What is it about Reality TV that keeps us going back for more? Is it the gratuitous drama that propels each episode, or the catfights that add much needed drama to an otherwise mundane premise? Perhaps it is simply human nature to indulge in a slice of life that traverses beyond the scope of our everyday, banal realities.
Most importantly, does Reality TV actually depict reality?
As a self-proclaimed reality TV buff, I contend that these shows are compelling because of their deviance from reality, as we know it. Reality TV has almost become an oxymoron, with the heavy filtering and sensationalism that lace our favourite shows. From the seemingly innocuous Project Runway to the more contentious Next Top Model franchise, producers seem to test the definition of ‘reality’ by pushing the show further away into the murky waters of exaggerated reactions and stock characters. This takes away that slice of life that initially draws viewers in. Instead, we are left with a fantasy realm that the average, self-indulgent viewer cannot get enough of on a lazy Sunday evening.
Allow me to exemplify this with a guilty pleasure of mine- the Top Model franchise. With each passing season, America’s Next Top Model seems to shift further and further away from the modelling world. During its early conception, the show was arguably directed at finding a top model that had the poise and physicality to pull off a modelling contract with a renowned agency. The challenges felt pertinent to the concept, and the photo shoots were an unceasing source of wonder. From million-dollar underwater jewellery campaigns to beauty campaigns with killer bees, the show seemed to push the envelope of fashion right into the arms of the ordinary girl, couched at home in sweatpants and gazing at the models in rapt wonder.
I was inspired to write this article having watched the most recent season of Top Model after a long hiatus from the show. The show has been completely reconceptualised to include both men and women. I can understand the motive behind such a move; after 19 seasons, the original format was getting stagnant. However, the show has become a means to exploit the romantic tensions in the house. Where we previously contended with catty girls, we now have on our hands formulaic romantic triangles and tensions sensationalised for the camera. What is perhaps most appalling is the catchphrase for the season, “Booch and Tooch”. The show has become infamous for its “Tyra-isms”, or words compounded and created by the host and former supermodel Tyra Banks. The catchphrase, referring to the models’ anatomy, is just another addition to Banks’ semantic stockpile for the modelling industry. Entertaining as it is, the words simply point towards problematic objectification and gender stereotyping.
Another prevalent trend in the realm of ‘Reality’ TV is the presence of stock characters, or archetypes. These characters follow a similar formula each season, sustained for viewer interest. Over time, the avid viewer comes to notice the patterns in these fictional formulas. Taking America’s Next Top Model as an example, it is not difficult to see a recurrent pattern of girls with a set of personalities intended to add dramatic flavour. There is always the catty girl who picks relentless fights on the hapless, doe-eyed victim, the self-entitled rich girl, and the unassuming underdog who eventually emerges the winner. This character patterning is palpable in many other competition-based shows. Masterchef and Hell’s Kitchen, for instance, are seemingly guilty of perpetuating this formula. At least 3 out of the 5 winners of Masterchef US were presented as the innocuous underdogs from the audition rounds. Interestingly, the manner in which the shows are edited has become so formulaic that it is almost possible to foretell who the next victim of Ramsay’s incisive elimination will be.
With a television model so preoccupied with the dramatization of human nature, endearing, lovable characters are few and far between. That is why I, and many others, keep going back to Project Runway. Amidst the army of villainous individuals hyperbolised by show producers, Tim Gunn sticks out like a sore thumb. The jovial, affable mentor of the 13-season long Project Runway adds some much needed calm to an otherwise emotionally tense episode. It is perhaps this fine balance, coupled with the raw creative talent that never seems to expire, that have contributed to the longevity of the show.
Notwithstanding the nebulous definition of ‘reality’ in these programmes, I believe we can all appreciate the endless hours of fun we derive at the expense of participants. We become emotionally invested in their journeys, as ludicrous and far fetched, as they may seem. We feel the aching disappointment of a designer’s dreams “Auf Wiedersehen-ed” by Heidi Klum and the surge of outrage at a particularly bellicose baker arguing with Gordon Ramsay. If nothing else, these shows cultivate a sense of empathy for characters who push the boundaries of reality and step into fictive territory on the show. And yet, we persist to live vicariously through them simply because they offer us what our daily lives cannot- a sense of hyperbolic fantasy. The dominant motif of competition-based Reality TV is the prize package; an idealised “dreams come true” tagline that is sold to viewers and contestants alike. Sensationalism aside, such programmes offer us the chance to dabble in unchartered territories- from the glitzy world of dance on So You Think You Can Dance to the culinary kingdom of the Great British Bake Off and Masterchef. It is perhaps this that keeps us coming back; the notion that we, as average individuals, can participate in a world so detached from our own realities for an hour every week.