The Case for Reality TV

What the snobs don’t understand

This past January, I had the pleasure of serving as official spear-catcher for a CBS Evening News report on the increasing levels of humiliation on American Idol and other reality-TV shows, including some on my channel, VH1. The segment featured snippets of our shows I Love New York (a dating competition with an urban vibe) and Celebrity Fit Club (which tracks the efforts of overweight singers and actors to get back in shape, and, by extension, reignite their careers). “VH1, among other things, showcases faded celebrities who are fat,” said the CBS correspondent Richard Schlesinger.

In between shots of me fake working at my computer and fake chatting with the amiable Schlesinger while fake strolling down our corporate-looking hallway, I took my best shot at defending the alleged horrors of AI and CelebrityFit Club. But it was clear that CBS News was set on bemoaning what it saw as yet another outrage against the culture. The central complaint, per Katie Couric’s intro to the report, was that more people had watched American Idol the previous week than watched the State of the Union address on all the broadcast networks combined. When the segment ended, Couric signed off with an extravagant eye roll. “We’re doing our part here at CBS News,” she seemed to be saying, “but the barbarians are massing at the gates, people.” A line had been drawn in the sand, as if the news were now akin to an evening at the Met.

Is there an easier position to take in polite society than to patronize reality TV? Even television programmers see the genre as a kind of visual Hamburger Helper: cheap filler that saves them money they can use elsewhere for more-worthy programming. Reality shows cost anywhere from a quarter to half as much to produce as scripted shows. The money saved on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, the logic goes, allows ABC to pay for additional gruesome medical emergencies and exploding ferries on Grey’s Anatomy,. NBC’s crappy Fear Factor pays for the classy Heroes.

As befits a form driven largely by speed and cost considerations, reality TV is not often formally daring. Fifteen years after MTV’s The Real World set the template for contemporary reality TV by placing seven strangers in a downtown Manhattan loft, reality television has developed its own visual shorthand: short doses of documentary footage interspersed with testimonials (often called OTFs, for “on-the-fly” interviews) in which the participants describe, ex post facto, what they were thinking during the action you are watching.

The current boom may be a product of the changing economics of the television business, but reality TV is also the liveliest genre on the set right now. It has engaged hot-button cultural issues—class, sex, race—that respectable television, including the august CBS Evening News, rarely touches. And it has addressed a visceral need for a different kind of television at a time when the Web has made more traditionally produced video seem as stagey as Molière.

Reality TV may be an awkward admixture of documentary (with its connotations of thousands of hours of footage patiently gathered, redacted by monk-like figures into the purest expression of truth possible in 90 to 120 minutes) and scripted (with its auteurs and Emmys and noble overtones of craft). But this kludge also happens to have allowed reality shows to skim the best elements of scripted TV and documentaries while eschewing the problems of each. Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.

Scripted television is supposedly showing new ambition these days, particularly in the hour-long drama form. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was going to bring the chatty intelligence of The West Wing back to prime time. Lost was going to challenge network audiences like never before, with complex plots, dozens of recurring characters, and movie-level production values. Shows are bigger now: On 24 this season, a nuclear bomb exploded. But network prime-time television remains dominated by variants on the police procedural (Law & Order, CSI, Criminal Minds), in which a stock group of characters (ethnically, sexually, and generationally diverse) grapples with endless versions of the same dilemma. The episodes have all the ritual predictability of Japanese Noh theater: Crimes are solved, lessons are learned, order is restored.

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.”

The detail is what puts the scene over: Lou’s lip-smacking focus on the girls, the girls’ bland acquiescence. “That’s it, baby, smile,” Lou urges his daughter. “Show those teeth,” says Tammy. A similar scenario on Desperate Housewives could never have been quite this preposterous, quite this blandly amoral. The characters would have been scripted with softening, redeeming qualities, or been rendered comically evil. Lou would’ve gotten his comeuppance, like Wallace Shawn’s money-siphoning literary agent in that series. Here, the apparent willingness of the young women and at least some of the parents to indulge Lou’s bottom-of-the-barrel scheming outlines, in a few short brushstrokes, a community’s shared value system.

Value systems are smashed into each other, like atoms in an accelerator, on ABC’s Wife Swap, where the producers find the most extreme pairings possible: lesbian mommies with bigots, godless cosmopolites with Bible thumpers. On one February show, a Pentacostal family, the Hoovers, was paired with the family of a former pastor, Tony Meeks, who has turned from God to follow his rock-and-roll dreams (mom Tish rocks out as well). “I feel by being there,” Kristin Hoover said, “I was able to remind Tony that God still loves him and is not finished with him.” The episode took seriously the Hoovers’ commitment to homeschooling and their rejection of contemporary culture (a rejection not taken to the extreme of declining an invitation to appear on reality TV). Compare this with the tokenism of “born-again Christian” Harriet Hayes on NBC’s dramedy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Harriet’s but a cipher, a rhetorical backboard against which ex-boyfriend Matt Albie can thwack his heathen wisecracks.

The competitions and elimination shows are latter-day Milgram experiments that place real people in artificial situations to see what happens. The Apprentice is Darwinism set loose inside an entrepreneurial Habitrail. Post-9/11, Survivor became less a fantasy and more a metaphor for an imagined post­apocalyptic future. What happens on these shows might be a Technicolor version of how we behave in real life, but so is most fiction. Creative endeavors—written, scripted, or produced—should be measured not by how literally they replicate actual life but by how effectively they render emotional truths. The best moments found on reality TV are unscriptable, or beyond the grasp of most scriptwriters. It’s no coincidence that 2006’s best scripted dramas—The Wire, HBO’s multi-season epic of inner-city Baltimore; and Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s futuristic thriller—were studies in meticulously crafted “realness,” deploying naturalistic dialogue, decentered and chaotic action, stutter-step pacing, and a reporter’s eye for the telling detail. The Wire’s season and Cuarón’s movie both ended on semi-resolved novelistic notes, scorning the tendency in current television and cinema toward easy narrative closure. Watching them only threw into higher relief the inability of so much other scripted product to get beyond stock characterizations and pat narrative.

For all the snobbism in the doc community, reality TV has actually contributed to the recent boom in documentary filmmaking. The most successful docs of recent vintage have broken through in part by drawing heavily from reality television’s bag of tricks, dropping the form’s canonical insistence on pure observation. In Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore brings an Army recruiter with him to confront legislators and urge them to enlist their children in the Iraq War effort. In Bowling for Columbine, Moore takes children who were shot at Columbine to a Kmart, where they ask for a refund on the bullets that are still lodged in their bodies. Of course, Moore’s never been a doc purist. TV Nation, his short-lived 1994 television series, prefigured a long line of gonzo reality, from Joe Millionaire to Punk’d. Having the Serbian ambassador sing along to the Barney theme song (“I love you, you love me”) while statistics about the number of Bosnians killed during the breakup of Yugoslavia appeared on the screen was not only ur-reality; it was ur-Borat. And speaking of talking animals, March of the Penguins turned stunning footage of mating and migrating penguins into an utterly contrived Antarctic version of Love Story.

The resistance to reality TV ultimate­ly comes down to snobbery, usually of the generational variety. People under 30, in my experience, tend to embrace this programming; they’re happy to be entertained, never mind the purity of conception. As an unapologetic producer of reality shows, I’m obviously biased, but I also know that any genre that provokes such howls of protest is doing something interesting. Try the crab.