Deconstructing Reality Television

“Real-life” shows are condescending and sensationalized. Caitlin Boersma explains why we love them.

I have a terrible secret. I watch trashy reality TV, and I enjoy it.

I was once in denial about watching these “real-life” dramas, thinking it was only a social habit, so I pretended I didn’t know what ANTM stood for.

Now that I’ve accepted my guilty pleasure (and admitted it’s not going away anytime soon), I decided to logically deconstruct why reality television is so appealing in order to defend my poor taste.

There are a variety of sub-genres within the reality show category. Generally a show’s premise falls loosely into one of the following categories: the physical challenge (Survivor), finding love (The Bachelor), talent show (Last Comic Standing), sticking one-dimensional caricatures of dissimilar people together and watching them fight (The Real World), and the unabashedly trashy (Tila Tequila).

These reality TV shows are attractive for many different reasons:

Little Commitment

More viewer loyalty is needed to understand The Wheel of Fortune than a reality show. Every episode opens with a fifteen-minute recap. You know who’s been eliminated, who’s beefing with whom, and who’s hooking up. A viewer can pick up any reality show even if s/he has missed one or all previous episodes.

Self-Esteem Boost

Reality television is life-affirming on two levels. First, it shows that average (and below average) people can be on television. Since television is America’s Nirvana, reality programming gives us hope that we, too, can someday make a fool of ourselves while strangers watch from their living rooms.

Second, these people are desperate and idiotic. Apologies to anyone who may have been on a “respectable” reality show, but networks don’t award prize money to people who don’t entertain. Sadly, sane and non-slutty people just aren’t fun to watch. These reality show characters provide self-affirmation because, well, you are not them.

It’s Fixed

If you haven’t noticed the edited plotlines and scripted behavior on many reality television shows, then you must be a WWE fan. If reality TV was actually realistic, it would be no good. For one, the premise is almost always insane. Why would you fight with eleven other bachelorettes for the attention of one mediocre-looking dude (unless he’s rich, of course)? That’s just pathetic and irrational. Go for the cameraman! At least he has a job.

Of course the contestants are vying for the single man or woman, or trying to stay on the island or whatever, in order to win the prize money. But viewers are often duped into believing that there is real love, chemistry, and camaraderie among these contestants. We viewers love this stuff because it’s completely unrealistic, but like to think it is because these shows are often just as boring and poorly acted as real life.

It’s a Freak Show

Watching Vern Troyer ride around nude on his scooter and pee in corners and seeing people eat humongous live spiders are disgusting spectacles. But it’s outrageous and therefore entertaining. People watch reality TV for the same reason they rubberneck at car accidents. We just can’t help ourselves.

With this assessment, my goal is not to defend reality shows or condone watching them. In fact, I’ll probably deny that I even wrote this article, but I’d like to submit that it’s human nature to enjoy watching other people make asses out of themselves. And for this reason, we should not be so surprised that this is what entertainment has become. Appalling? Sure it is, but that’s just why I’ll keep watching it.

Caitlin Boersma is studying political science and English, but spends most of her time analyzing pop culture. Her premise for a new reality TV show, Killing Andy Milonakis, has yet to be picked up by VH1. She is notorious for spending a week’s wages on a ticket to see Morrissey live.