Relationships don't last and winners don't really matter on reality TV -- but, of course, that's not what we're in it for.
As everyone has no doubt heard by now, reality star and world-famous “momager” Kris Jenner has filed for divorce from her once respected husband, former Olympian Bruce Jenner. They have been married for 23 years. However, his split should not come as too great surprise, not only for those familiar with Jenners’s relationship but also anyone familiar with reality TV.
A tacit requirement of participating in a reality TV show, its seems, is accepting the fact that reality TV has killed more marriages than adultery, money issues, and snoring combined, and you're probably next. Let’s quickly review our long history of busted relationships: Newlyweds Nick and Jessica; Jon + Kate; Bethany and Jason of Bethany Ever After…; Kathy Griffin and her husband; Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries; Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro; Clint and Dina Eastwood; Chuck Woolery and his wife after he did the Game Show Network’s Naturally Stoned show, and a whole lot of Real Housewives (NY’s Countess, DC’s Cat and Atlanta’s Portia and Phaedra, et al).
This leads to many questions. One of them is that once these relationships are over, are their shows, built as they are around relationships, relegated to being completely pointless footnotes in reality TV’s short but cumbersome history? Or, do they gain greater significance now, after the fact, as mutli-textual artifacts? Do they become approachable now both as the “entertainment” (as they were once pitched as) and as a sociological study, the latter offering us a chance to examine doomed relationships while searching out the signals and clues that foretell its end.
Such was surely the case with Kim Kardashian, who had her earlier 72-day marriage played out on E! long after the couple had split and filed for divorce in real-life. Lucky us: we got to micro-observe every second of their ill-fated union, looking for every single, solitary early crack that was going to eventually derail their happy ending.
But even for those people who don’t care to watch these slow-motion car crashes in action, there might still be a reason to turn these into Scenes from a Marriage updated for the E! and Bravo crowd. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if the couple in question stays together or breaks up, has a baby, or obtains a restraining order. Because, rather than being about the end result, it is, instead, all about the Process.
This way of thinking about reality TV is essential and has already been applied to numerous other reality TV products. It explains how we can cheer on our favorite American Idol contestant and be part of the millions calling and texting in our love, support and votes only to, six months later, see their debut album stall in terms of sales and then, subsequently, see them be dropped from their record company. It explains how The Voice can be a huge rating winner every season but have yet to mint any true star. It is the same logic that allows The Bachelor/Bachelorette to remain a popular, profitable franchise for ABC season after season, even though only a tiny fraction of those couples have remained together.
It is equitable to the old adage that, when going someplace, getting there is half the fun, only in terms of American Idol and The Bachelor, et.al., getting there is all the fun, or at least the only thing that matters.
As with watching scripted television (sitcoms and dramas), a certain suspension of belief is necessary in terms of “reality” TV. To a certain extent, to “buy into” some reality shows we have to adopt an idealistic belief that, in the end, the “right” person will win The Voice or that the “best” choice will be named the final Survivor or that the last girl standing on The Bachelor is the one the guy is meant to be with.
Furthermore, we also have to believe that the happy ending for everyone above is possible, even if it’s not. The basic format of The Bachelor is so egregiously flawed, that the fact that so many of us buy into it year after year is surely the sign of some sort of mass delusion. Is it really credible that a real and lasting bond can be formed between two people based upon such minimal and artificial on-camera-only contact? Furthermore, that these over-the-top made-for-TV dates have any relationship to or bearing on actual real-life reality; it’s easy to fall in love standing beneath the Eiffel Tower, let’s stick this couple in an airport lounge for eight hours then see how they really get on!
We have to have this ongoing faith, if only to tune in again next season with an all-new cast but the same old hopes and dreams.
This sort of short-term, transitional, replaceable “fame” and infatuation from audiences that reality TV traffics in might be good for the networks and producers of reality show but isn’t always that great for reality’s participants. It goes to explain why no non-Idol reality TV “celebrity” has ever been able to fashion any truly accomplished, sustained post-reality career (with Elisabeth Hasselbeck being one notable exception). Because, like the victors on an episode of Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy!, reality personalities are largely here today and gone tomorrow. Only the winners on the daily, daytime game shows just mentioned have the much better idea of how TV works and how they should work it: get your money, say good-bye, go home and get on with your life like before.
Because, even if it is not the end of your marriage, being on reality TV—from Survivor to Idol—is, ultimately, the end in itself.