I spend a lot of time watching reality TV. We all do. Who hasn’t lost a Saturday afternoon to a COPS marathon or fallen off to sleep to the soothing tones of Janice Dickenson berating one of her models? Jason and I had a night of reality TV on Bravo last night, we watched Project Runway and Shear Genius. Why we would choose to watch them back-to-back in the flexible age of the DVR is unknown, but watching the two side-by-side made it very clear that some reality shows are just better than others. Maybe it was most striking because here are two shows that have a very similar message (fashion and hair are amazingly cool and translate well on TV), audience (women and gay men), contestant base (women and gay men) and celebrity star power on the B+/A- list level. Jaclyn Smith may be C list now, but she was full-on A list back in the day, and Kim Vo, well he’s no Michael Kors bubbling over with sarcasm and bile, but you’ve surely seen him on some horrible segment on E! News where you found yourself terrified by his face. Who could have even recognized Michael Kors pre-Project Runway?
Anyway, this awareness of the stratification of reality shows into the good, the bad and the ugly made my mind wander to all the other reality shows out there. Which ones are good, which ones are train wrecks and why? I did some investigation of the science of reality television and found a nice breakdown of the different types of reality shows on Wikipedia. What I present to you here is a summary of that breakdown and some examples of high points and trainwrecks within each category.
Special Living Environment
Pure voyeurism – people placed in a unique environment with a bunch of cameras and not much to do. Hall of Fame: Big Brother – I can’t speak for the current season of BB because it started in the middle of our move, but this is a great show that is successful on a global level. There’s just something about hamsters running on a wheel that people everywhere love. Hall of Shame: Real World – although it claims to have invented reality TV, this show has been degraded down to one of the most boring shows on TV in recent years. There’s all kinds of shows that I hate, but everyone else likes. I think everyone is starting to realize what a colossal waste the Real World is now.
Celebrities followed by cameras blurring the line between fact and fiction, fame and success… Hall of Fame: Kathy Griffin: My Life on the D-List – one of the most stage-y of the celebreality programs, but that makes it one of the most successful. The banality quotient is reduced significantly by a purposeful attempt to setup and tell a story with each episode. Kathy Griffin may have openly begged for the Emmy, but it was deserved. Hall of Shame: Hogan Knows Best – I’ve never seen an episode of this show that didn’t make me angry AND bored. It was only made worse when it became clear that this show was actually a platform for the Hulkster to launch the careers of his largely undertalented children. It’s The Osbournes without the humor.
Shows which follow a business or professional in their day-to-day goings-on with widely varying results. Hall of Fame: COPS – the longest running reality show ever was and continues to be successful because of its in-your-face portrayal of a whole other side of society most of us only see occasionally at the gas station. Let’s face facts, this show is not about COPS, it’s about crazy people and their disconnection from reality. Hall of Shame: Blowout – this show was so terrible for so many reasons, not the least of which was the self-proclaimed celebrity of leather-fleshed lead stylist Jonathan Antin. Episode after episode showed his inability to work professionally with others, lack of leadership, utter soullessness (see any episode where he is in a therapy session) and simultaneous inexplicable rise to greater success in the LA hair market. I hate you Jonathan Antin.
These shows have a long history going back to the Dating Game and Love Connection. Recently they have adhered to a strict formula of group dates, solo date passes and rose ceremonies. Hall of Fame: I Love New York 1 and 2 – I know there are a lot of Tiffany “New York” Pollard haters out there, but the best thing about her shows was her over the top persona and of course the incomparable Sister Patterson. The tone of the show followed suit and did not take itself seriously – a key to success in the world of televised speed dating. Hall of Shame: All Bachelor/ettes – right down to the one-on-ones with uber-bland host Chris Harrison, this show takes itself way too seriously. Every year the contestants claim to have fallen into a magical love in just hours of face time with the chosen bachelor. You never see that kind of deliberate self-deception on I Love New York. Also, I just want to say that for this category of show, a two-hour season finale is NEVER needed.
This is probably the most successful format of the reality genre because it does actually display talented individuals and their crafts. It is compelling to see behind the scenes of your favorite industry and to see the future stars of that industry discovered. Hall of Fame: Tie to Project Runway and American Idol – both shows have been wildly successful in their own ways, Project Runway by establishing Bravo as more than just a junky cable arts network, American Idol by dominating the world and making us love and hate ourselves simultaneously. Answer me this, has a season of American Idol ever gone by where you didn’t get chills from a performance one week and then two weeks later wonder why you continue to subject yourself to the torture of phony Coke commercials, “after the break”s and unfunny inside jokes? Hall of Shame: American Inventor – the winner of this show invented a crazy baby car seat that was basically a free-spinning egg that kept baby from getting slammed around by just allowing it to spin indefinitely in the egg chamber. Seriously.
There’s not much to say about these shows. Sort of like Candid Camera with the emphasis on scaring people. Hall of Fame: Scare Tactics – one of the few great SciFi originals. The show was at its best in the Shannen Doherty-hosted first season. Who wouldn’t want to punk their friends into thinking they are being abducted by aliens or being sprayed by chemical mutagens and then laughing in their face. Hall of Shame: Celebrity Paranormal Project – unfortunately this show just wasn’t scary. It was just celebrities going into haunted locations and pretending to be scared. I still regret making my brother and sister-in-law watch this at our house. I hope they don’t think we actually watch shows that bad all the time.
These shows are widely varied in the topics they cover, but always involve some kind of sad case, a down-to-the-wire transformation and an emotional reveal. At their best they are inspiring, at their worst they are boring and predictable. Hall of Fame: Tie to The Biggest Loser and Flavor of Love Girls: Charm School – I’ve never seen a season of The Biggest Loser that didn’t make me cry and thank god for my fast metabolism at least once. Huge personal transformations with the utmost sincerity. And there is the steadfast hotness of trainer Bob Harper. Charm School on the other hand had largely insincere transformations but the characters on the show were unbelievably funny. Chatar’s yarn-y wig and cha-ching sound effects when she batted her lashes kept me in stitches for weeks. Hall of Shame: Sadly, this dishonor goes to TLC’s While You Were Out – the manbeauty of host Evan Farmer was not enough to redeem this show and its frequently unfinished lackluster transformations. The premise is cool, but the rooms usually looked cheaply done (a la Trading Spaces) and you always got the impression that the designers might have actually been actors who spent a week working at Home Depot for “training.”
There are more categories to discuss, i.e. sports competition, social experiment programs, multi-season cast competitions, but I honestly can’t imagine that anyone would want to read more. Please comment on your best and worst reality shows! Also, I welcome your disagreement on any of mine. I really could talk about this all day, so bring it on!