It’s been a rough couple of weeks in the world of Reality TV. Bethenny Frankel is back on the Real Housewives of New York, inciting botox-compromising levels of rage in her fellow housewives. She even has a hashtag touting her return: #theBisback. Yes. Yes, she is. And Fox cancelled American Idol after 14 seasons, which, in Reality TV years, makes the show a million years old. In its way, this is sobering news, like hearing that the fossilized remains of your favorite museum dinosaur finally disintegrated, unable to endure the harsh light of the 21st century.
Most dramatically, the Duggar family fiasco has come to light — in which it was revealed that the now-grown oldest son, Josh Duggar, was guilty of molesting several girls when he was fourteen. This led TLC to pull 19 Kids and Counting, finally bringing to a halt the Duggar-franchise juggernaut.
Something was bound to go wrong with 19 Kids and Counting. It’s the Law of Reality TV. Whether what goes wrong is a fact that emerges from a cast member’s personal life or a fiction that emerges from the way producers edit the show, something always goes wrong. Reality TV thrives by balancing on the knife’s edge of fact and fiction, between creating drama to attract viewers and deflecting drama when it will repulse them. Sometimes — usually — the drama off-screen serves the show, and sometimes it undermines the show, but what is consistently true is that show always, always destroys reality.
Reality TV is about staring at a small couple, or a large person, or a sexy person, or a crazy person, as they go about their business, usually artificial, made for TV business, hoping things get really interesting at some point, fervently believing that they will, as these producers know what they’re doing.MTV’s Real World, the genre’s pioneer, first aired in the early 1990s with the idea of representing various viewpoints, ones not usually seen on TV — all of it considered in the context of a house stocked with young people from varying backgrounds who had to live together in a sort of 24/7 Benetton ad. But it didn’t take long for the show to become one long extended episode of hot tub scenes, screaming matches, hook-ups (shown in the weird green glow of a night vision camera) and the weak attempts of cast members to earn money at various trumped up jobs so that they could fill the fridge in their fancy MTV house with lots of booze.
This is one sort of reality indeed, but it definitely isn’t the real world as promised in the title. Reality TV, or so the viewers have been told, is supposed to reflect the real world, not create it. Or, more to the point, it’s not supposed to create a version of reality only available to the limited number of participants who made it through auditions and onto the show. But so it goes on Reality TV.
It’s amazing that, all these years later, the cast members of the current crop of reality shows think they can game the system and beat it, no matter the fact that extensive evidence points to the contrary. This genre has been around for a while now. We have many years of detailed documentation and extensive footage of the ways in which reality shows destroy participants’ personal lives. And this is especially true of the reality shows which are built around participants’ personal lives, the narrative bread-and-butter being the dynamic between parents and children, husband and wife, husband and wives, or wives and wives, as the case may be.
In TLC’s previous big family, monster hit reality show of the mid-2000s, Jon and Kate Plus 8, the real story was the marriage of Jon and Kate (fascination with watching six 2-year-olds simultaneously be potty-trained aside). We watched as the union of Jon and Kate was summarily destroyed episode by episode; it almost became a subtext, the plot-line-that-must-not-be-named. In confessional interviews, Kate sported hairstyles chopped into ever more severe angles while Jon sat beside her almost wordlessly, his eyes alight with the panic of a cornered animal. The show peaked (or troughed) in an episode arc that feature the renewal of Jon and Kate’s marriage vows, a ceremony that took place in the paradisaical confines of Hawaii, a trip courtesy of TLC.
The savvy reality-show viewer knows that the renewal-of-marriage-vows episode is the death knell of the relationship — and the show. It’s as though the producers realize that the couple is running on fumes, so they throw in an all-expenses paid trip to someplace with palm trees along with all the trimmings — massive wedding cake, designer gown — for one last ratings squeeze. Everyone loves a wedding, except for the couple who no longer wants to be married. It’s hard to deny the dramatic appeal of these episodes, and it would all be funny if it wasn’t so sad, if these weren’t real people, real lives that viewers are watching implode.
But then there is the other kind of reality show, the kind that makes viewers feel slightly less voyeuristic. This kind of show, we convince ourselves, is all about talent. American Idol, The Voice, Dancing with the Stars are just a few that fall into this category, shows designed be an elevator that zooms talented people to the top. It’s the American dream by way of three judges wielding plastic cups with Coca-Cola emblazoned across the center, which in itself offers a subliminal message about the American way to make a buck. All you need to succeed in this country is a sickly-sweet brown medicinal liquid and a lot of pluck; Coca-Cola as product placement on American Idol turns out to be the perfect match of old school snake oil salesmanship and new media hucksterism.
In the case of American Idol, the new media hucksterism was strong. Thousands of hopeful young idols have filled stadiums over the last fourteen years, waiting for their turn to warble Black Velvet for the judges. Hundreds of thousands, actually. Yet arguably, what made the show so successful in its heyday was not the contestants, the TV fodder that shuffled across the audition stage year after year, but those three judges, the ones clutching the Coca-Cola cups.
The original judges — Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson — were a mixture of has-beens and who-are-theys that somehow managed to make the show about the fulfillment of their own personal American dreams. Paula Abdul slurred her way through the show every season, offering incomprehensible feedback to contestants while Randy Jackson’s comments extended from “yo it’s a little pitchy” to “yeah dawg” after each performance. Simon Cowell, the show’s superstar and lone substantive presence, was the only judge who seemed to understand what they were all doing there. The judges existed as reality-show tropes themselves, people willing to be exposed to the unforgiving glare of multiple TV cameras, their over-medicated and over-injected selves offered up in the hope of making a comeback or being better known in the first place, of being, just like the contestants themselves, Superstars! as Mary Katherine Gallagher of the old SNL skit would say.
American Idol, like a diva past her prime, began to fade in later seasons. Simon Cowell, ever on the mark, made his exit at just the right time, replaced by a series of judges with more obvious industry credentials (Jennifer Lopez, Nikki Minaj, to name a few). But industry credibility, as Simon Cowell understood, is not what reality shows are all about.
Reality TV is about watching Paula Abdul nearly slide off her chair in a stupor. It is about watching Sadie Robertson cavort across the dance floor while conservative Christians thrill to her example. It is about watching Michelle Duggar pine on camera for a 20th child. It is about watching Mormon women soberly discuss which one of them will share their mutual husband’s bed, a chore chart for grown-ups. It is about staring at a small couple, or a large person, or a sexy person, or a crazy person, as they go about their business, usually artificial, made for TV business, hoping things get really interesting at some point, fervently believing that they will, as these producers know what they’re doing.
Reality TV remains a thriving enterprise, even playing a role in the culture wars. Conservatives claim their favored reality shows, championing the values as displayed by their more visible TV brethren as though the future of Christianity in America depended upon it (maybe it does). The Robertson family takes on the Kardashian family in a clash of basic cable titans while their fans cheer from the other side of the television. But, as with most mascots, things aren’t always as they appear. Kim Kardashian, for instance, claims to be a Christian. Among other displays of faith, she proclaimed, “Jesus Christ is my top priority” on Twitter just last fall — this without a trace of irony.
In the end, the problem with reality shows doesn’t come with measuring the moral values of the Kardashians, or the Robertsons, the Duggars or the idol in American Idol. The problem is the rest of us. We can’t stop watching these people. And because they are people, they do disastrous things. They might have done them a long time ago, or are doing them right now. They will most certainly do terrible things in the future. And when they do, we’ll be watching, watching as they cut a self-destructive swath through marriages and the lives of their children and so on, dragging thousands of pounds of camera equipment and cables with them like manacles in order to sell the spectacle of their lives for our viewing pleasure.
It will be hard for some of us to stop. Myself, for example. I’ll miss watching Bethenny Frankel and all the other housewives as they take their movable feast from one multi-million dollar home to another. I’ll miss the foolish pageantry of their inflated egos and bodies and careers selling branded martinis. Then I remember: this is Reality TV. I am allowing that term, with all the fakery it has come to imply, to absolve me of the responsibility of acknowledging that, under all those layers of production, actual people exist. People created by God, people making a deal with the devil while I munch popcorn, greedily taking it all in.
If I stop watching, if we stop watching, maybe the lights will finally go out in reality town. All the synthetically-created pop stars, the little people and big families and multiple wives and bearded duck-call makers can finally go home without tripping over all those cables running across their living rooms. And, who are these people anyway, when the klieg lights are turned off? Who are the stars of Reality TV when nobody is watching? Only God knows, and maybe that’s exactly as it should be.