According to the timeline of television history, the first official reality show started in 1948, with Candid Camera. For me, reality television started in 1992, when The Real World first debuted. Younger me was excited about this new way to look at the outside world, and the show gave me perspective on possibilities previously beyond my scope. The first season, held in New York, featured female castmates who were active in social causes, who had creative passions, and who had fiercely independent personalities.
Ten or twenty years ago, it may have been possible to defend the guilty pleasure that is reality programming; by classifying the shows as reality and blaming the ridiculous transactions that transcend the relatable on careful editing, the audience was able to watch at an arm’s length. It was slightly relatable but magnified enough to be entertaining. But now, with 67% of a television viewer’s time spent watching reality programs, there's more and more to blame on editing and less that we can relate to as viewers. Each reality star worth their weight in Pinot Grigio knows that certain measures need to be taken in order to extend their fifteen minutes, and those measures usually include checking your pride at the door.
The Real World of today is a stark contrast to the origin season; the new framework involves people from each cast mate’s past in an effort to expose any shameful secrets. The Real World is practically unrecognizable now. Within the first fifteen minutes of The Real World: Skeletons (season 30), all the housemates are getting drunk and hitting on each other. Each cast member mentions their penchant for sex and nudity in their introductions. The male castmates gather in the confessional for their first impression of the girls: “I would f***k ‘em all!” they all echo with laughter.
In 2006, Andy Cohen branched out from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to begin The Real Housewives franchise. The Real Housewives of Orange County first gave us access to the world behind the gated communities, but it also featured a group tenacious women. A few years later, the franchise spread into other cities, including Beverly Hills, Atlanta, and New York. The series initially focused on the accomplishments of the women it featured, but now interpersonal dramas are the main focal points of each season.
The most current season of The Real Housewives of New York features author/journalist Carole Radziwill, who has a small amount of celebrity due to her marriage to John F. Kennedy Jr.’s cousin. Instead of focusing on the fact that this woman has three Emmys and a Peabody, the show paints her as a lonely widow with only her books to hold on to. Radziwill is a New York Times bestseller and she has over a decade of experience with ABC News under her belt, yet the portrait RHONY paints is a Carrie Bradshaw doppelganger who lacks focus.
Bethenny Frankel joined the cast again this year after being away for a few seasons, building a multi-media empire. Viewers don’t get an in-depth look behind the genius that spawned her own signature cocktail line that netted her an estimated $100 million dollars, but they do get to see Frankel go through an emotional rollercoaster after a failed marriage. We don’t get to see what drives this fiercely independent woman to create endless products or witness her creative process, but we do get to see her dissect her damaged history with her therapist.
It has gotten to the point that when we see a strong, hard-working woman on a reality show, we know that it is only a matter of time before she throws herself under the bus for the sake of a storyline. As the stars figure out what spikes the ratings, we witness less conversation about war coverage and more about apartment remodels and messy breakups. As Michael Patrick King, the co-creator of the brilliant reality satire The Comeback says, “ That’s the world we live in now, everyone knows how to play themselves."
In The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow’s character Valerie Cherish has a scene in a bubble bath confessional. She is softly lit by candlelight, and is covered by an excess of bubbles that expertly frame her face. When her husband comes into the scene, he gets excited by the sensual picture, only to find that she is wearing her swimsuit under the bubbles. The scene is funny but uncomfortable, because we are now all too familiar with witnessing deep levels of humiliation for entertainment purposes. Kudrow is acutely aware of how fickle show business is, and her efforts to stay relevant are both hilarious and heartbreaking.
The Comeback taps into our need to see someone else struggle, to see that money doesn’t solve every problem. While it would be refreshing to see more celebrations of strong women, it is no wonder that ratings only spike when the women featured on these programs are flailing or trying to stay afloat. It would be empowering to see reality programming celebrate a woman’s sexuality and her choice to use her body as she wants, but instead we get to watch fellow castmates tag her as a “cougar” or a “slut” as a consequence for taking control in this way.
There is a certain fascination that comes along with looking into other people’s lives, but it all can be a bit overwhelming at times. To prevent reality overload, take a look at one of the “mockumentary” type shows—they will have you hyperventilating with laughter, and it won’t be at the expense of real people. Part of what makes shows like Hotwives Orlando so funny is that any fan of reality television (even those who keep it secret) will recognize the material. If you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of hate-watching reality television and you need an antidote, check out the following: The Comeback, The Hotwives of Orlando, Burning Love and Barely Famous.