If you are going to talk about media now, you had better talk about reality TV. The name “reality TV” is such a great name for something, don’t you agree? First of all, because it seems like an obvious contradiction, and really great names always involve contradictions. (Example: The Hoboken Chicken Emergency.) The other great thing is that people (especially people who work in TV) often shorten the name and just call it “reality.” The idea that an entire genre of TV (especially an entire genre of TV that includes people competing for money by engaging in ridiculous contests while living in artificially constrained living environments surrounded by camera crews on a set built for them by TV set designers) could be unselfconsciously referred to as “reality” is super amazing and exciting to me.
But the main reason that you have to talk about reality TV is because it is everywhere all of a sudden. It would be like not talking about cars in the 1950s or not talking about factories in the 1840s. Seriously, who are you kidding? This is where the action is.
So what is reality TV? What makes reality TV reality TV? Sometimes it helps to look at what reality TV is not. Breaking Bad is not reality TV. Why not? Well, let’s face it, if Breaking Bad was reality TV, it would be no fun. What we enjoy about Breaking Bad is the fact that it is fictional. I’m not referring to the fact that it is scripted, because reality TV is also frequently entirely scripted. Some reality TV shows have implicity or explicitly refer to their own artificiality, but whether reality TV is scripted or not we will still like it. When we enjoy Breaking Bad, we specifically enjoy watching something we know has been constructed in that particular way — we know that these actors are doing a really good job at pretending to be these totally insane people. Watching them is really fun because they are pretending so well. I’ve never even watched a single episode of Breaking Bad, so maybe we should talk about a different show. (I know, I know, it’s SO GOOD. Listen, I’m very busy. I will watch it later when I have 100 hours free and a lot of good snacks.) Like Mad Men. Mad Men is clearly not reality TV, because it takes place in the 1960s. We love watching it take place in the 1960s, specifically because we know that they had to recreate the 1960s really carefully, and the result of all that hard work is fun to watch. It looks like they might have even enjoyed their work while they were doing it. That is a big part of the enjoyment of watching regular-style unreality TV.
What kind of work are the people on reality TV doing? I have worked on these shows, and I know that it is hard work. It is also a specific kind of work. You are not necessarily filming reality, like in a documentary, though there are a wide range of styles within reality TV. Some of them really are like little documentaries. And some of them are about couples living in a house together while they go through group couples therapy competing in physical/emotional challenges to see who can improve their relationship the most and win $100,000. This is not at all like a documentary. (Though some documentaries are sort of like reality TV. And let’s face it, those documentaries are frequently awesome.) These shows are somewhat scripted, but there is also something else going on. There are real people involved, even if they are doing something that they would never do if they were not on TV. Reality TV in that way is sort of like a talent show. We don’t necessarily need them to be super good at what they do (unlike Bryan Cranston). We just want them to try really hard.
Sometimes it helps to look at how something began in order to understand what it is. Some people tag The Real World as the first reality TV show. That is basically true, but I believe the precursor to reality TV goes back further, to professional wrestling. The key thing about professional wrestling is that whether you believed that they were really fighting or whether you knew they were just pretending, it was still good. And even though professional wrestling is really totally fake, there is also a sense that they really are probably at least sort of getting hurt, though hopefully not too bad because that would not be fun. And it is very formulaic, which keeps us coming back. The big innovation with reality TV is that we said, we don’t need them to fight in the same way every time and we don’t need them to be professionals. Because even though professional wrestling reached a kind of golden age just as reality TV was beginning its ascendancy, professional wrestling is not reality TV for the simple reason that professional wrestling involves professionals. We said, we sort of would prefer we didn’t have professional performers, because that can get kind of predictable. We just need crazy people and conflict. And you know what? That’s exactly what we got.
There are so many different kinds of reality TV, from the obstacle course contests to the tattoo shop documentaries to the infotainment history shows about god and aliens — it’s hard to define the whole thing. But the most important thing about reality TV is that the people on it, though they may be acting, should not be pretending to be anyone else. Like a talent show. We accept professionals in fields other than acting. If you are a matchmaker, a real estate agent, or an expert on alien influence in Egyptian culture, that is okay. But you better not be pretending to be an expert on alien influence in Egyptian culture. We are interested in who you really are.
In this way, reality TV is in fact about reality. It is about reality, not by being real, but by placing authenticity at its source. Everything about the show can be made up, except for the part that is not made up. Someone is really going home with $100,000. Someone really lives in that crazy house with the weird-shaped pool, and that is her real face, and that is her real doctor who does surgery on it. In the same way that professional wrestling would be unwatchably boring if the suplexes were done with computer special effects, reality TV would disintegrate if it was followed by a talk show where an actor talked about how he prepared for his role on Cupcake Wars by spending a lot of time in a bakery. We hate him. We want to spend time in a bakery. And if you are thoughtful enough to make up a good story about how the baker is going to fire his cousin but then doesn’t at the last minute, that is fine with us because it makes it more interesting. As long as it is a real baker in a real bakery.
Do you remember when Eugene O’Neill wrote Desire Under the Elms and everyone was amazed because he was able to tell an epic story but it wasn’t about kings and queens it was about ordinary people? No? That was a long time ago. Part of why people liked it was because it seemed more real. Was it real? Was it better than the greek tragedies on which he drew? Was it even different? I don’t have the answers, I’m just saying that this is where the action is, now.
Eli Rarey is a writer, filmmaker, and storyteller. He has lived in New York, Santa Rosa, Dublin, Reykjavik, Los Angeles, and his own mind. He is available for parties, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. His feature film “The Famous Joe Project” is coming out on DVD later this year.