Lucas Mann | Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV | Vintage | May 2018 | 13 minutes (3,553 words)

Hi (: I am ______, I am a 17 year old with a story.

I want to quit feeling like I am not important. I want to be somebody in my life, I do not want to be remembered as some face in the yearbook, I want to be heard. Currently, I make youtube videos, and I have 317 subscribers. I know it is not a big number, but I am finally being heard by some people and I love it. I just want to make people happy, in any shape or form. Putting a smile on people’s faces is my dream! If I could be casted on this show, my life would be complete. I just want people to know me more than just some girl who likes makeup. I want people to know who I am. My family is not against this, but they do think I should focus on school, which I agree with but this is my dream.

Height: 5 feet 5 inches
Age: 17
Gender: Female
Dream: This.

Please help me reach for the stars, this is my dream and if it comes true, I can’t even imagine my life. Help me out (: Help me be heard.

— from the Casting Call Hub website

I have, for a long time, suggested that we get rid of cable. I have even suggested that we throw out our TV altogether so that we may eat at our actual kitchen table and play more Scrabble. I’d say these suggestions come biannually, on average — they used to be more frequent, then ebbed, and are now increasing again. They have been going on for the better part of a decade. They arise, as most of my impulses toward change do, out of feelings of shame. They arise when we open up our home and visitors see the way we live — by which I mean what we watch and the frequency with which we watch it — and make remarks that I take to be scornful:

I cannot believe you guys have all the channels.

Or: How can someone retain so much information about Bravo?

Or: How do you do it? If I had cable, I think I would forget how to live. It’s just too easy to let your mind get lost in the slush and forget to look up.

It seems crucial that lovers put themselves in scenarios that would otherwise be boring and then very pointedly not feel bored.

The relationship between television and life is loaded. The relationship between television and love is, perhaps, even more so. Life, the way I think the term is most commonly used, is about action. Go out and live is the kind of thing that people say to those they deem flawed — ride something, climb something. Engage. Or it can be used as an insult to those who have nothing valuable to offer: get a life.

Love, the way I think the term is most commonly used, necessitates the same action. Loving passively is as shameful as living that way. When we love fully, we are doing something to make that love valid; it’s a conscious process, it’s active. Two people see each other in a way that elevates the act of sight to a challenge that must be confronted. Two people refuse to take their eyes off one another; that’s the idea. When we love fully, we are meant to engage.


For a long time, when you would refuse to give up television, I would pretend to be grudgingly acquiescent, as opposed to relieved. You would placate me and say that our watching was your fault, that I was merely implicated by association, the same way it is when I buy ice cream and offer you some — those aren’t your calories if you didn’t seek them out. We would, as a way to avoid any long-term legislation, briefly turn off the TV and spend the following hours in a sort of mutual meditation, leaning over the table at dinner, sometimes by candlelight, taking in the contours of the face in front of us, as though it had changed from the previous day, and the one before that, and the countless expanse of days that stretched out behind us (nearly every day of our adult lives), making us forget what it felt like to not know that face.

The literature of love, both the bad kind and the good, hinges on this type of sustained gaze. And, though the word boredom rarely comes up, it seems crucial that lovers put themselves in scenarios that would otherwise be boring and then very pointedly not feel bored. I’m thinking of Keats here, in one of those gorgeous poems to Fanny that I once read aloud to you in college, the last time neither of us owned a TV. I read to you of Keats wishing only to be:

. . . gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast. . . .

People used to live at such a slow, sensual pace. This is the kind of thing I still say on the nights when the TV is off. Nostalgia is all wrapped up in slowness. How long we used to linger. The capacity we used to have for sustained care, sustained concentration, sustained quiet.

My favorite book about love is John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. Berger wrote it in 1984 — an early–MTV era book — but he wrote with a slowness that implies timelessness, that makes a piece of writing feel resonant, or maybe the word is authentic. He was an aging icon in the French Alps then, describing the way his life had moved, the way he’d seen the world change, but at its core the book is a missive to his lover.

He writes of when he is without her, thinking of her, how she shifts in his imagination:

In the country which is you, I know your gestures, the intonations of your voice, the shape of every part of your body. You are not physically less real there, but you are less free.

How strong a gaze; how long lasting — until his love (who remains unnamed throughout) becomes the image of herself, a creation of his mind and memory as much as the person he knows. There is a bending of reality in this sentiment, and in turn a sort of dehumanizing, but in Berger’s hands it doesn’t feel gross. Instead, it is a way of seeing I aspire to. It’s the elevation of a person to art: to speak to the one I most care for and hopefully witness a grander sentiment (Love! Timeless love!) whisper out from the intimacy of that address. But Berger wrote these words long before anyone ever wrote the word mansplain, and I wonder now if he might ask for a do-over And I wonder, too, if I should try to find a better way to capture and perform my own love. You don’t need me to tell you what’s there, what’s been there, like it’s a show that only I’ve been watching. And yet I do, uncertain, trapped in my own voice, hoping you see at least a sliver of yourself in the portrait, frozen in sustained care.

We went to the Alps once, with your sister and a bunch of other leather-clad Europeans. All that money blown to spend New Year’s partying at high altitudes. Everybody else went skiing, but you knew I couldn’t, so you let me avoid the embarrassment by staying behind in the cabin. I spent a week binge-watching over bad Wi-Fi, and that experience of waiting for the screen to unfreeze while cold rain pecked at the windows of a moldy chalet only ratcheted up the claustrophobia. I watched. Sometimes I walked until I got bored, then returned to the screen again. I waited to hear you come in the door, and we’d put our cheeks together so I could absorb some of the cold from you.

On New Year’s Eve, after a long party, we lay in bed unable to sleep. The shadows of the mountains were maybe visible through our window, framed in moonlight, but we weren’t looking. We watched each other’s faces and waited for the laptop to buffer. Finally, we were able to watch The Real L Word, a show about actual lesbians in LA, developed to capitalize on the success of a show about fictional lesbians in LA that I never had any interest in watching. It’s a program we’ve only ever sought out in transit — in a motel in Pennsylvania, mid-move, U-Haul packed in the parking lot, dog whimpering at the sound of trucks passing outside, or in a semisecluded corner of O’Hare Airport on a night when all connections were grounded for tornadoes.

Sometimes it’s nice to match moods, to decide on that mood matching together. There’s a restlessness to The Real L Word that appeals only in restless moments. There’s a pulsing crassness to the way the most intimately personal is made to feel branded. The women fuck desperately in some scenes, and with the lights on, no pretense that they’re unaware of the cameras. They look up, let us see their faces, and then plunge their heads back between legs. In the nonfucking scenes, every word they say is loaded with as much pressure as sex; anything said about anyone can be taken as a slight. It’s easy to get a sense that they don’t know one another at all, or maybe they really do and this is how shallow knowing someone actually looks when there’s a camera around — another loaded thought.

Reality should not be a performance; a show, if it’s any good, should probably be exaggerating something. The resulting promise of the phrase, then, is an impossibility.

We were on the futon in the dark, in the Alps, listening to the party die down, and there was Whitney on screen, fucking white-dreadlock Whitney, celebrity makeup artist-cum-minor-celebrity, confessing in the confessional room after a pretty graphic tryst with her on-again-off-again.

Lust is easy for me, she said in front of a bright-red curtain, for some reason. Love is hard. Lust is exciting. Love is scary.

We looked at each other, like always. We didn’t say anything, but let Whitney’s cutaway lines hang between us as a question or an invitation. I saw your face, pale, and my face reflected in your dark eyes. It doesn’t take much to approximate profundity. At least not to me.


I’ve written about a lot of things, or it seems that way to me, but ultimately they’re all kind of the same thing. I write about loneliness, or dissatisfaction, or incompleteness. I have tried, in different (though not very different) ways, to make sense of the things that hurt. What is harder, and what I have avoided, is trying to honor the truth of everything that doesn’t hurt: that I am not alone; that (although I am reluctant to say the phrase exactly because of Jerry Maguire) I am closer to feeling complete because we are together; that often, in our little house in front of our big TV for hours until my eyes begin to sting, I am satisfied.

This is hard to reread after writing it. It seems an impossibly small statement to make, one meant to be offered only semisincerely, and a bit drunkenly, at special-occasion dinners.

Barthes says that love, as a subject, has been driven to the backwater of the “unreal.” Then, he strives to distinguish between unreal and disreal. The unreal is the fantastical — Tristan and IsoldeIt’s a Wonderful Life, that kind of thing. In its grandness and sincerity and removal, the unreal is easier to explain, always familiar. And so it’s the love story that is easiest to find in any book or movie or TV show, allowing the audience to linger in swelling impossibility.

But the disreal, Barthes argues, is where love belongs. The disreal is lived experience, the flickering, perceived moment, unsayable — if I utter it (if I lunge at it, even with a clumsy or overliterary sentence), I emerge from it.

My problem is that I am immersed in it and because I’m immersed in it, I can’t think of anything else to utter. We are in one place: our home; we see one person: the other. What else is there to say? I want to believe that I’m not interested in fantasy. I am interested in the disreal, not the unreal, both in the art that I seek and the love that I live. But if you look at any life long enough, with enough vested interest, how do you not begin to push toward the fantastical?

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Whenever you catch me looking at you, you say, What are you looking at? Which is a really loaded question. You know what I’m looking at — you, the person in front of me; what else could I be looking at? But what you’re asking for is the difference between image and interpretation — is what I see more interesting than what is really there, or what you think is really there? And all I can ever say is nothing. And then you roll your eyes and we become exactly what the world would expect us to be. And now I’ve gone from Roland Barthes to a sitcom punch line. I turn back to the TV.


It’s hard to trace an exact history of the “reality show.” The term is often applied retroactively — roots can be found in The Real World, back in the mid-nineties, or Cops in the late eighties, or in early eighties variety shows like That’s Incredible! or the seminal seventies docudrama An American Family. One thing remains consistent: it’s always been a tortured lineage, a confounding term.

The best parsing of the language I’ve read is this, from a book called Trans-Reality Television: “Reality show” as a phrase is self-confessing.

In proximity, the two words begin to chip away at each other’s meaning. Reality should not be a performance; a show, if it’s any good, should probably be exaggerating something. The resulting promise of the phrase, then, is an impossibility: transforming facts to the level of the spectacular.

I like that the implication isn’t that we who watch so faithfully are being bullshitted, but rather that we are willfully bullshitting ourselves to get what we want. We are promised a dynamic that cannot actually ever exist, and we accept that.

More than accept it. The genre means a lot to us, to me. I’ve never expressed that sentiment with even a gesture toward sincerity because it’s embarrassing. But I think I mean it. Sincerely. At least for now I do.

When you live alongside anything for a long time — any person, any character, any narrative structure, any screen flicker — you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you.

Far more than I’ve read Berger (or Barthes or Sontag, or any of the others on the grad-school syllabus that I claim shaped how I see the world), far more than we have walked through museums together (and really, how many times have I had the patience for more than one wing and the café?), far more than we’ve sat and listened and harmonized to the songs that we so seriously call ours, we have watched and internalized and discussed televised showings of spectacular reality. The Real Housewives of Atlanta (and New Jersey and New York and Beverly Hills and, to a lesser degree, Miami and Orange County), Keeping Up with the Kardashians, The Real World, Road Rules, The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, Love and Hip Hop, Sister Wives, Basketball Wives, Breaking Amish, Storage Wars, My 600-Pound Life, My Big Fat Fabulous Life, Shahs of Sunset, Married to Medicine, Botched, Say Yes to the Dress, Deadliest Catch, Million Dollar Listing, Intervention, The Little Couple, Vanderpump Rules — there are many more that I’m forgetting offhand, and there have been many that came and went and briefly held some importance for us, and there are many more being produced right now that we will soon adopt. These are the narratives that have underpinned our lives. These are the types of stories that we choose to live alongside.

When you live alongside anything for a long time — any person, any character, any narrative structure, any screen flicker — you become a part of it and it becomes a part of you. A part of what — and, more important, how — you remember.


We’re on your bed next to the window in your dorm room and we’re nineteen. I’m running my hands along your tattoo, your first one, and you tell me to stop because you don’t like your body, and I tell you that I do. You don’t believe me.

We ask for everything about each other, the kinds of details that other people wouldn’t know, as though that will confirm the importance of our conversations. My first memory was of a red vacuum cleaner on the gray carpet of my mother’s apartment on East Sixth Street. I was scared of the noise it made. It was a cramped basement apartment, and every sound was loud. I was frightened often. This was Alphabet City in the late eighties, and outside our windows I could see and hear the pacing boots of methadone patients waiting for their morning fix.

“Oh, I can picture you,” you say. “Were you blonder? Were you chubby?”

I was, both. And I want you to picture me that way: a cherub in a hard, looming world.

I do remember the vacuum cleaner, and that the carpet was gray. I have heard about the methadone clinic from my mother, mostly cheerful stories about me getting free lollipops. I don’t remember it, but I can picture it now, too.

You are running your fingers through my hair and smiling at what isn’t an outright lie, just an interpretation, the beginning of a character that I would rather you see, another in a quickly building collection — Q: How many partners have you had? A: Plenty. Q: Wait, did you come already? A: {Indecipherable, hopefully erotic grunt}.

You say you remember almost nothing. You didn’t speak as a child, you say, like not ever, because you moved to different countries and had to start learning language all over again. You remember an overall feeling of loneliness, but hardly any images. Oh, here’s one, you say. Coming back from the beach in Italy, drinking peach nectar out of a carton — how sweet and thick and simple it was. Oh, and you had a boy’s haircut. Oh, and you were bullied for your weirdness, and your silence, so you preferred to be alone — most of the memories you have are of that pain. Oh, and one more thing: you were a liar. When you did speak, it was never the truth. And there was one particular lie you told that was too big, too painful, and you’ll never talk about it even still.

This scares me a little but mostly turns me on — a repressed past; an untellable secret; dark, brooding eyes under a strange, little-boy haircut, lonely, sucking nectar out of a carton. It becomes instantly important to know that there is something unknowable about you.


I keep thinking of your secrets and the lonely anger, and all those redacted memories for a while, and then I forget about them as other details emerge to pay attention to. But these plot points linger, always, making each new scene a little more enthralling, and then they resurface, brief, overpowering — reminders that we can see so much of each other, know each other as best we can, and yet always, underneath, there is the unknown.

A few years later, at a party in Brooklyn, you’re talking and drinking and laughing, and then suddenly you’re silent and flushed, looking over my shoulder, down a crowded hallway. You’ve seen someone from childhood, from an American camp you were sent to when you knew no English, and your face is the face of a silent girl, alone and enraged. At first you ask me to hide you, but then she comes up and says, “Oh my God, how crazy to see you! Remember camp? Don’t you miss camp?”

I watch you glare at her, silent for a moment, and then you crescendo into emotion. You say that you don’t miss it at all. You tell this girl that she had been so cruel — does she even remember what she did to you? She says, “No, not me,” and you stand closer to her, and say with a new force, “Yes, you.”

There are others around us at the party, turned stiff and awkward, but you don’t see anybody else. The camp girl says she doesn’t remember it the same way, but then she squeaks through an apology. You don’t accept. The crowd watches; I watch, and watch them watch you. I am transfixed — by your tears, by your rage, by this beautiful soap-opera haze that has fallen over the hallway.

On the way home you don’t bring it up. You are silent; you hold your body in what looks to be a performed, anguished seethe, and I keep stealing glances at you as we walk. Years have passed, and I still remember it, a vivid, pleasurable return each time — those mysteries in you, the pain turned to brief power, probably overblown in my mind but always potent.

* * *

Lucas Mann is the author of Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, out in May from Vintage Books.  He is also the author of Lord Fear: A Memoir, and Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.  He teaches creative writing at The University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, and lives in Providence, RI, with his wife.

From Captive Audience by Lucas Mann.© 2018 by Lucas Mann. Reprinted by permission of Anchor Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House.