Life on Screen: A Reality Television Reading List

Reality TV: Guilty pleasure or public service?

By Elizabeth Blackwell

When the first season of Survivor premiered more than 20 years ago, I was immediately hooked by the concept: real people battling the elements and each other — while I got to watch from the comfort of my couch. Like the millions of Americans who tuned in alongside me, I assumed the winner would be someone who could fish and hunt, start a fire from scratch, and charm their fellow contestants — not a guy who lied his way to the big payout (and later went to jail twice for failing to pay taxes on those winnings). When Big Brother premiered not long afterward, I couldn’t understand how anyone in that pre-Twitch live stream era would agree to be on camera 24 hours a day.

America — and I — have since become a lot less naive.

“Reality TV” is often used as shorthand for the genre of entertainment that Survivor and Big Brother ushered in: competition-based, personality-driven shows featuring finger-waving drama queens, buff would-be influencers, and first-person “confessionals” where shade is thrown and scores are settled. They’re the broadcast version of fast food: a guilty pleasure, shunned by some. I’ve become a reality TV connoisseur over the years — from MTV’s The Real World when I was fresh out of college, to the full spectrum of HGTV makeover shows as a mother-of-three suburbanite. And while there’s plenty to mock, the rise of so-called unscripted television has also brought a revolutionary change in the kind of people we see on our screens and our perception of others’ lived “reality.” 

The original Queer Eye celebrated its five gay cast members as unthreatening, all-around good guys at a time when the U.S. government was seriously considering a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage. Two decades later, even the most mainstream home-design shows regularly feature same-sex couples, with no one batting an eye. Influential shows such as Project Runway and Top Chef demonstrate the staggering amount of work it takes to create a work of art, whether a gala-worthy gown or a perfectly puffed souffle. American Idol and its many successors show us how much talent exists in overlooked pockets of our country — and how quickly the musical-industrial complex spits out the small-town singers whose hopes they’ve raised. 

For all the critiques of reality TV as trashy and stupid, it’s one of the few spaces in entertainment that’s genuinely inclusive, age-wise and socioeconomically. You may not want to watch a Love Island hookup with Grandma and the kids, but the vast majority of reality shows avoid sex, swearing, and violence, an underappreciated factor in the genre’s popularity. With the rise of prestige TV — and its tortured Mafiosi, drug-dealing science teachers, and dour 1960s ad execs — reality shows became a refuge for audiences who preferred to avoid gruesome killings and anguished moral dilemmas during family TV time. Once I had children, reality programming became our go-to choice: So You Think You Can Dance when my daughter was a toddler, twirling her way across the family room; The Amazing Race when my kids were in elementary school and getting curious about the larger world; Selling Sunset this summer, with my oldest back from college, the two of us cackling over the latest manufactured catfight. 

Is it so terrible to crave the simple, straightforward, lowest-common-denominator entertainment that reality TV provides? In our current frayed-nerves world, you could even argue it’s a public service. 

The writers in this list demonstrate that reality TV is a rich source for cultural commentary, whether you’re a superfan, a critic, or someone who understands when a cooking show isn’t really about cooking. 

Rachel Lindsay Has No Roses Left to Burn (Rachel Lindsay as told to Allison P. Davis, Vulture, June 2021)

The Bachelor, which premiered in 2002, was a show at which I initially rolled my eyes, thinking: It will never last. (Around the same time, I decided not to put my paltry work retirement savings into Amazon stock, for similar reasons.) But The Bachelor not only survived; it’s now been around long enough to face some well-deserved backlash for its creaky view of gender relations and lack of diversity. Attorney Rachel Lindsay was cast as the first Black Bachelorette in an attempt to shift that narrative. She agreed because she wanted viewers to see a woman like her “at the center of a love story.” In a sense, it worked: Lindsay is now married to a man she met on the show. 

But things weren’t so picture-perfect behind the scenes. In this piece, Lindsay calls out the ways the franchise and its producers betrayed her trust, superficially embracing change while casting potential suitors based on their potential to get into racially tinged fights. A pull-no-punches account of the real-life hurt reality dating shows can leave behind, Lindsay’s story offers a pointed lesson in self-empowerment. If someone claims they’ve changed but resists repeated attempts to fix the problem — whether it’s a boyfriend or a long-running TV powerhouse — it’s best to walk away. 

I couldn’t be like the Bachelorettes who had come before — somebody who was still living at home with her parents, who had “pageant queen” on her résumé. I was a lawyer. My father was a federal judge. I had a squeaky-clean record. I had to be a good Black girl, an exceptional Black girl. I had to be someone the viewer could accept. And I was a token until I made sure I wasn’t. 

Inside the Real Housewives’ Feminism (Sadaf Ahsan, This Magazine, November 2021)

The Real Housewives franchise has long had a wink-wink, nudge-nudge understanding with its audience, which Sadaf Ahsan acknowledges in this appreciation of a show that cultural scolds take all too seriously. We all know that these women’s lives aren’t “real.” Whether they live in Atlanta, Beverly Hills, or Dubai, the cast members’ faces have been Botoxed and dermabrasioned to a smooth, uncanny sameness; the outfits are blinged out and cleavage-baring; and someone will inevitably claim to hate “drama” while loudly repeating the shady thing her so-called friend said at a drunken dinner party. By reframing the show as a “televised comic book,” Ahsan argues that these ladies are subversive superheroes. Sure, they may look cartoonish, but how often does traditional entertainment put older women at the center of the action? Can’t every woman — self-avowed feminist or not — identify with their hunger to stay relevant in a society that’s all-too-ready to write them off?

While there is no mistaking that they can be brash, tacky ($25,000 for a pair of sunglasses!), and oh so ear-piercingly loud … it’s also ignorant to say they are only this. For 15 years, these women have lived their lives on screen, experiencing the greatest heartbreak—from their partners’ deaths to their children moving out and on—and have showcased the powerful bond of lifelong friendships at an older age like no other television series has since Sex and the City. There is bad, certainly, but there is also tremendous good that comes with a side of laughter.

The Reality Behind ‘Below Deck’ (Caity Weaver, The New York Times, June 2020) 

Thanks to what I assume are ironclad NDAs, it’s rare to hear stories from behind the cameras of reality TV. Who designs all those over-the-top obstacle courses for Survivor? Exactly how staged is any given Kardashian conversation? And how in the world do you capture all the antics of the crew and passengers in the confined spaces of a luxury yacht? It’s a question that’s nagged at me ever since I got sucked into the world of Below Deck, my latest I-know-I-should-stop-watching-but-maybe-just-one-more-episode obsession. 

Luckily for me, Caity Weaver was invited aboard to find out. With the glee of an unabashed fan, she explains how the boat is wired for sound and stocked with hidden cameras to catch every minute of the action (on this show, at least, nothing is staged). She watches as the producers’ affection for the cast (“Don’t hurt yourself!” one pleads while watching footage on a monitor) battles against “their incurable addiction to drama.” It’s an entertaining lesson in how much reality TV is created in the editing room, where small-scale mishaps are transformed into high-stakes action. 

Just as one needn’t be a wind turbine technician to appreciate a warm summer breeze, no knowledge of, or even interest in, boats, or the sea, is required to enjoy 900 hours of “Below Deck.” The most fundamental element is the ship’s hierarchy, which simultaneously commands and receives no respect. Multiple seasons in, the landlocked viewer may yet be unable to articulate even one specific duty of a lead deckhand — but what the viewer will know, and will demand, is that he not speak to the bosun like that ever again if he wants to continue serving on this ship.

Season 2 of ‘Love on the Spectrum’ Is A Reminder Of What’s Wrong with Neurotypical Dating (Jae L., Autistic Discovery, May 2021)

The best reality television shows capture a truly human experience. Little People, Big World — which has been running off and on since 2006 — depicts a family with dwarfism not as oddities or objects of pity, but simply as farmers living their lives. Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum — which showcases autistic people navigating the dating world — may have intended to fill a similar niche. However, in this essay, Jae L. — who is also autistic — points out the inherent contradiction in the concept: If dating is about finding a person you genuinely connect with, why does the show have a “relationship coach” who teaches the importance of eye contact, body language, and polite listening, which are skills that many autistic people struggle with? Why should they have to mold themselves to the conventions of neurotypical behavior? Reading this piece made me realize how even the most well-meaning attempts at inclusion can fall short, especially when people are forced into a TV format that pathologizes their differences. 

The date-as-interview approach is awkward for anyone: no-one likes to be interrogated. But open-ended questions can be especially confronting for autistic people. For as long as I can remember, I’ve experienced low-level panic every time someone asks, “What are your hobbies?” or “What music do you like to listen to?” Yet this particular practice is drummed into the cast members. Unsurprisingly, the conversation is stilted and has nowhere to go. 

The Great British Baking Show and the Meaning of Life (Eliot A. Cohen, The Atlantic, October 2020)

During the early months of the pandemic lockdown, I steadfastly avoided The Great British Baking Show when it occasionally popped up on my Netflix suggestions. I’d heard it had a cult following, but with my family home 24-7, I’d been doing more cooking than ever before. Escapism, for me, meant watching anything that didn’t involve food. 

And then, one insomnia-plagued night, I succumbed — and couldn’t stop. Once I acknowledged that I’d never make any of those complicated pastries myself, it was fun to watch other people tackle them, but it was the “British” part of the show that kept me hooked. Hearing terms like “Victoria sponge” and “Eton mess” tossed around in a range of regional accents gave me the same Anglophile rush I used to get from Downton Abbey

The Brits have long romanticized the “simple pleasures situated in some lovely part of rural England,” writes Eliot A. Cohen in this Atlantic piece. What makes The Great British Baking Show so appealing, he says, is its embrace of traditional aesthetics — the immaculate white tent on the grounds of a historic home — alongside modern Britain’s multicultural reality. Teacakes are baked with Indian spices; a Caribbean family recipe is transformed into high art. Though it may represent the “imaginary, comfortable Britain for which many Americans have a particular fondness,” Cohen makes the case that this particular flavor of reality TV might restore our faith in humanity. It did for me. 

The bakers are (carefully curated, no doubt) representatives of the British nation. There are college students and grandmothers; carpenters and lawyers; soldiers, sailors, and personal trainers; immigrants (or their descendants) of varying hue from Hong Kong and Jamaica and Mumbai. They are remarkably nice to one another. 

To watch The Great British Baking Show is to believe that the average guy and gal can do remarkable things, that good nature is compatible with excellence, that high achievement will be recognized, that honest feedback can lead to improvement, that there are things to life beyond work. It is to believe that spectacular creativity can actually be scrumptious. 

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Elizabeth Blackwell is the author of While Beauty Slept, On a Cold Dark Sea, and Red Mistress. She lives outside Chicago with her family and stacks of books she is absolutely, positively going to read one day. 

Editor: Carolyn Wells
Copy editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands