A Gentler Reality Television


On Television


A few weeks ago, my wife and I sat down to watch the reboot of Queer Eye. We were a bit skeptical. After all, the original debuted fifteen years ago, at the beginning of the reality-TV boom and also at a time when any queer representation on TV could be seen as edgy, fun, uncomplicatedly moving in the right direction. Now we’re thinking harder about the underlying messages in our popular culture, and crucially, the phrase reality TV has evolved in what it conveys—what was once novelty became a tired formula and has now become a ready-made explanation for everything that is wrong with American social and political culture.

As reality-TV fans who consider ourselves to be thoughtful, politically progressive people, it’s become harder for us to like the shows we used to like. The pleasure is overridden by the angst about deriving pleasure from that. The constant manipulations, the hypersimplified worldview, the arbitrary episodic contests that end in someone’s spectacular fall from grace, the distracting appeal of gossipy intrigue—it all seems to have conspired to turn a reality-TV star into the world’s most powerful person. When Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker about how The Apprentice shaped the Trump character that played so explosively in the 2016 election, how could it not feel horrifying to be the kind of person susceptible to the characterization techniques of the genre? When Jennifer Weiner took to the New York Times to swear off The Bachelor now that the nasty distortions of reality TV were infecting actual reality, she was describing a lot of people’s inner turmoil. 

All this is to say that we brought some baggage to Queer Eye. We aired our skepticism to one another on the couch. Then we finished season 1 in two days. I cried at all eight episodes, except for the last one (which was still lovely; I think I was just out of tears). We rehashed the drama immediately and relentlessly. I went down Instagram holes for everyone I saw on screen, looking for evidence that things were working out postshow, that what had been expressed on screen meant something. I was invested. I believed. I believed that the lonely, grizzled redneck had found new confidence, that his life was forever changed by his interaction with five gay TV personalities whom he grew to love. Love: he really said that word to them, after just a few days, and they to him.

The more intense—and, frankly, improbable—the storylines got, the more invested I became. I was moved by the scene in which a Trump-voting Georgia cop sat in traffic with a gay black “lifestyle” expert named Karamo (whom I recognized from an ancient season of The Real World) pushing him on police brutality. In the end, both men claimed that the conversation had prodded them toward progress, that they’d made a lifelong friend. I knew enough to be a bit disturbed, to want to resist any redemptive arc for this cop, but then emotion swallowed logic. And what about the devout Christian father of six saying that God is love, that there’s no place for hate in his religion, as the Fab Five dabbed their eyes in his radically remodeled home? I hadn’t felt so convinced of the humanist power of the church since reading Gilead. And what about the young man who’d never come out to his family but then did (beautifully, authentically, generously) at the behest of TV-host strangers, as the cameras rolled? Watching, I didn’t wonder why a TV crew inspired him to open up in a way that real life couldn’t; I just reveled in the way his stepmother held him as he wept cathartic tears (again, in an entirely remodeled home).

Reading these premises as I write them down, the show appears to be ridiculous. Or what I mean is it appears to be in every way a reality show: making me feel a heightened emotional reaction to a theoretically authentic interaction despite the absurdity of the conceit, always organized into tidy episodic crescendos. It feeds me what I want to feel. How nice to think a Trumpian cop just needs one good interaction to catalyze his capacity for change. How nice to revel in the natural camaraderie of the show’s stars, in their “Fab Five Loft” in Atlanta, despite the fact that they’re flown in from New York, Los Angeles, even Salt Like City just for shooting. None of the impossibility matters. Not the fact that Karamo’s lifestyle advice is often just, Be confident, man, or that all the emotional makeovers come tied to lavish branded overhauls of both wardrobe and furniture, or that some scenes feel so neatly staged that it’s not hard to imagine a few rehearsal takes before they got it right. Formula melts into the pathos that the formula was always meant to produce, and I’m unquestioningly invested in a world in which every single inhabitant is hysterically kind (or at least open to improvement toward kindness), in which every moment comes extracharged with a message of love and progress. I realize I’ve been seeking out this experience a lot lately.

My previous obsession (one universally adored by all my peers) was The Great British Baking Show, which has been running forever in the UK but has become a phenomenon in the U.S. only in the past couple years. Immediately after the 2016 election, it seemed as though everyone I knew was watching—a shared, gentle, Instagram-able joy. It felt like we all happened upon this new gem at once, at exactly the right time. The show provides everything we’ve always expected from the reality-contest formula, except reconfigured to be stunningly, relentlessly kindhearted, set in a magical country tent where a diverse cast of Brits can come together to bake, compliment one another, and display a decency that, when I first watched, seemed like a joke. I was waiting for the cutaway shots of contestants glaring or spreading rumors in their confessional interviews. Although the structure of these shots stayed the same, they came filled with hugs, goofy jokes, quick and caring forays into the varied backgrounds of the contestants, arbitrary shots of sheep grazing peacefully. How, I thought, in a post-Brexit world, could the love of a good pie bring everyone together? But then I watched Nadiya Hussain, a hijab-wearing mother of three, win season 6, weeping and telling the audience that she’d never put boundaries on herself again, as the judge Mary Berry wiped her tears and her opponents expressed only joy for her. I was not skeptical. I devoured the next season. Then the next.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the popularity of Baking Show has coincided with the mainstream popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The shows are very different, and Drag Race retains way more of the shit talking traditionally associated with the reality-contest format, but it’s ultimately built around a premise of progressive uplift. No matter what happens in a given episode, the viewer knows, in the end, that Ru will remind us, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Alongside the beauty of the performances and the hilarity of the cutting lines, every viewer is watching with the constant reminder that they’re a participant in, or at least an appreciator of, something inspirational. And it feels so reliably good, bordering on necessary, to watch with a sensation of collective decency, secure in the notion that we’re doing the right thing by watching.

Of course, these shows have faced some criticism. Queer Eye has been called out for everything from its happiness-through-purchase capitalism to the dubious expertise of some of its experts. Drag Race, especially since switching channels to VH1, is constantly embroiled in arguments over whether some of the underground beauty of the art form has been sacrificed. Even the scandal-free Baking Show is running the risk of getting long in the tooth, the way reality shows tend to do. Fans are wary of being asked to stay invested as the original hosts and judges cycle out of rotation. But these critiques come couched in conversations that want and expect the best from these shows, often held in prestige publications that otherwise ignore any potential value in the genre. Even the critiques provide a sense of guiltlessness, of assumed good intentions both on the parts of the shows’ makers and us viewers. We can discuss these shows without any shame or self-deprecation or qualification or pretense. We can talk about them as comfort: the recurring chance to binge upon the spectacle of a world closer to the world we want to live in.

I still don’t know how to feel about all this because so much of the experience of watching is identical to the one I’ve spent my whole life building up an affinity (addiction?) for. It’s tempting to think that all these particular shows provide is confirmation that the hallmarks of reality TV are irrevocably ingrained in what I demand in my quest to be constantly entertained. The instant celebritization of the previously unanointed, the shared joy of watching a ready-made, realish narrative with my wife and talking about the petty dramas of the people on screen as if we know them—I still crave it all, which doesn’t feel like a good thing. Despite the calls to avoid distraction, to seek out facts, to be wary of breathless emotional manipulation in my media consumption, I can still get lost in it for hours, for days.

But I’m beginning to think it’s more complex than that. Maybe these bleeding-heart spectacles are proving that there can be no blanket moral assessment of reality TV. The form is mature enough now to be ubiquitous and therefore amoral. We can’t get rid of it, so it’s worth thinking about what to do with it. The oft-diagnosed problems with so many shows, from The Bachelor to The Apprentice, lie not in the form they’ve always used but in the worldviews they’ve used the form to peddle—normalization of a spectacle of regressive, sexist, cruel, capitalist shame. But maybe the spectacle can be present without the shame. Maybe we can both crave the reliable manipulations of reality TV and see those manipulations made aspirational. Maybe being lulled into an uber-edited, semibelievable narrative of goodness is a form of progress—not perfect, not exactly honest, but certainly preferable. Either way, I’m pumped for season 2 of Queer Eye.


Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island. His book Captive Audience published in May.