“Reality Doesn’t Bite”
December 16th, 2009
[This is Part Four of a six-part series chronicling the shows which most influenced my relationship with television over the past decade – for more information and an index of all currently posted items, click here.]
In Part One, I suggested that I had no real vivid memories of television before 2001, and while this is effectively true I do have a memory about reality television that predates that time. I was watching Entertainment Tonight (I swear, at one point this was a perfectly logical thing to do), and they had a short news blurb about how a Scandinavian reality show concept was coming to television amidst controversy. The show was, in fact, Survivor, and when they talked about the premise (people stranded on a pacific island left to fight it out for a million dollars) I thought it was one of the stupidest things I had ever heard.
And then I watched 19 seasons of it.
What I quickly discovered was that I love what we’ve now come to call the Reality Competition genre, shows which capture the thrill of, you know, competition with the added dose of, well, reality. To use other words is convenient to help justify watching the shows, equating them to a social experiment or a chance to live vicariously through others, but there is something about seeing people you come to know and care about compete against one another for a cash prize that continues to see me tuning in week in and week out.
Now, when analyzing the decade as a whole it may seem strange – more than strange, it’s probably a bit misrepresentative – to limit the limitless reality genre to only its competition format, but for me the competition format has been the far more important and positive television force. While there is, in fact, something borderline exploitative about some elements of the reality genre, competitive reality is the unique mix of casting and a cleverly designed structure, shows which utilize various narrative tools (especially editing) in order to welcome viewers into experiences that are not their own in a way that empowers us to, in a limited form, psychoanalyze our social interactions, race around the world, or care about something about which we know extremely little.
And while it isn’t in fact for everyone, it’s definitely something that has been an important part of my television experience over the past decade.
My love for reality, which I guess had grown into more of a dependence for some shows as the seasons had gone on, comes from my love for one of Mark Burnett’s other projects, the Eco-Challenge. At its core a combination of Survivor and The Amazing Race, without the hand-holding and with a lot more legitimate danger, the show chronicled a series of adventure racing teams traveling by foot, by kayak, and by bicycle (amongst other forms of transportation) over a lengthy and challenging course. I found it fascinating because it was very exciting, yes, but also because Burnett’s production team focused on rivalries between teams, and on individual people (in one year, even Star Wars star Hayden Christensen) who represented a unique personality within the various groups. It was a show that emphasized the competition inherent within the race’s reality: as much as some teams were in it to prove something to themselves, and as much as the teams rarely if ever actually saw one another (taking various different routes through jungles or mountains to try to gain an edge), they were eventually fighting against other teams, and Burnett managed to find those rivalries without having those rivalries define the entire experience.
And Survivor was the perfect pulpy alternative to this sort of appeal, limiting the challenges to carefully orchestrated tasks designed to pit two teams or individuals against one another and heightening the psychological focus of the series. It worked better as mainstream television, and demonstrated Burnett’s deft hand at orchestrating the kind of human interaction which would lead to something as stunning as that first season’s final Tribal Council, when Sue Hawk completely ignores the “question” part of question period to deliver a hilarious diatribe against both remaining players. The show has never quite felt as eventful as it did in that first season, but this year has shown that the game itself and the genre it belongs to are as strong as ever: there has perhaps been no more interesting stretch since that first season than this year, when a series of blind sides showed how tempestuous human agency can truly be. The show has often tried to use twists in order to shake things up, creating three different tribes or introducing “Exile Island” to introduce the act of banishment, and yet the nineteenth season has worked because existing elements of the game (immunity idols, medical evacuations) all converged with one group of survivors both shockingly quick-witted and shockingly incompetent. While the producers have tweaked the game to allow for these changes, it makes you realize that this is not an exact science, and its appeal is dependent on things feeling just “right.”
Of course, even with this season’s strong performance, there are times where watching Survivor is little more than a habit, returning to familiar ground every week in an effort to recapture those romantic days at the start of the decade when the show was legitimately fresh. And yet, its influence on my own television viewing habits demonstrates how much the genre itself has become part of my existence. Shows like Top Chef and So You Think You Can Dance are about subjects I know nothing about (as I’m picky to the point of psychological trauma and do not, in fact, think I can dance), and yet I watch them because the thrill of competition and the results of that competition fascinate me. A show like Project Runway captured me not because of some sort of hidden interest in fashion design but because its combination of reality and competition welcomed the audience into its world as both viewer and critic. These are shows that empower the audience, more than something like Survivor even, to judge the chefs/dancers/designers themselves, and I’m so attracted to that sort of viewer experience that I managed to go through five seasons of Top Chef (which, as noted, is a show about two things (cooking and eating fancy food) that I have no experience with) in about a month without once feeling disconnected from the series.
Admittedly, this analysis can’t help but bring to your attention that I tend to watch the “good” reality shows, and that if we were to view reality television as a whole its impact on the decade is far more negative than this would indicate. However, for me personally, reality competition has become an important part of my television viewing experience, and would argue that the reality genre’s greatest contribution to the decade is its sheer diversity: the decade saw shows like Trading Spaces and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition just as it saw shows like The Osbournes and The Real Housewives of [Insert City], and the result is that there really is something for everyone (even if there’s also something for everyone to despise with every fiber of their being).
And, if you made me choose just one reality show to champion from the decade, it would be The Amazing Race, a show that because of its early ratings struggles and eventual resurgence has felt like “my” reality show. Through 15 seasons, the show has almost always (hello, black sheep Family edition) had this unique charm that isn’t as dependent on casting or cheap thrills as other shows. There is simply a unique energy about watching teams of two, all the better for realistic stress/exhaustion-driven conflict, travel to exotic destinations and do things that we, as the audience, desperately want to do ourselves. We might say we want to be on Survivor to prove that we understand the game, but none of us really want to starve ourselves or go without water for days in the jungle and be verbally assaulted by Jeff Probst every three days. However, every single one of us (barring the agoraphobic) wants to jump on an airplane (okay, and those afraid of flying) with a giant backpack wearing matching clothes (okay, scratch the matching clothes) and jet off to some foreign location to race to the next clue box. The teams could be the most loveable or despicable teams you could imagine, but that inherent desire for the audience to travel with these camera crews and meet up with Phil Keoghan at the end of every day will always be there.
And for me, reality television has sort of become my Aughts equivalent to the soap opera: shows that rarely change, are always familiar or comfortable, and that in some way I’m ashamed to watch as often as I do. However, knowing that they’re there each week, and that I still care so strongly when I can’t watch an episode live and risk being spoiled before getting to the end of each episode, has remained a part of my television identity even while more complex or engaging shows emerge. And while I don’t think I could ever only watch reality television, I don’t entirely know if I could watch television and not have at least a little bit of reality competition programming in my life.
Your Turn: Feel free to share your own memories with reality competition or reality television programming in general, but more specifically I’m curious which show (or, if that’s not much of a challenge, which season of that particular show) has felt most influential in your relationship with reality in the decade (for good or bad).