In Defense of a Disgust for Reality Television

Stories are supposed to be a product of imagination. Reality is supposed to be a product of ourselves.

“We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.”

Those were the words of Ed Harris as he played the role of Christof in the fantastic 1998 movie, The Truman Show. In it, Jim Carrey’s Truman Burbank has his life recorded and broadcasted all around the world while not really ever realizing what’s going on until he exits his 20s and ventures into adulthood. Before the moment of realization, however, he becomes aware of a few abnormalities about his surroundings, begins to question everything about his existence and (spoiler alert!) figures out that his life has been the subject of one, big reality show that Harris’ Christof had been manipulating all along. 

If you haven’t seen The Truman Show, you might want to. Originating all the way back in 1991 when Andrew Niccol put a few ideas he had about a story called The Malcolm Show onto a single piece of paper, it should go without saying that the concept was scarily ahead of its time. A clear precursor for what would eventually become a television phenomenon, reality television, The Truman Show show remains one of the most acute indictments on modern day popular culture if only for how accurate the sentiment behind Niccol’s story still proves to be years later. Yeah, it’s scary to think about how obsessed consumers have become with interpretations of other people’s real lives, but what may be even scarier is how predictable all of this fascination with too much information, manufactured reality and overnight stardom truly was more than 20 years ago, when an idea such as this was first dreamed up. 

Or, in other words, it’s one thing to dumb down our TV viewing habits by keeping up with Kardashians or checking to see how life is on the Jersey Shore. It’s another to do it decades after we were first warned about the consequences of doing as much. 

Enter Shain Gandee, a 21-year-old West Virginia native who once dubbed the act of driving trucks and all-terrain vehicles into backwoods and dirt pits “my medication”. He wore flannel shirts unironically. He once jumped off a roof and into a dump truck filled with water for fun. And he was, of course, a cast member on MTV’s Buckwild, the network’s rednecked cousin of Jersey Shore, which was exiting out the backdoor right as the Sissonville-based mud-fest passed through the front entrance. He also died last week of carbon monoxide poisoning after going on the same type of rambunctious venture that reality television viewers eat up whenever they tune in to see what the countrified crew is up to each week. The death, an autopsy report revealed, was ruled accidental. 

While it’s easy to hate reality television, it may actually be easier to love it. That’s the problem: People classifying any form of entertainment as a guilty pleasure is typically a call to arms for people to begin displaying their affection for it openly. That initial irony in liking something then turns into true fandom or genuine interest. This, of course, leads to the one thing that matters the most to television networks: Numbers. Even if you are hate-watching what type of hi-jinx the latest Real World cast is getting themselves into, you are still watching them do it. In this context, these shows become hits. Hits drive advertising dollars. Seasons are renewed. Executives receive bonuses. And before you know it, a kid in the backwoods of West Virginia becomes somewhat of a household name overnight. 

On paper, everybody wins. We love seeing an unsuspecting young adult turn into a star because it makes us think our unsuspecting selves could achieve fame, too. The networks love being responsible for molding those exact unsuspecting star personalities into highly lucrative public figures because it makes them think they have pull and power within the zeitgeist. It’s an equation that has become nearly impossible to dismiss for networks as they mull the different ways to approach developing new series. There will always be an audience for this, it is believed, because as Christof said in The Truman Show, “It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine.”

Or is it? By now, most everybody is in on the secret that the one thing reality television lacks sometimes is actual reality. One of the most brilliant moves in the history of the medium, for example, was the way MTV’s The Hills said goodbye: As the final scene of the series panned away from the two main characters at hand, Kristin Cavallari and Brody Jenner, we saw how the dramatic final sequence during which Kristin was said to be leaving Brody for Europe was shot on a sound stage, and in fact, Kristin had never left to go anywhere at all. Since then, almost all the cast members of the show have in one way or another come out and explained how manufactured the series was on a weekly basis. 

So, what happens, then, when transparency begins to expose these same kinds of truths on a regular basis? Should we perceive this stuff as reality, a form of reality, or a sitcom? When the genuine portion of the equation is deemed null and void, what does it say about us as consumers when most of our justification for enjoying the programs at hand is a non-factor?

Part of the reason why reality television has become so successful is the feeling of inclusion that it provices. Some of us might be willing to accept the product as real because it’s far closer to our own personal lives than is, say, an episode of Sex In The City or Cougartown, in which the world presented is far more extravagant and unbelievable than the one presented on something like Jersey Shore or Buckwild. We force ourselves into feeling connected to these people because A) as individuals, we inherently yearn to feel connected and B) it’s more feasible to do it within the realm of something billed as reality than it is to do it with something billed as a story. Stories are supposed to be a product of imagination. Reality is supposed to be a product of ourselves.

That’s why our unwavering interest in reality television, as we know it today, is equally troubling and shameful. By proxy, we encourage the type of outlandish behavior that has been glamorized by production staffs and network executives by praising, discussing and watching series rooted in this genre. We still laugh when these people do embarrassing things. We still judge characters when they participate in untoward acts. We still frown when their relationships almost always dissolve. And we justify our interest in it it by thinking we are better than these people and we would never, ever, ever, ever think of acting in the same manner. 

But if this is all just a form of condescending escapism for the common television consumer, how much blame should the viewing public shoulder for the at-times dire consequences some of these so-called reality stars eventually face?

MTV didn’t kill Shain Gandee. The success of Buckwild didn’t kill Shain Gandee. Those who continue to watch the show on a weekly basis didn’t kill Shain Gandee. Hell, Shain Gandee didn’t even kill Shain Gandee. An unfortunate accident killed Shain Gandee, and to believe otherwise would be so irresponsibly misdirected that any such nonsense would be a blatant act of disrespect to the departed subject at hand. 

Though even with that in mind, the recent passing of this 21-year-old should serve as wake-up call for those who still believe reality television is nothing more than a mere innocent depiction of life. It’s not unreasonable to suggest that even though Gandee’s love for off-road travel was prevalent and abundant before TV cameras showed up in his neck of the woods, the desire to push the envelope while pursuing that passion may have been enhanced and encouraged by the fact that he knew he now had an audience to impress. That first taste of attention that he felt once Buckwild became a hit can often lead many of us to feel a very shallow but very real sense of invincibility within ourselves. Combine those two notions, and the result we receive will almost never be positive.

If reality TV were forced to pinpoint the true genesis of detriment within its influence, it would land near the notion that this stuff feeds our flaws with impure propositions and a desire to celebrate bad decisions. When taken into account with subjects who are barely old enough to legally drink alcohol, you are presented with a disturbingly unhealthy formula for self-destruction that should be ridiculed, not advertised.

Yet far too often — far too often — such behavior in today’s world isn’t just advertised. It’s lionized.

“Look at what you’ve done to him,” Natascha McElhone’s Sylvia says to Christof while referencing Carey’s character in the latter stages of The Truman Show

“I have given Truman the chance to lead a normal life,” Christof tells her. “The world, the place you live in, is the sick place.”

Because Christof is, for all intents and purposes, the villain in The Truman Show, that line is shaded with impropriety and immorality. However, with the surge and subsequent staying power of a practice that exploits and humiliates our fellow man and woman, one has to wonder about how truly sick we as a culture have become. In a world filled with scandals that lead to glorification and imperfections that drive and attract an abnormal amount of human interest, we probably aren’t as sick as the puppeteer in the film suggests, but that doesn’t mean we are anywhere near a clean bill of health, either. And if reality television is one of the most potent drugs that modern day popular culture offers, we might want to reconsider how many doses we take on a daily basis. 

The side effects, as we should know by now, could be tragic.