overthinking the idiot box

April 4th, 2005

Reality: It's not just for off-camera life anymore.

Flyover States and the Diversity of Reality

by Joel Bergen

People who don't watch Reality TV and look down on those of us who do (we call them Realitists) often wonder what we see in such programming. The most common assumption is that the draw is pure schadenfreude, that reality shows appeal to the basest corners of the human soul. These Realitists like to point to it as yet another sign of the slack-jawed, rubbernecking hoi polloi desperate to feel superior to somebody. This is a tidy explanation and in no way helps the Realitists feel superior to anybody.

While there are many different reasons why our nation's Nielsen families have embraced reality (just as there are many different reasons for enjoying a sculpture, a novel, a fine wine), and certainly schadenfreude is a big one, there's another, more uplifting component that goes a long way towards explaining why the genre has taken such a bite out of scripted fare.

It's the same principle behind the successes of such critically maligned movies as My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and The Passion of The Christ. Like those films, reality shows appeal to and feature demographics roundly ignored by the urban (I mean that literally, not as a euphemism for African-American) elitists in Hollywood. More than merely casting a diverse group of stars,these programs are able to present a breadth of points-of-view that can't be conjured up by a writing room full of people who are all college-educated, live in Los Angeles and inhabit the same tax bracket.

One of the great things about The Simple Life (at least before it became essentially a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque quasi-scripted-improv show) is that more than almost any other series, it took me along with the celebutantes to a world I've had very little exposure to: Rural America. Sure, on a human level I identified more with The Ledings (the host family of the first season), but as a life-long city-dweller I was right there with Paris and Nicole in feeling like a fish out of water. I may have a lot more common sense and sensitivity than the girls, but sit me on a stool in front of a cow and I'd be just as clueless.

That's why I found the glimpse into The Leding Family's lifestyle so fascinating and enlightening. There was no condescension involved --purely appreciation and wonder. I don't see people like them on a daily basis, either in my life or on my TV. Now imagine you're one of the millions of Americans who see The Ledings every day, either next door or in the mirror, but still don't see them reflected on the boob tube. It must be frustrating to watch yet another sit-com about metrosexuals and anorexics complaining about their love-lives in New York City or a swinging, jingle-writing bachelor trading barbs with his sassy maid in his swanky Malibu pad. Even most of the procedurals and so-called Fat Guy, Skinny Wife shows take place in cities and suburbs.

According to a recent study nearly 60 percent of prime-time series since 1948 have been set in either New York or California. I have a feeling that percentage would be even higher in the current television landscape. Is it any wonder that so many Americans have been tuning out scripted series (and the ones that are drawing them back are conspicuously set outside of the city \endash on a desert island and on Wisteria Lane)?

Granted, most non-globe-trotting reality shows (like The Amazing Race and Survivor) still take place in and around either New York or Los Angeles with a few notable exceptions, such as Average Joe: Hawaii, Invasion Iowa, Bachelorettes in Alaska and The Real World (which is always set in urban environments). However, the people on these shows come from all over the country and represent many different backgrounds.

Despite being a Los Angeles-based series, the surprisingly educational Amish in the City was able to offer a rare insight into both the Amish way of life and the people underneath the funny hats. I feel like I gained more understanding of their culture from that silly Reality show than I did from watching Witness or even touring the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It didn't make me feel superior to the Amish - it helped me connect to our common humanity (though I did feel infinitely superior to the bratty city kids).

It's not just geographic diversity that's lacking from scripted series -- it's economic diversity as well. Most TV characters fall into the middle-class category -- and even if they're working in a coffeehouse, they rarely have trouble making ends meet. On Reality TV, we've got billionaires (Donald Trump), millionaires (Paris and Nicole, The Osbournes, The Millionaires, The Real Gilligan's Island and several of the contestants on The Apprentice), as well as countless representatives from the middle class and from those who are really struggling.

It's this last group that's rarely seen on scripted series except as criminals/victims/witnesses-of-the-week on cop shows. At least since Roseanne won the lottery (that show's version of Jump the Shark). But not so on Reality TV. Just look at The Contender and America's Next Top Model which like the country as a whole have an unfortunately large number of financially-challenged contestants. Yet rather than being portrayed as hapless charity-cases, these programs present them as proud, three-dimensional, hard-working people with indomitable minds and spirits.

When Tiffany first saw where she'd be living on the current cycle of America's Next Top Model, she broke down crying because her bed there was bigger than the one she usually share with her fiancee and son back home. Another of the contestants, Lluvy is a sweet girl you would never suspect is a former gang member gone good. Estella, one of this season's also-rans, was actually homeless for a while after her husband kicked her and her son out on the street.

On a recent episode of The Contender, Sergio 'The Latin Snake' Mora noted, "Definitely people are going to look at me and think, y'know, I'm this uneducated kid from East L.A. that just fights," before elegantly tossing out quotes from Sun Tzu, Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. He wants to win this competition so his mother can finally quit her warehouse job after single-handedly providing for her four sons. This sentiment is echoed throughout all the Contenders, most of who come from working class backgrounds. Every one of them has a story that's at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.

These are complex, people. No scripted drama on television right now can compete with that. And thanks to the wonders of Reality TV, we get to see what makes them tick. We see them at their toughest and at their most vulnerable. We see them respond to obstacles- not how some writer who's never been in their shoes thinks they might respond, not how the story needs them to respond in order to progress --but how every moment of their lives up until this point has shaped their response.

The opportunity to see people you wouldn't otherwise be exposed to is one of the factors that drive the success of Reality TV and keeps this city-boy watching. If writers want to stop the hemorrhaging of their ratings, they (and more importantly, the network executives) should try parachuting into one of the flyover states.

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