBC and Fox put out, The New York Times mentioned “a new programming strategy for old-school prime time”—one responding to Peak TV by getting kookier, and more experimental, and in many ways more interesting. “Broadcasters are not quite throwing in the ratings towel,” Brooks Barnes noted,

but they are trying to worry less about an immediate mass audience and more about finding, at the very least, a group of core fans attracted to a strong comedic point of view—what Jennifer Salke, NBC’s president of entertainment, calls “not a broad and soft, trying-to-please-the-whole-world kind of show.”

One way to find that core of fans may be—in the manner of Bojack Horseman, and Arrested Development, and The Good Place—to surprise and delight them with televised whimsy. Another, though, may be simply to echo fans’ real lives, as they’re lived every day: to win people over not with fantasy, but with relatability. It’s a powerful thing, after all, to see your self reflected back to you on a screen. TV’s creators are realizing that, and—artistically and commercially—capitalizing on it. In 2016, reality as a genre may still have been derivative and, as a consequence, dull. Reality as an artistic approach, however, was more powerful, and more popular, than ever—and more realistic, for that matter, than “reality” itself could ever hope to be.