The Reality Show Paradigm

Published December 30, 2011 by jrm17

Sounds like the title of a Big Bang Theory episode, right?  Well, really it’s an idea I got from reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs (seriously, this book has me jaw dropped and in awe.  I love it).  He spent a chapter discussing the social effects of The Real World.  At one point, Klosterman had this ingenious piece of literary commentary where he said something about the paradox that is reality television.

That’s when it hit me.  Despite knowing it’s all fake when I’m watching, I still become emotionally attached to these complete strangers.  I root for certain people’s success and other’s failures.  All the while, I know it is completely staged for the villain and America’s favorites to come out ahead in order to make for good TV.  Just like every chance I get, I make a Jeff and Jordan reference from Big Brother because they are one of the cutest couples I have ever seen.

The paradox comes in the form of the suspension of disbelief.  Klosterman, once again, you have blown my mind with your discussion of the suspension of disbelief.  He explains the enjoyment of reality tv in this way:  you must be willing to suspend your disbelief (a term that is used in the movie industry to describe those movies you completely lose yourself in.  The ones where while you’re watching it, you are in the reality of the movie, not actual reality).  The issue is that it means you are accepting the reality of the show as one that is not reality even though at the same time you are supposed to believe that it is unscripted and real life.  I know, headache inducing stuff, right?

In the book, he uses the example of The Real World.  I’m not a super fan of the show but I’ve seen enough of the show to understand what he was saying.  Klosterman said that the only real season of that show was the first season because there was no precedent set.  There was no way to know that someone was supposed to play the gay guy or the jock or the bad boy.  He uses examples from the first through the third season most openly because that was when he was in college and being sucked in by the newness of the show.  Now that the initial seasons are over, the cast members know they are casted to play a certain stereotype.  As a more recent example–one that people my age will be more likely to understand–is Joey from Cancun and Adam from the return to Vegas.  They were both the bad boys, both more on the rocker side (Joey was definitely a rocker but I question Adam’s ability to rock out like Tommy Lee), both got kicked out of the house (I’m still a little mad that Joey was.  I really liked him).  Now, I’m not saying that Adam based his “character” on Joey but it’s possible.  Just as possible as it is that Joey tried to fit the same image as Puck, the original Real World bad boy.

I agree with Klosterman on all of this.  It’s pretty screwed up that we must have the suspension of disbelief for so-called reality the same way we do with movies.  And the only real reality TV probably was the very first season of the Real World.  Of course, there are some reality shows that are less real than others.  The Jersey Shore, The Hills, and every other MTV production like that: yeah, as far as I am concerned, the only thing real about any of it is that they are really annoying.  When it comes to shows like Big Brother, Survivor, and any food-based reality show, I am a little more confident about these.  I’m not really sure why; it’s probably because Big Brother is one of my favorite shows ever and Survivor is pretty much the same show but on an island.  And I trust most anything when it’s showing me yummy looking food.  Of course, there is always the debate of paranormal reality shows in my household.  I’m laying it out for you as far as I believe: Ghost Hunters=real.  Ghost Adventures=more entertaining but more than likely completely fake.

The one issue I find with this argument, well, it really isn’t an argument but just something I’ve thought about.  Yeah, it’s stupid to call scripted television reality.  And, yeah, it’s stupid that we get the same people every season because the cast believes they should fill a role played by a previous member.  But I think that’s why people keep coming back from season to season.  It may be the same people but because of that, you are guaranteed some good fights because they purposefully cast people who will constantly be at conflict.  We like siding with one person and rooting for their opponent’s utter demise.  Like last season of Big Brother, pretty much from the start, we knew that an alumni was going to win because the rookies had no strategic game and no chance for the most part.  And because I was already attached to Jeff and Jordan and Brenchel (OMG! Brendan! Nobody comes between me and my man!), I cheered for their victory and loved it every time a rookie got called out for sucking.  This holds even truer with Real World/Road Rules Challenges.  We know which people are going to be on every season.  We already know their personalities, their game play, their prior conflicts, and basically who is going to win.  So, why do we continue to turn our attention to the show every season?  Well, if you’re me (and probably like most people), you are attached to certain players (Kenny and Johnny Bananas).  You want to see them succeed.  But most of all, you want to see the inevitable fights–especially any involving Jenn, Mandy, Wes, or CT.  It’s that consistence that draws the audience to the show season after season.  While it’s a bit unethical to being trying to pass all of it off as reality, it’s there to entertain us and keep our minds off our own lives and problems.  I think reality TV stereotypes and is a mindless, stupid form of entertainment but that doesn’t keep me from watching it.  We are humans are because of that we like to watch fights.  It doesn’t say a whole lot about our culture but it is what it is.

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