The Reality Behind Reality TV

Karen Wright


Before there was reality television, there were dramatic movies and sidesplitting comedies that had just the right mix of art-imitating life that we could relate to. With scripts based, in some part, on real situations, writers drew from their own life experiences and people they knew, to construct complex characters that we either loved or loved to hate. Sixteen years after the last episode aired, Seinfeld is still one of the most popular sitcoms ever produced. And while Jerry Seinfeld is a talented comedian, he and Larry David, the show’s other creator, have admitted that the characters we watched were based on people they actually knew and that the series incorporated situations they had experienced and had adapted to match the sitcom’s characters. This mix of reality, improvisation and script created the perfect hybrid for us – imaginable situations, acted out by people we either liked or liked to laugh at, and with Hollywood’s guarantee of a happy ending at the end of every episode.


Cut to present-day television viewing. Press the guide button on your TV remote and you will notice that the most popular genre of shows are now “Reality”. And while almost every person will declare that reality television is not real, a startling number of new shows are constantly being produced because there are viewers to receive them.


Even as naysayers publicly castigate Juan Pablo Galavis, the latest bachelor on the hit ABC “reality” series, the franchise just wrapped up its 18th season, with the next bachelorette already selected to star in the hit spin-off. The un-reality continues, all while viewers tweet and comment, “the show isn’t real” and “The Bachelor is an unrealistic fairytale”.


Eight years after the first Real Housewives franchise began showing what went on in the lives of Orange County housewives, several spin-off shows have been filmed, all over the country and even in Canada. In March 2006, when the reality series began, it depicted the lives of affluent women, who had lives that the vast majority of viewers were curious about so they could compare it to their own lives. In March 2014, the current series show women, from several major cities, many of whom are not married, and who are far from affluent, in some cases even in varying stages of homelessness.


A quick scan of Twitter and entertainment blogs reveals a collection of negative comments that might lead one to think the shows are on their last legs, about to be canceled for failing to garner an audience. Yet, every succeeding year, another “Real Housewives” spinoff joins the franchise. If all the comments are negative, who are the viewers who constantly reward reality show producers with consistent high ratings to ensure continued production?

The most common criticism about reality shows is “it couldn’t be real because nobody acts that way.” Skepticism is natural – to approach the unknown with caution is a valid survival mechanism. But how does one prove whether reality TV production deserves this skepticism? How do you prove whether a show is real or made-up?


In the December 2, 2012 issue of the NY Times Magazine, A. Seigel wrote that “The Bachelor is this generation’s Stanford Prison Experiment”, referring to the 1971 study where university students participated in an exercise where two groups were randomly chosen to be inmates or prison wardens. Almost as quickly as the roles were assigned, both “prisoners” and “guards” became the embodiment of the characters – those playing guards became sadistic, and those playing prisoners became depressed and exhibited signs of stress, consistent with extended periods of imprisonment, not the mere hours of simulation to which they had been exposed.

When the guards began using physical torture to enforce order and an early- released prisoner threatened to organize a prison-break, the study, scheduled to last two weeks, had to be canceled after just six days. It had become apparent that the characters had taken over the people playing them, almost as though just being in a situation caused them to change their perception of themselves. So although the experiment began as a scripted version of reality, the actors had internalized their roles so much so, that they believed it had become their reality.


Is that still happening in reality shows?


It’s easy to stand on the outside and look in to criticize the whole premise of The Bachelor. How can intelligent women agree to appear in a prolonged group date where they share a man with 25 other women, and then are left heartbroken when they experience the almost certain rejection at some point during the date? It’s easy to point fingers because in the common experience, when boy and girl are dating, if girl knows that boy is also dating several other girls, girl hightails it out of that situation. Most women will absolutely not tolerate the idea of sharing their boyfriend, particularly not with a woman who is their roommate; they will issue ultimatums but will definitely not continue kissing him knowing he also kissed their friend last night.


True, the behaviors displayed on some of these reality shows appear to be abnormal but as the behaviors are abnormal, so too the situations are abnormal. How do you know how you would react if you were placed in a similar situation? If the students at Stanford, and who knew the script beforehand, and who although they were separated from the families and removed from their homes, were still in the company of people with whom they were familiar, people they trusted, and even then, they could not refrain from succumbing to internalizing their situation, how can anyone be so sure what they would do?


Examine for a moment A&E’s Hoarders, as real a TV show as there has ever been. Have you ever had a junk drawer that you neglected to clean for a long time? The real people presented on Hoarders keep not just drawers or rooms, but entire homes filled with items they have collected over years of an exaggerated inability to let go of anything, to the point where it takes over their lives and suffocates their relationships. The producers bring in therapists to engage the hoarders and try to get them to a place where they can acknowledge that their hoarding is a problem, and be willing to let go of some of the physical baggage as they deal with the emotional issues for which hoarding has been a poor substitute. And while viewers tune in to watch and comment on “the worst episode ever” and state, “This can’t be real, nobody could live like that”, they are still tuning in.

Take Naked and Afraid, Discovery Channel’s reality series, where two strangers are dropped off in a remote area without their clothes or possessions. For 21 days, they carry a single survival essential item and have to find their own food, water and shelter and endure natural hazard. Sure, it’s not our reality because these are not situations most Americans face on a regular basis - even the most avid survivalists or hikers usually carries provisions on their nature excursions. As with any other series, there are as many critics as there are opinions about the show. Some argue that the successes are artificially exaggerated – how can a man who almost starves when he can barely spear an eel for food then turn around and build a sturdy life raft with no tools?


But whether there are interferences from the producers or not, the physical results are real and viewers can watch the effect of near-starvation with a photo montage showing before and after pictures - the normal looking ‘before’ pictures replaced with frightening images of taut skin covering gaunt, blackened faces, eyes sunken from near dehydration. Discomforting, but real.


No photographs or video footage could properly convey the smells that accompany the garbage piles after a hoarder hasn’t been able to clean their house in several years. But the dead animals and the slime that leaks out of bins of rotten food accurately depict it. And the wave of nausea that a viewer feels when they watch these realer-than-most shows on TV are repulsive, not just for what they see on the screen but also because it conjures up some gross experience that they can imagine happening to them.


And then in early 2014, just as millions of Americans turned their thoughts to love and romance and the promise of forever after, ABC brought us Juan Pablo and his honest way of dismissing hopes and crushing the dreams of almost every bachelorette who envisioned “happily ever after” with him. At the end of the season, when he decided that rather than offer an engagement ring to a woman he had less than 10 dates with, all the while dating several other women, the popular reaction was abhorrent disbelief. Sure, there are cultures where family elders match young men and women so that their first meeting occurs at their engagement party or after the veil is lifted at the wedding ceremony. But arranged marriages are not prevalent in North American culture. The popular idea of American dating is that boy sees girl, girl dreams about boy, boy and girl date for a few years, boy and girl meet each other’s families, spend time in each other’s surroundings, boy finally realizes his life will never be the same without said girl, and proposes marriage. Why is this latest bachelor criticized for wanting an equal opportunity to spend time in real-world situations before he makes a commitment? Is it because like the guards in the Stanford study, the vast viewing public has internalized its role and refuses to let the “inmate” free himself? Why reject the reality that we demanded?


Is it because we don’t really want the reality that we constantly say that we seek?


In the March 11, 2014 online issue of the Washington Post style blogs, Emily Yahr commented that, “While the (Bachelor’s) final episode was wildly uncomfortable to watch, it was also one of the most riveting hours of reality television in recent memory… (because) it exposed the fascinating disconnect between veteran show producers stubbornly anchored in tradition and a star who doesn’t follow the rules.” Rules? What rules? Who decides what happens in this man’s life?


In their popular series, the Kardashians have created an almost impenetrable fortress around their family secrets, releasing just enough information to keep viewers interested as they release hundreds of episodes and various spinoffs following different family members. And while they have invited a production team into their home, even the façade of their TV home is a fake, as they admit that they choose to show a different house exterior to keep stalkers at bay.


The Kardashian reality-stars remain private enough with their secrets, maintaining that each family member is “fine,” encouraging viewers to tune in to see what happens next with the family. As the years continue, they decide what they will allow us to know about them, and their viewers continue to increase whether or not the show is real.


But even when reality TV situations are exaggerated, they afford the departure from normal lives and keep the general public convinced that the life that is portrayed is indeed possible. For the positive scenes of affluence or fairytale romance or weight loss, it is motivational and persuasive, planting the idea that maybe, it could also happen to you. For the negative images presented, like those hoarders being almost buried alive by the possessions they are reluctant to let go of, the show might just be graphic enough to inspire some to clean out their closet, in an effort to never, ever resemble the too-real images they have just witnessed.


As the more than 300 current reality TV shows indicate, the reality genre is profitable to produce and here to stay. How will we allow ourselves to be affected by it?


Author Bio:
Karen Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. Follow her on Twitter: @kamari2001.

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