This past year, as I’ve slogged like a pig in the mud through 50+ seasons of various reality TV shows, a few things have struck me. Gout, of course. Self-loathing, you bet. More importantly, though, as I’ve caught up on a few reality mainstays, it’s amazed me what little impact the pandemic seemed to have on the production of current seasons.
Reality TV isn’t the only small screen sub-genre to have marched onward during the past 14 months — and despite some noticeable exceptions of serialized shows that have had their production schedules considerably impacted — The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Billions, Succession, and Barry to name a few; many shows have soldiered on despite a once in a century public health crisis. Especially on network television, favorites like Grey’s Anatomy and This Is Us, NCIS and all the Chicago Fire/PD/EMT/fill in the blank dramas seem to have been operating full-throttle nearly the entire time. So, in a sense, what reality TV is doing isn’t unique. How they’re choosing to address, and just as importantly not address, life in America since March of 2020 is pretty singular.
I don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, or This is Us, but like anything with the level of popularity these shows attract, the road to my social media timeline is quick and direct. I’ve seen a four-part TikTok compilation (this year has truly ruined me) of a Grey’s Anatomy episode where the hospital admits a young and athletic man who has Covid but doesn’t believe in Covid and subsequently dies of Covid (I think. Didn’t see part-five. But your boy was not looking good). Same thing for This Is Us and even Superstore, and plenty of other shows that, whether with extremely on the nose storylines or just constant references to the virus, made the choice to confront the pandemic head-on.
This is, ostensibly, what reality TV has chosen not to do.
Whereas many dramas and comedies have been forced to choose a path — either ignore or acknowledge Covid; most reality TV shows have said, “why not do both?” Shows like The Bachelor, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, The Challenge, and even Top Chef said, “yes, we’re going to recognize that these things are happening, but as you’ll soon find out we’re also going to make it seem absolutely effortless to push it out of our, and in turn your, consciousness.” The reminders are subtle — on Top Chef, contestants aren’t following their tradition of venturing to Whole Foods for their grocery shopping; on The Challenge when fights break out within the house the security intervening are wearing masks, but it’s never quite enough to take you out of your viewing experience.
Not all television was confronted with these same choices. Marvel’s newest additions, whether through WandaVision or The Falcon and the Winter Soldier had no obligation to the realities of our current world; if we’re watching super-humans fly around, I think it’s safe to say we’re in the suspension of belief category of viewership.
Even with non-supernatural shows, though, there’s been no reason for, say, HBO’s The Undoing or Industry to ground themselves in a world grappling with all our current, real-life struggles. That’s because those shows and ones like them, fictional stories set in the present day, have always been offered to viewers as an opportunity for escapism. We didn’t tune into Breaking Bad in 2008 expecting to see how the new groundbreaking drama would intertwine storylines of the financial crisis or to Schitt’s Creek the past 5 years wondering how they would address small-town America during the Trump Presidency. We watched them to tune out, and to be transported somewhere completely different.
Reality TV, on the other hand, has often forced viewers to confront, well, reality.
In their early days, shows like The Real World and Survivor held mirrors to our collective ignorance on issues of race and LGBTQ equality. We saw reality cast members watch as 9/11 and other world-shifting events unfolded in real-time — surrogates for our own shock and terror. The reality television landscape that spans almost 30 years across basic cable, MTV, Bravo, and now Netflix — despite featuring some of the least socially engaged cast members you could ever imagine; has always found it virtually impossible to keep the shows’ productions and real-world stories that surround them siloed.
This year, instead of bludgeoning their audiences with Covid storylines as you might expect, many reality shows seem hell-bent on pretending everything is perfectly normal. Maybe that’s irresponsible. Maybe it encourages viewers to pretend that everything is hunky-dory in our own lives.
Maybe a little bit of that, though, is exactly what we need.
For something that has typically been looked at as a guilty pleasure or mindless entertainment, reality TV has taken on new meaning in this relentless year. Whereas serialized television has gravitated towards the ends of the spectrum — either fully incorporating or completely ignoring Covid; reality TV has evolved to fill the void between the two. Are we aware of the outside world while we’re watching? Of course. Are we indulging ourselves and tuning out? You bet.
Confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, your instinct is to lean on friends and family — maybe a psychiatrist or even, if you’re really desperate, religion. That’s all well and good, but for my money, give me spiritual guides like Gail Simmons, T.J. Lavin, and Jeff Probst.
So is reality.