Reality Bites: How Reality [Television] Scares Us More Than The Art We Make About It

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This past semester, I asked the undergraduates in my creative writing class to name the materials they felt were absolutely central to the class and the readings they felt had not earned their place on the syllabus. Overwhelmingly, my students cited a particular prose poem for the second category. While they could not find anything stylistically, technically, or pedagogically wrong with it–in fact, most enjoyed the poem–they found the subject matter too trite for a college class. The poem was Kate Durbin’s “The Hills, 5,” the subject: reality television.

Television itself has often evaded being called art, but it seems there is a special realm of disdain for reality television. For producers, it’s simple, artless, efficient television: the money comes in from advertisers and sponsorships, which also often provide filming locations, prizes, and lodging in exchange for publicity; there are few, if any, actors who require compensation; they rarely shoot multiple takes of any event or exchange. It is sometimes so transparent in its ties to sponsorships that the viewer cannot help but feel embarrassed on its behalf. (American Idol’s excruciating, pandering finales from the 00’s, sponsored by Ford and Coca Cola, come to mind.) It unabashedly crosses the boundaries of what one might consider good taste, by opening the doors to events that most consider far too private to share with so many strangers. One former Bachelorette contestant decided to perform her first child’s initial ultrasound during a live reunion special, while the entire premise of NBC’s short-lived show The Marriage Ref revolved around couples allowing a panel of celebrity judges to resolve their domestic disputes. These shows invite viewers to consider this intimate and entertaining, rather than admitting it’s a little bit gauche.

One could argue that my students’ evaluation of “The Hills, 5” stemmed from sexism: the poem and its inspiration follow young women in the fashion industry. Or classism: that poetry–and literature itself–should only represent people of certain social standings. Or elitism: that even though many of my students are not regular readers, only taking the class to fulfill a requirement, they still hold surprisingly firm opinions about what qualifies as literary. One thing that is not, apparently, is reality television, which is often criticized for attempting to manufacture an uncanny facsimile of humanity.

But is this not the same reason we laud great art? Reality television is at once not worthy of literature and highly literary, concerned with the representation of what it’s like to be in the world, what is true about being a human. While we are willing to call it deep and poignant when we pick up a book or find it in a painting, we find it base and uncomfortable when we see it on television. Is reality television not an art if it demonstrates, and sometimes even improves upon, the way narrative is produced?

After all, one of the primary complaints cited against reality television is its shrewd hand for editing, such that a show can manipulate a certain scene to look tenser or more tedious with a careful choice of soundtrack, or paint an individual as cruel or as helpless by a simple omission of an exchange. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway, toiling over ending after ending of A Farewell To Arms, writing and rewriting, molding the same material into something that was too bleak, then too optimistic, then too vague, before finally settling on that resonant, vulnerable, deeply human ending. I think of Fitzgerald doing the same. These turns, this careful manipulation to evoke just the right emotional response, are often cited as examples of a tireless, fanatical mastery of craft. When applied to reality television, it’s called dirty and cruel. Of course, in this case, we’re dealing with real people: The Apprentice‘s Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth made for an entertaining villain, but her partner had to go to the media to attest to her goodness after the two were harassed and Manigault-Stallworth was unable to find work. However, is there room for something that is potentially damaging to still be artistic?

When I was in college, I had a friend who took an internship at a certain network for a certain show following a certain group of people in a house. Part of her job entailed sitting in a room, staring at a computer monitor, watching countless hours of footage gathered from the cameras installed in the house to see if the cameras had picked up anything interesting. Most of the time, it was useless footage of people eating granola bars or fixing their hair in the mirror. But, every so often, something would come across that camera that was indisputably good television. An emotional encounter, a good piece of gossip, or just a hilarious moment of slapstick: someone tripping over a rug or getting the cord of his body mic caught in the doorknob. Some of these moments would make it into the episode, a lot of them wouldn’t. And though it was particularly dramatic or particularly transcendent or particularly entertaining, my friend had to accept that some pieces of really great television just didn’t make the final cut because they were ultimately not what was best for a greater narrative of the show.

Writers are constantly staring over a precipice of seemingly infinite material, attempting to compose something coherent and meaningful. They write drunk, they edit sober, and they dread every second of it. Not every writer is a brilliant editor, there’s a fine line between being prolific and being dense. But as far as editing goes, reality television has condensed the craft into a science that values the same ideas as literature: the creation of a piece of material that appears both seamless and natural. We do not want to see the hand of the editor in the work, to be aware of art as a composed thing. And when a piece of literature succeeds in this way, when the reader ceases to see the material as a series of choices but instead a fluid progression, it is said to be a success. But reality television does this with a ruthlessness we find disturbing.

But it is reality television’s ruthlessness that serves as the prime example of what successful editing does: it dehumanizes its characters until the narrative can take precedence over partiality towards any one person or character. Reality television kills its darlings, it is unafraid of giving someone the “bad edit.” It is emotionally detached from its real subjects in a way that writers struggle to become from their invented ones. It straddles the same dichotomy between authentic and produced that we seek in other art forms, and it does it unapologetically.

Reality television seems to even get snagged on the same issues as art. While we can call reality television cheap for its blatant product placement, I can’t help but notice how watching RuPaul tell contestants to “enjoy an Absolut Cocktail in the Interior Illusions lounge” echoes the same feeling of uncomfortable awareness readers feel when they begin to notice all of Murakami’s characters listening to classical music or the proclivity of some poets to chock their poems full of bones and birds. Both register a feeling of constructedness.

I am not arguing that reality television is necessarily high art, but it is a form that seeks to render the same truths as other art forms. In the same year that The Truman Show prophesied the first documented pregnancy and birth on television, TLC began airing A Baby Story, which followed women through the late days of pregnancy, the dramatic ride to the hospital, and, yes, labor. It’s playing with not only narrative form here, but the very narratives we want to see or fear will exist. The Truman Show was touching because it was vulnerable and honest; A Baby Story also plays within the realms of vulnerability and honesty.

Perhaps we flinch from reality television because it manages this reproduction of honesty in a way that feels alarmingly effortless. We want to imagine that it takes an artist to render this sense of humanity, instead of a team of producers and editors in a studio. Maybe this is why we call reality television cheap, because it has succeeded in taking a coveted skill and boiling it down to a formula. And do we not fear that, while stories resemble our real lives (and not so much vice versa), the narratives of our own lives are just as predictable, just as easily contrived.


Image: Kota Ezawa. “Choco Drink TV,” 2012, mixed media. The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

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