Wife Swaps and Pawn Shops: ‘The Triumph of Reality TV’

At the expense of likely derailing the sustained seriousness of The Triumph of Reality TV, after only a few dozen pages, even the most academically curious reader is sure to wish for some wry asides on the part of author Leigh H. Edwards. Perhaps an acknowledgment of the hours she must have spent awake into the pre-dawn, paging through Netflix, or taking off work for a day to explore the different structural conceits employed by The Learning Channel’s Tuesday afternoon lineup. Any sort of wink would be appreciated, really, for even though Edwards writes with obvious confidence in her research, the book’s text remains a slog, a thuddingly dull read that contributes as little passion as it does original research to the field of media studies.

It comes across as a silly complaint to say that an academic text doesn’t have enough excitement or stylish prose, yet there’s a deeper issue here: one of purpose. When a book like The Triumph of Reality TV plods along as lifelessly as it does, with the tone of a college term paper, one begins to wonder why the book was written at all, since so much research seems torturous without a degree of passion behind it. Considering Edwards’s lack of a compelling thesis or conclusion, the book feels as if it were cranked out to meet a deadline. It’s not the sort of feeling one wants to have when reading an academic work, or any book at all.

Naggingly, some basic critical concepts remain muddied throughout the book; in the introduction, Edwards quotes reality empress Kim Kardashian’s hypothesis that the concept of reality stardom has become, to most Americans, “acceptable and nothing to be feared”. The text goes on to register some surprise at Kardashian’s dismissal of fame’s negative consequences, concluding that her “embrace of reality TV is indicative of a key moment in reality TV’s evolution” (8), as if any statement of hers in an interview could be plausibly divorced from the context of the branding juggernaut her family’s multiple series comprise. Elsewhere, Edwards seems aware of the problems this contradiction presents to serious scholarship, yet the selective skepticism applied to Kardashian (and later, Dr. Phil) causes some disorientation when attempting to parse the book’s overall perspective.

The point where Edwards’s writing gains a degree of intention and clarity arrives about halfway through, in her chapter on “Picturing Social Change”. She discusses at length the “neoliberal” rhetoric employed by reality shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and The Real World: first, Extreme Makeover‘s absolution of the government’s responsibility in the issue of poverty by having Laura Bush congratulate the volunteers helping a media company and their corporate sponsors build a house for one poor famly; second, The Real World‘s failure to resolve ideological tensions between individuals depicted, settling instead for a scenario in which the prejudiced cast member learns to be nice to their black housemate while ignoring substantial dialogues about race in society.

Since the book only seems to possess any sort of spirit in these chapters, it’s puzzling as to why Edwards spent so much time addressing formal elements in isolation from these social issues in earlier chapters. Most of the tools she lays out in those chapters (for example, the different levels of veracity evoked by filmmaking techniques in The Osbournes) barely carry over to the latter half of the text. It may be that Edwards found herself concerned with being, overall, too harsh on reality TV because to do this would place her work alongside a number of shrill, out-of-touch media commentaries that dismiss the genre wholesale — yet it’s only the critical portions of the book, particularly those on Supernanny, that pack any punch.

Nor are Edwards’s efforts not to date herself entirely successful. Perhaps it has more to do with the general trend of reality shows that become phenomenons rapidly and then bleed viewers over a number of years, until the network pulls them well past the sell-by date, but much of The Triumph of Reality TV seems remarkably dated. Wife Swap and Supernanny got the axe in 2010 and 2011, respectively, (though a revival of Wife Swap debuted on ABC this spring) after years of low ratings. The Osbournes, which serves as the crux of Edwards’s arguments surrounding the hybrid genres “cannibalized” by reality TV, ended way back in 2005. Examine the decision to focus on these programs so extensively alongside the book’s general lack of anything fresh to contribute to the discourse on television genres, and it’s hard not to wonder how long a draft of this book had been awaiting publication.

Furthermore, Edwards hardly seems the sort of savvy academic who’d be much inclined to consume the current slate of available reality programming. There’s a spectacular corniness to some of her assertions, particularly those which lay the groundwork for her comments upon reality TV’s relationship with the modern media landscape. Try a clunker like “Reality TV has been wildly successful at capturing the cultural zeitgeist of the moment, seizing on hot topics in American culture and then reveal compelling scenes of real people making their way through momentous issues.” (87) That works more as evidence of the book’s overall lack of style or energy (again, until some venom appears in the later chapters), but Edward’s thoughtful musings on how “the Internet can clearly further knowledge and sharing” (35) are particularly hard to swallow in 2013. Imagine Michael Scott writing his dissertation, “Wikipedia: The Best Thing Ever?”

In a half-baked conclusion, Edwards’s book fizzles out, vaguely linking Teen Mom and HBO’s Cinema Verite with the earlier Kim Kardashian quote to posit that reality TV is becoming “a booming multiplatform network of texts” (183), a declaration that might carry more weight had the transmedia angle not largely been forgotten after the first two chapters.

There’s no shortage of good research to be conducted on modern television, particularly of the less academically regarded sort given extensive treatment here, nor can it truly be said that what Edwards has accomplished isn’t good research. She asserts a commanding knowledge of previous work in the field of media studies, and relates relevant concepts, particularly the discussion of neoliberalism that stirs the second half’s increased energy and purpose, to the texts analyzed. But even to offer such faint praise is to acknowledge that nothing about The Triumph of Reality TV has real significance within the cultural dialogue it anthologizes, and more damningly, it’s hard to imagine anyone reading the whole thing.

RATING 4 / 10