In Defense of Reality Television


Reality TV is really, really easy to dislike – we all know this. I’m pretty tolerant of craptastic shows, movies, etc, but there are some that even I can’t handle. I’m talking to you, Teen Moms, Toddlers & Tiaras, and Real Housewives of any city! But I can’t take the high road, because I indulge in other pieces of reality TV trash like Jersey Shore, any competition show on Bravo, and my new favorites, the storage unit auction shows.

So yes, it’s easy to compile a list of all that’s wrong with reality television. But I’m not going to front like I’m too classy to enjoy the MTV Real World/Road Rules even though there hasn’t been a new season in like 5 years Challenges. Here are my top 5 fave things about reality shows, and the people who are on them:

1. Reality television is like the best psych experiment ever

Back in college, my pursuit of a BA in psychology led to many observation scenarios. You try to stay as removed from the subjects as possible, often behind a two-way mirror, lest you contaminate the environment you’re attempting to observe. Now, though, I can observe a huge variety of human behavior from the comfort of home! Maybe I’m wondering what it’s like to be a real estate agent in New York, or a Gypsy in the UK, or a cheerleader in Texas. Or, maybe I’m curious about how people react to losing large amounts of weight, having their car repossessed, or having pranks pulled on them.

One click of the remote and I have hundreds of two-way mirrors that I can peek through. Reality TV is also appealing to anyone that is nosy about basically anything. You can see inside people’s bedrooms, watch them break down mentally and then pull it together again, or get a voyeuristic thrill from seeing the Real World roomies strip down beneath the sheets. It’s like having a universal key that opens any diary you see!

2. Reality television is a never-ending puzzle

When watching reality TV for any reason, you can’t help but be aware of the cameras and producers. I guess this might frustrate some TV watchers, but I love trying to discern real emotions from scripted moments. I like to try to tease out motivations – is she kissing him because she honestly cares for him, or because she’s trying to make someone jealous, or maybe because she’s just horny, or because she wants to be shown on TV, or some combo of the aforementioned? You can never really know, but you can speculate endlessly. It’s even better when you can see where the reality stars (“stars”) grew up, or see them interacting with their family.

Take a look at the episodes of Jersey Shore that include any of the cast member’s parents – it really explains a whole lot. I’m not a psychiatrist, and I’m not trying to say that I can diagnose anything on TV with certainty. But man, if you were to try to imagine what, say, Vinny’s mom or JWoww’s dad is like, they are probably exactly as you pictured them. With that information, I can further ponder the complexities of each person’s actions and words.

3. When you like a reality TV star, you actually like them for who they are

I respect many actors, musicians, authors, etc, for their talent. But reality television isn’t always about talent; many times it makes a mockery out of anyone that is lacking talent, in fact. The first few weeks of shows like American Idol and America’s Got Talent can attest to that. Anyway, when I decide that I like someone from a reality show, it is rarely because of their talent – it’s about who they are. Take Snookie, for example. I’m a fan, but not because of any talents that she does or doesn’t have. I like her because she seems like a good person, with a heart beneath all that spray tan. She’s also a hot mess, but damn if I don’t want to go out dancing with her, ya know? She isn’t perfect, but she seems oddly, well, real.

What is ultimately worth more – having people like you for one specific talent, or having them like you for who you are?  Family and friends – the people you keep close to you – are valued for more than just their talents, no? We like and love them because of who they are, the strength of their character, how we feel when we spend time with them. Again, you have to factor in the influences of people acting for the cameras, or production teams that completely skew how someone is portrayed, etc. But you slowly build an impression about these people, and the internet helps by offering further evidence of their behavior and personality.

4. It takes guts to go on a reality show

Reality show participants must have some combination of bravery, self-awareness, stupidity, egotism, or naivety that enables them to observe their life when it airs on television. I’m sure we all have flaws that we are blissfully unaware of, but participating in reality TV brings those quirks to your attention. Every twitch, trip, misspoken word, weird facial expression, snore, snort, fart, zit, fat roll, and observable personal oddity will suddenly be available on a flat screen for your viewing pleasure.

I guess for some people that sounds glorious, like the ultimate in being famous. For me, it sounds horrible. Other people probably don’t even realize or consider how embarrassing it could be later on, like when your whole family sees you triple kissing in the hot tub, or when your crush spots you blowing a snot rocket out when you laugh. Yet others – exhibitionists at heart, perhaps – enjoy exactly that. I think it’s really cool when people are ballsy enough to be on a reality show, and they view it later with an eye for self-improvement. If you can handle it, that’s an amazing way to get insight into how you carry yourself and come across to others.

5. Reality television is a vacation for your brain

There is practically no thinking required to enjoy reality television! You can think, if you want to, but you don’t have to. I think about the aforementioned points all the time. But when you need to decompress with something mindless, reality TV will always be there for you. It doesn’t matter what show you’re watching – you can follow along without paying too much attention. It’s like a soap opera – the same story arcs repeat time and time again, but with different players.

People will fight and hook up and love and hate one another. Contestants will trash talk their competition, and be trashed by a panel of judges. There will be archetype characters that recur over and over again – the guy who fancies himself a ladies man, the girl who steals other girl’s boyfriends, the traitor, the sweetheart, the alpha male, the dork, etc. The drunken ramblings, cocky rants, and daily squabbles can become a sort of background music – this is especially nice if you’re alone and things feel too quiet.

Or, go on a virtual vacation by watching real estate porn, cooking demonstrations, or wilderness survival shows. You can have these experiences by book or movie, of course, but reality television offers a real, human element. It is escapism at its finest, and that can be really soothing during tough times. I personally enjoy taking an hour to immerse myself in a world where the biggest concern is whether a cocktail dress is properly hemmed, or which roommate wrote – and hide – a note calling a boyfriend out for cheating.

For the rest of the day, I have to worry about making ends meet, taking care of family, taking care of myself, plus bigger issues like how the economy is for shit, our troops are still deployed, and somehow California still hasn’t legalized gay marriage. Sometimes it is really fun to sit back and pretend that tomorrow’s to-do list only has three items: G, T, and L.

So there you go. You might consider yourself to be too cool for reality TV, or too intelligent. People like that seem more like too hipster and too pretentious, but that’s just my opinion. These shows are thriving for a reason, so obviously I’m not the only one watching. If you don’t deign to watch any reality shows, well, too bad for you. I’m really looking forward to another season of Tim Gunn’s gentle chiding, CT’s crazy aggression, and Joel McHale’s sarcastic recaps. Care to join me?

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One thought on “In Defense of Reality Television

  1. Pingback: Reality check! | Talia Johnston

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