A Shy Defense of Reality Television

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Illustrated by Bridget Rios

Jennifer Sor

Arts & Entertainment Editor

As a former PBS child, I’ve grown up and packed away my animal plushies and sunk toward the comforts of adult reality television; the only genre of television I’ll watch nowadays. I blame my father. “Just turn on the TV and stop crying,” he grumbled to me, a wailing middle-schooler uninvited to so-and-so’s birthday party. An episode of “Big Brother” flickered on our boxy television set. Before I could comprehend who was backstabbing who, my ensuing adolescence of trashy, primetime entertainment rolled out before me: “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Botched,” TLC’s “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” (IDKIWP) — the good stuff.

Most people call reality television a guilty pleasure, like alcohol or nicotine, to be consumed only in moderation. On one level, I understand where the backlash comes from: it’s impossible to queue the next episode of IDKIWP without wondering if I’ll emerge from the sofa a less intelligent person than when I first sank into it. But, even in the depths of my TLC years, I’ve always been confused by the touchiness around reality television — the insistence on handling it double-gloved, as dangerous and embarrassing as finding black mold in your home. Sometimes, wishing I was braver, I dream of defending myself, retaliating against anyone who trashes my trash TV. So what? I think, watching a newborn baby plop into a toilet bowl, still tethered to its unsuspecting mother. You’re too good for this shit?

Call it what you want, but reality TV accomplishes exactly what it’s supposed to. Its only fault is that it doesn’t appeal to the intellectual snobbery that has grimed every significant piece of entertainment. It isn’t “real music,” some think, unless it yields some cryptic, symbolic message; it isn’t “serious art” if it strays from the big-city esotericism that has made the medium inaccessible for so many years. Consider though, 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 disparaged for their fixation on relationship drama, sex, botox — the superficialities of life — but, in varying degrees, so does every other show on television. Such is the nature of Hollywood, wise to the fact that appearances do indeed sell. In my opinion, blame the society that’s so fascinated with these primordial interests rather than the show that delivers it to us, packaged in neat, 60-minute squares.

If anything, I feel that the criticism that reality TV is superficial says more about our discomfort with our own superficiality than it does of the show itself. Is “Love Island,” for instance, a substanceless, lower form of television? Or perhaps, does its central focus on attraction and fidelity make it like all of us: a corpus that evolved to meet the interests of others? I think of reality TV like a bizarre franken-duck, sprouting adaptive flippers 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 sensitivity, one of the defining characteristics of good art. I won’t deny that TLC, reigning supreme in reality TV production with its cheap sound effects, falls flat when compared to more composed productions. But, I would argue that reality television doesn’t lack attention to aesthetics; it’s created a new, sensationalized aesthetic, criticized mostly for the ways that it differs from more traditional forms of media. 

Perhaps there’s no theme, no tasteful character development, but there are dimensions to what makes a reality TV show good. It lies in post-film editing — a producer desperately sifting through sound bites, looking for anything that could waft as primetime drama — and of course, the people they rope into being edited in the first place. 

That ruthlessness is the aesthetic, and furthermore, it’s what makes these types of shows so gripping. I get to melt into bed, hardly blinking at my computer monitor, marveling at the existence of people who are just as superficial and attention-seeking as I am. You’re lying if you can’t relate. For what it lacks in sensitivity, there’s something strangely comforting in seeing someone ripped apart on national television — as if, perhaps, all your own failings are not so clandestine after all.

I do admit that it’s impossible to tune into these shows without feeling a twinge of guilt. In every one of my reality TV marathons, I have an acute awareness that I’m not just passively tucked into bed, but a customer of someone else’s exploitation, a participant à la “Black Mirror” in the destruction of another human. I’m both riveted and saddened by the lines of volunteers who leap for a chance to stay in 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 slewed on national television — and then torn apart in the post-production? Do they know that they’re signing up to be remembered as “that” person from “that” TV show? And even if they do know, does it make it right that I’m in love with watching them?

I chalk it up as a sad, sunken cost of reality entertainment. Well, I think, drooling into a pillow, watching yet another person lose weight, lose money, lose dignity if I have to live with my bad decisions in life, it only seems fair that I get to come home and watch other people do the same.