A shy defense of reality TV

Illustrated by Bridget Rios

Jennifer Sor

Arts & Entertainment Editor

As a former PBS kid, I grew up putting away my stuffed animals and sinking into the comforts of adult reality TV; the only kind of television I will watch these days. I blame my father. “Just turn on the TV and stop crying,” he grumbled to me, a moaning middle schooler who hadn’t been invited to so-and-so’s birthday party. An episode of “Big Brother” flashed on our square TV. Before I could figure out who was stabbing who, my next teenage years of trashy prime-time entertainment unfolded before me: “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Botched,” “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” (IDKIWP) by TLC – the good stuff.

Most people call reality TV a guilty pleasure, like alcohol or nicotine, to be consumed in moderation. At some level, I understand where the backlash is coming from: it’s impossible to watch the next episode of IDKIWP without wondering if I’ll get someone less intelligent off the couch than when I first sank into it. But, even deep into my TLC years, I’ve always been troubled by the sensitivity around reality TV – the insistence on handling it with double gloves, as dangerous and embarrassing as finding black mold in your house. Sometimes, wishing I was braver, I dream of defending myself, of fighting back against anyone who trashes my trash TV. So what? I think, watching a newborn baby fall into a toilet bowl, still attached to its unsuspecting mother. Are you too good for this shit?

Call it what you want, but reality TV does exactly what it’s supposed to do. Its only flaw is that it doesn’t appeal to the intellectual snobbery that has tainted every major entertainment. It’s not “real music”, some think, unless it delivers a cryptic and symbolic message; it is not “serious art” if it deviates from the esotericism of the big cities which has made this medium inaccessible for so many years. Consider, however, that like all forms of media, reality TV’s lack of meaning doesn’t have to detract from its legitimacy as a genre.

Reality shows are often maligned for their fixation on relationship drama, sex, botox — the superficialities of life — but, to varying degrees, so are all other TV shows. Such is the nature of Hollywood, aware that looks do sell. In my opinion, blame the society that is so fascinated by these overriding interests rather than the show that delivers it to us, packaged in neat 60-minute squares.

On the contrary, I think the criticism that reality TV is superficial says more about our discomfort with our own superficiality than the show itself. Is “Love Island,” for example, an inferior, insubstantial form of television? Or perhaps, its central focus on attraction and loyalty makes it like the rest of us: a corpus that has evolved to serve the interests of others? I think of reality TV as a weird franken duck, growing adaptive fins to succeed in its industry – but nonetheless, still a valid and important member of its species.

People have also criticized reality television for its lack of aesthetic sensibility, one of the defining characteristics of good art. I won’t deny that TLC, which reigns supreme in reality TV production with its cheap sound effects, falls flat compared to more composed productions. But, I would say that reality TV does not lack attention to aesthetics; it created a new sensationalist aesthetic, criticized primarily for how it differed from more traditional forms of media.

Maybe there’s no theme, no tasteful character development, but there are dimensions to what makes a reality show good. It lies in the post-movie editing – a producer desperately sifting through sound bites, looking for anything that could turn into prime-time drama – and of course, the people they bring up. first place.

This cruelty is the aesthetics, and moreover, it is what makes these types of shows so captivating. I melt into bed, barely blinking at my computer screen, marveling at the existence of people as superficial and attention-seeking as myself. You lie if you can’t understand. To what he lacks in sensitivity, there’s something oddly comforting about seeing someone torn apart on national television — as if, perhaps, all your own quirks aren’t so clandestine after all.

I admit it’s impossible to tune into these shows without feeling a pang of guilt. In each of my reality TV marathons, I have a keen awareness that I am not just passively snuggled up in my bed, but a client of someone else’s exploitation, a participant to the “Black Mirror” in the destruction of another human. I am both fascinated and saddened by the lines of volunteers rushing for the chance to stay at the “Love Island” villa. Do these people know what they’re getting into? An opportunity, if you can call it that, to have your personal life butchered on national TV — then torn apart in post-production? Do they know they are signing up to be remembered as “that” person from “that” TV show? And even if they know it, is it normal that I’m in love watching them?

I consider this a sad, sunken cost of reality entertainment. Well, I think, drooling in a pillow, watching yet another person lose weight, lose money, lose dignity if I have to live with my bad decisions in life, it just seems like I can go back to home and watch others do the same.


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