Reality shows have leaped into this imaginative void. Discovery’s Deadliest Catch, which began its third season in April, is an oddly transfixing series about … crab fishermen in the Bering Sea. As a straightforward documentary, Catch would have been worthy fodder, but the producers have made it riveting by formatting the whole season as a sporting event, with crab tallies for each of the half dozen or so boats and a race-against-the-clock urgency that, for all its contrivance, gives structure and meaning to the fishermen’s efforts.
Narrative vibrancy is not the only thing that electrifies these shows. Reality TV presents some of the most vital political debate in America, particularly about class and race. Fox’s Nanny 911 and ABC’s Supernanny each offer object lessons on the hazards of parenting in an age of instant gratification and endless digital diversion. ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition features intensely emotional tales of people who have fallen through the cracks of Bush-era America—often blue-collar families ravaged by disease, health-care costs, insurance loopholes, layoffs, and so forth. My channel’s The (White) Rapper Show turned into a running debate among the aspiring white MCs over cultural authenticity—whether it is more properly bestowed by class or race.
Class realities are plumbed to remarkable effect on The Real Housewives of Orange County, a “docu soap” that completed its second season on Bravo this spring. The show is inspired by a trio of suburban dramas: The O.C., Desperate Housewives, and the 1999 movie American Beauty. Lacking the visual panache, or the budgets, of its scripted forebears, Real Housewives nonetheless goes deeper, charting the spiritual decay of life in gated communities, where financial anxieties, fraying families, and fear of aging leave inhabitants grasping for meaning and happiness as they steer their Escalades across Southern California’s perfectly buffed, featureless landscape. Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner, trafficked in similar white California dread, but with all the nuance of a two-by-four to the face.
In Real Housewives, businessman Lou Knickerbocker stages a photo shoot to promote his new “highly oxygenated” water, variously called “Aqua Air” and “O.C. Energy Drink” (“We have patented technology that produces water from air”). The models are attractive-ish teen and 20-something girls: Lou’s daughter Lindsey, by ex-wife Tammy; a few other daughters of O.C. housewives; and a newcomer whom Lou apparently found waitressing at a local restaurant.
Lou and Tammy made piles of money—it’s not clear how—but their finances seem to have fractured along with their marriage. The photo shoot, therefore, is throwing off more than the normal amount of flop sweat. Lou apparently has personally selected the girls, which means he has declined to showcase his other daughter, Megan, because of her tattoos and lack of physical fitness. Lou believes the “Aqua Air Angels” should embody the Aqua Air ideal, which is why they can’t drink or smoke and must have grade-point averages higher than 3.5. “This is a photo shoot,” he barks after a fight breaks out between one of the girls and the waitress, “not a gang bang, for chrissakes.”