Buckle your seatbelts, I’m about to discuss a topic so controversial that I might have my TV viewing right revoked. Yes, it is wildly unrealistic, but I have been reviewing the current TV offerings of reality shows for some decent content. Yes, I’m looking for QUALITY in reality TV, a possible oxymoron! I do not expect everyone to agree with me, I am only trying to develop a kind of standard to help the discussion.
Regarding reality TV shows, I was more than transfixed by the first few … (Remember Joe Schmo, the prank reality show from 2003?)…seeing them as televised ‘social experiments’ and I watched avidly. We are talking super-fast drives home so I wouldn’t miss a minute, kind of avid. However, I tuned-out as soon as I realized that most reality programs the networks were pumping out were as boring as home movies, as scripted as 6th grade talent shows, and as evil as high school prom without chaperones. Of course I would peek in from season to season, but rarely would anything pass muster.
More shows than ever are reality-based or blur the lines between reality and scripted programming. According to Wikipedia, reality television programs are now divided into several categories: Documentary Style, Hidden Camera, Reality Games (including Talent Searches), and Spoofs. Under the category, Documentary Style, are eight different types: Historical Re-Creation, Science, Dating, Law Enforcement/Military, Makeover, Lifestyle Change, Fantasies Fulfilled, and Docusoaps starring Celebrities.
I came to ask myself: what was my criterion for ‘decent’ reality program, no matter what the style? This took some determination: #1-I wasn’t about to tune in to feed anyone’s ego or ride fan coat tails. # 2-Was the premise challenging – to the participants or to me the viewer? #3-Did I care about the individuals? Even if I liked or hated them, were they complete and compelling as human characters? #4 -Was everyone ‘safe,’ or was I afraid of injury, abuse, injustice? Fear is bad TV! This includes OVER competition, such as too many people scrabbling over a single resource, object, or person in desperation. #5-Was there change, growth, improvement, development as a result of the program? #6 -Prevailing emotions are for ‘Happy Endings’; this may not be written TV but it is my recreation viewing time and I am pre-programmed to want a positive, moral ending. If I want bad endings, I could watch the local/national news….
For example, let’s take Toddlers and Tiaras: On #1, good on the no celebrity annoyance, except repeat tots & moms. As for #2, I was trying to understand the ‘culture’ behind child pageants and the justifications for parent/adult behavior. As for #3, I painfully cared about some participants, so much so I stopped viewing for my own sanity…due to #4, I did not feel all actions were safe and in best interest of child. On the part of #5, it seemed that often the same patterns repeated, some people changed, but rarely…
Contrast it with the equally irritating John and Kate Plus 8 and examine how the criteria change the ‘score.’ Talk about social experiment gone awry! #1 yes, on the nauseating celebrities as the parents morphed from reality subjects to tabloid fodder and “stars” of a show which used to be about a family. #2 Of course, we want to understand the world of multiple babies and the impact on the older siblings —instead we got impact of constant filming on multiple lives! #3 unfortunately, it was easy to care about the individuals…and watch the kids grow, that’s how America got sucked in. #4. Sometimes it did not always feel great. #5 there was a constant ‘deer in the headlights’ hope that things were going to work out #6. Repeat number 5, thus America’s backlash.
Ok, so let’s talk about some outright failures: on celeb narcissist-ego train ride like Favaflav, Dog the Bounty Hunter, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives of Anywhere, Celebrity Fit Club, The Simple Life, Kathy Griffin, Kimora, Steven Segal, Kardashians, Mafia Housewives, Mrs. Eastwood, …these are examples of #1…. shows for fans about the egos of the participants and their therapists. I can’t for the life of me understand why we as viewers find this type of voyeurism so fascinating…except we do, at astonishing rates! I think some people really care about the characters and perceive a sense of growth in the drama portrayed. As long as you know it isn’t REAL, folks!
I grew up a big fan of the ‘hidden camera’ gags on television. I thought that what Jamie Kennedy did and what AFV, Punk’d and Betty White are doing continues in that vein. However, the Jackass-type, Survivor, Amazing Race, Big Brother, Fear Factor, Total Blackout genres have been challenging on criterion #4, where I’ve worried for the participants physical/emotional safety or for my own in nail-biting, gross-out sanity.
Then just plain scary: Ice Road Truckers, Deadliest Catch, Whale Wars, Scared Straight, COPS, LAPD, Animal Cops, or the paranormal reality programs; Paranormal State, Ghost Lab, Ghost Hunters and the genre. I prefer Monsters Inside Me if I am going to be freaked…but after the 6 criteria list; it often comes down to taste. Some people don’t do medical, sick animals, ghosts, criminals, violence, or risky stuff…and some folks can tolerate one but not the other. And those of you who live on this stuff, and you know who you are, scare me a little.
The dating and body overhaul programs are really awful, in my opinion. I had such hope for The Biggest Loser , The Swan, and The Bachelor/ette, and their genres, when they arrived on the scene …but each turned my stomach as they failed on the criterion, again primarily on #4. Initially, as a therapist, I was so excited for these programs to use the opportunity to assist the public on understanding the gravity of weight loss, body image, and peer competitions in relationships; instead…..they up the ante and make these complex interactions into public circus acts. The ‘professional’ coaches seem to develop so many ego/ god-complexes over the seasons and the contestants, so far removed from the real world would make such odd choices with bizarre rationale, I’ve become disgusted with the lack of responsibility of the genre. It is a wonder there are not more serious emotional breakdowns and I am aghast at why they are considered so cathartic.
The country is in love with talent contests, which are considered reality programming. Need I list them all? DWTS, American Idol, The Voice, X Factor, America’s Got Talent, Duets, So You Think You Can Dance, America’s Top Model , Project Runway, or Next Food Network Star, to name the top few. Can they be rated by the 6 criterion? I believe so, which is why they are so successful.
Let’s talk plain weird: Sweet Genius, ‘Turtle man,” Wife Swap, Hoarders [see past PCM article], Weird Addictions, Cupcake Wars, The Osborne’s, Celebrity Rehab (but I am a huge Dr. Drew fan), The Duggar’s, Sister Wives, Dr G. Medical Examiner, and TransAmerican Love…some are wildly successful programs much to my surprise. A couple have altered popular culture for the better, making topics which were previously difficult to discuss, now more relatable…however, this doesn’t make the programs better television.
OK, so perhaps I’ve “dissed” or forgot to mention your beloved program, please know that there are too many shows to mention; but it is a fair question, what reality programs do I enjoy personally?
I do tend to favor the Documentary types of reality programming. Discover’s Myth Busters is fantastic TV, as is NatGeo Outsiders series. I can happily watch Food Channel’s Chopped and other offerings, Super Nanny, Animal’s It’s The Dog or Me, American Pickers, Holmes on Homes, and TLC’s What Not To Wear. I am also guilty of peeking in on America’s Got Talent and Project Runway/Project Accessories. Also, I have enjoyed some of the historical re-creation programs which have challenged participants to live in historical conditions for meeting the entire criterion…. For example, I loved 1900 House and Pioneer House (but I know I was one of the few). Meerkat Manor, Orangutan Island, and the nature-reality genre are such a delight when they work well. I adore Long Island Medium because she, like the above, fits into the 6 criteria that determine quality in reality programming. Truthfully, I get sick of them all quiet easily and I prefer quality written/directed programs. I turn to television for relaxation and edification. For me, reality programming is the fast food of television and I feed my soul as I do my body, on better quality fare…but I appreciate it all. There is not one program I listed that I have not watched. My mother will be scandalized that I’ve consumed that much reality TV!
So here is the point, we can disagree on style, genre, preference, taste …although I’m writing the article so I’m stating my preferences …but we can work together to develop the criteria. I am open to modifications to the 6, if anyone has better suggestions on how to determine a sense of quality in reality programming. If this is how things are going in TV-land, then fine, I want to let the TV execs know to stop sending the crap down the shoot and keep the good stuff coming. What do you think?
Gail-Elaine Tinker, M.S. is a Psychotherapist in private practice in Lehigh Valley, PA who specializes in addiction, anxiety/depression, chronic pain/illness, grief, and trauma/PTSD. She also helps people via Reiki, advocacy, public speaking, writing, and transformative art. For more information on her work feel free to seek out her website www.tinkerpsychotherapy.com
photo via juicyreality