When did the first reality series Made in Chelsea airing in 2011, it was clear from the start that the heart of it was the relationship between two young Londoners, Spencer Matthews and Caggie Dunlop.
Between them, their conventional beauty and jaded wealth became the distilled essence of the show. He was a worldly bad boy, as much a charming womanizer as he was overtaken by the charms of other women, a restaurant rake stuck in Belgravia; she was the vulnerable and insecure girl next door, someone from her childhood who suddenly reappears as a beautiful adult. His re-entry into the Chelsea bubble disrupts his relationship with his longtime girlfriend and throws the entire series into an extended will arc of constant romantic postponement. The plot is perfect – part fairy tale, part realism, all set against the backdrop of the mansions of Knightsbridge. But doesn’t it all sound a little too good to be true?
Made in Chelsea is a reality TV show, but it admits to being a “structured reality” TV show. The true nature of Spencer and Caggie’s real-life relationship cannot truly be known, due to the fact that no one’s relationship can authentically exist in the public eye. But his depiction in the series cannot be the truth of it. On the one hand, no one can make genuine, heartfelt declarations of love with close-up cameras and a whole crew of directors, producers, and engineers ogling around them; on the other hand, by claiming to offer a “structured reality”, the series in fact concedes that it engages scriptwriters and story developers to construct the “reality” that we observe; they admit to using television magic to ward off the illusion.
The great irony of reality TV is that it is, of course, an illusion. The creators manage to build this semblance in two ways. On set, producers can invent circumstances that allow them to control the content of the show.
For example, in the the island of love house, books and televisions are prohibited. Candidates’ phones are taken away from them and they are instead given phones that are disabled on the internet. It turns out that good television isn’t made by letting people watch it all day. It’s easy to imagine how this lack of mental stimulation cultivates an atmosphere of cabin fever, where tensions are running high and pack mentalities stubbornly persist, when there’s not much -something else to do. Ironically, it’s the lack of activity that makes the show as entertaining as it is voyeuristic.
But when they have the footage, the producers then have to build a narrative for the episode in the editing room. At the time of filming, what happens can be manipulated to some degree by persuasion, creating high-pressure environments, or locking in contestants, but humans are still humans – they’re still prone to overreacting. contingently, behaving erratically, or simply offering very mundane content. In order for the series to feel cohesive, well-structured, and logically episodic, editors must work to build narrative threads throughout each episode, whether it’s conflict, romance, or failure.
Reality TV is therefore, in many ways, fiction. They tell us that they depict something resembling authentic reality, but flatten and stabilize the randomness and contingency of real life, while refusing to overtly acknowledge the author’s voice behind it.
None of these manipulations would really matter if the content was actually fictional. But real people are involved in this process, and their performances on national television won’t always help them when they leave the villa, or plunge back into the world of work.
Reality TV story arcs follow the tropes of folklore — good versus evil, hero versus foe — and so those who are demonized in the editing process have their reputations tainted. In the age of internet trolling and online reputation hyper-awareness, this representation is not easy to pull off. For all those celebrities who feed on this gossip for their notoriety, like the Kardashians for example, this worry may not be a problem.
But for the average person pushed into the limelight, they’ll walk out of reality TV with buckets of baggage that have been amped up by producers, dissected by the Twittersphere, and unceremoniously dumped on their resumes.
The fact remains that people are listening. People will gladly block whatever disturbs their illusion, when the illusion is far too fun to bother being disenchanted with.
It all seems too good to be true, but it’s also too good to ignore.