Why does reality TV work so well? According to some TV producers, it’s because people don’t want to think, they want to turn off their minds and feel superior to people, and because artificially heightened emotion is a potent drug. To investigate this enduring genre, and examine his own role in the so-called train wreck of stars’ lives, Lucas Mann wrote a whole book about he and his wife’s shared love of reality TV, called Captive Audience. The Paris Review ran a portion of it. Just try to take your eyes off the screen.
The way these producers framed it, intellect and emotion were rendered entirely divergent—intellect was what a person should aspire to; emotion was the thing that the lazy settle for to avoid thinking. Every one of these emotion purveyors said they wished for a world that was better than the shit they professionally put into it, but you know what, the world is the fucking world. They discussed their own projects, the lives they wanted to commodify, with a strange mixture of pride, exhaustion, and scorn.
Cool guy, heartless guy told me I should write a book about reality stars of yore, the ones who knew nothing and were discarded by culture, husks of what they had once presented themselves to be. It would be grotesque, but it would be captivating; he would’ve pitched it as a show if licensing wouldn’t have been such a hassle. We imagined these discarded stars as a group: just as willing as ever, maybe more so. People don’t think about the damage; they just want to hear the shouts and see the squirming—everyone agreed upon that.
There was an undercurrent to the conversation, of course, that was about complicity, particularly as reminder clips ran across the screen, little teaser morsels of everything Trump said or tweeted, whom he had mocked, how he had lied. It all looked familiar—a closed-circuit loop of mania. As we watched, there were whistles and sharp inhalations. There were rueful headshakes, the mixing timbres of semiforced laughter. What a shit show, it was marveled. What a pageant. What a sham. What a spectacle.