There you have the essence of reality TV's success: it is the one mass-entertainment category that thrives because of its audience's contempt for it. It makes us feel tawdry, dirty, cheap if it didn't, we probably wouldn't bother tuning in. And in this, for once, the audience and critics agree. Just listen to the raves for America's hottest TV genre:
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"The country is gripped by misanthropy!"--New York Observer
"Ridiculous and pernicious! Many kinds of cruelty are passed off as entertainment!"--Washington Post
"So-called reality television just may be killing the medium!"--San Francisco Chronicle
O.K., we added the exclamation points, but you get the idea. Yes, viewers are tuning in to Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette and American Idol by the tens of millions. Yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many watched so much TV with so little good to say about it.
Well, that ends here. It may ruin reality producers' marketing plans for a TV critic to say it, but reality TV is, in fact, the best thing to happen to television in several years. It has given the networks water-cooler buzz again; it has reminded viewers jaded by sitcoms and dramas why TV can be exciting; and at its best, it is teaching TV a new way to tell involving human stories.
A few concessions up front. First, yes, we all know that there's little reality in reality TV: those "intimate" dates, for instance, are staged in front of banks of cameras and sweltering floodlights. But it's the only phrase we've got, and I'm sticking with it. Second, I don't pretend to defend the indefensible: Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People isn't getting any help from me. And finally, I realize that comparing even a well-made reality show with, say, The Simpsons is not merely comparing apples with oranges; it's comparing onions with washing machines no reality show can match the intelligence and layers of well-constructed fiction.
On a sheer ratings level, the latest wave of reality hits has worked a sea change for the networks. And it has put them back on the pop-cultural map after losing the buzz war to cable for years. Reality shows don't just reach tens of millions of viewers but leave them feeling part of a communal experience what network TV does best, but sitcoms and dramas haven't done since Seinfeld and Twin Peaks. (When was the last time CSI made you call your best friend or holler back at your TV?) "Reality has proven that network television is still relevant," says Mike Fleiss, creator of the Bachelor franchise.
This has sitcom and drama writers praying for the reality bust. "The networks only have so much time and resources," says Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls. "Rather than solely focusing on convincing the Olsen twins to allow themselves to be eaten by bears in prime time, I wish they would focus on coming up with something that would really last." TV does seem to be in overkill mode, as the networks have signed up dozens of dating shows, talent searches and other voyeurfests. And like an overheated nasdaq, the reality market is bound to correct. But unlike earlier TV reality booms, this one is supported by a large, young audience that grew up on mtv's The Real World and considers reality as legitimate as dramas and sitcoms and that, for now, prefers it.
And why not? It would be easier to bemoan reality shows' crowding out sitcoms and dramas if the latter weren't in such a rut. But the new network shows of fall 2002 were a creatively timid mass of remakes, bland family comedies and derivative cop dramas. Network executives dubbed them "comfort"--i.e., familiar and boring TV. Whereas reality TV call it "discomfort TV"--lives to rattle viewers' cages. It provokes. It offends. But at least it's trying to do something besides help you get to sleep. Some upcoming reality concepts are idealistic, like FX's American Candidate, which aims to field a "people's candidate" for President in 2004. Others are lowbrow, like ABC's The Will (relatives battle for an inheritance), FOX's Married by America (viewers vote to help pair up a bride and groom) and NBC's Around the World in 80 Dates (American bachelor seeks mates around the world; after all, how better to improve America's image than to send a stud to other countries to defile their women?). But all of them make you sit up and pay attention. "I like to make a show where people say, 'You can't put that on TV,'" says Fleiss. "Then I put it on TV."