Thursday, October 14, 2010

Episode 509

Reality TV has turned into amateur hour. Don't get me wrong - I don't expect the "stars" of reality shows to have the talent of professional actors. The problem is I don't expect them to be actors at all, but that's exactly what they've become. Since the debut of The Real Housewives of Orange Country (and only made exponentially worse by Jersey Shore), reality programming has veered away from reality and morphed into something we already know: scripted television. Except with these shows, the actors aren't trained. If I wanted to watch terrible actors follow a terrible script, I would just watch Two and a Half Men.

If we want to think about how reality television has progressed (or regressed, perhaps) over the years, we can look at the prototype: The Real World. A keen reader recently wrote the following letter to Entertainment Weekly: "In '5 Shows That Changed TV,' Ken Tucker said he was 'shocked' he gave The Real World an A when it debuted in 1992. But it was a much different — and much better — show back then. The roommates shared a cramped apartment, not a decked-out mansion. They all had to find their own jobs. And while the cast was diverse, it wasn't intentionally spiked with explosive personalities. It really was seven strangers living together in the 'real world.'" Well, Steve Thompson, from Hayward, CA, you're absolutely right.

The fact that these programs are now "intentionally spiked with explosive personalities" takes the reality out of reality TV. Project Runway has increased its episode length to 90 minutes and it seems like every one of the 30 extra minutes is being used to expose dramatic personal issues (one of the contestants even admitted -- for the first time -- to being HIV positive) and catty interactions among contestants. Top Chef has gone from the most cooking-related cooking reality show on television to what seems to be a "Who has more of a chemical imbalance?" contest on the now-playing Top Chef: Just Desserts. And the current season of Survivor has been awful: we haven't seen any strategizing, any interesting challenges - just a crazy young woman threatening to throw her competitor's prosthetic leg into a fire.

The list of too-dramatic reality shows goes on and on, but I want to remind America (in the form of the handful of people reading this) that it hasn't always been that way. And I have faith that we can return to the purity of just plain good reality TV. Just like we have recently been able to reinvent the scripted family program with shows like Modern Family and Parenthood, we can also hope that producers are able to reinvent reality TV, bringing it back to its roots and back to reality.

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