I love shitty reality TV. I eat that shit up. Sometimes I can make myself feel better about it if it’s something like Project Runway which actually requires some kind of skill or if it’s like Toddlers and Tiaras where it’s more like a documentary. The thing is going on anyway, they just turn the cameras, and giggle all the way to the bank.
Anyway, today someone was telling me that they loved when the contestants fought (the part we all pretend we hate) because it made her feel smart and centered in comparison. She felt like, in the same situation, she would rise about such petty drama.
So then it struck me. Maybe reality TV is important for culture in the same way that dystopian novels are.
See, dystopian novels aren’t actually predicting the end of society. I don’t care what your high school teacher said. She was just trying to make you think. Give her a break. She works hard.
Dystopian literature is crazy and exaggerated for a reason. It’s actually a feel good genre. No stick with me. When you read 1984 or Swastika Night or Handmaid’s Tale you immediately compare it to the world around you. Most likely you believe that, while there are some things that could be changed, you and your country are not going to end up like that. No way. You know better. You would not give up your love even when faced with a terrible rat-death. You generally believe you are better than them.
When we talk about 1984 or Handmaid’s Tale we use it as an example that we do not want to reach, but probably won’t anyway. It is a warning that everyone understands is an exaggeration. Reality TV is the same way. We use it to measure our own drama and insecurities and feel secure that we have not, and will never reach, that lowest of lows.
Many of these reality TV shows have an open ended, but possibly hopeful ending too. Like Handmaid’s Tale’s possible escape, Hoarders and Intervention end in a message that the people you watched are still working hard. They could, of course, film it so that enough time had passed to see a full recovery, but they don’t. The ending is open ended so that we can hope, but the tension, the lesson, the parable, is still intact.
When the people on TV are having a meltdown we are given a unique opportunity to feel good about our own fortitude, our work ethic, our strengths, and our abilities. We ultimately believe that we would do better, and we should. It’s feel good TV.