Sharon Olds and Rachel B. Glaser on Reality TV


The Review’s Review

Over the past few years, Korean reality TV has been a source of inspiration for my writing. Reading the subtitles is an amazing lesson in dialogue. The random casts of participants are a fun study of group dynamics. These shows allow me to witness tender, precarious moments between lovers and strangers. They prove that the mundane and dramatic often go hand in hand. Watching them, I’ve cried, laughed, and shouted at the screen. I’ve become more aware of how we are all living a life of scenes, surrounded by and involved in a seemingly never-ending narrative.

Recently, my husband and I watched Single’s Inferno, a reality show in which young men and women glamp on a desert island. If they “match” with each other, or win challenges (like mud wrestling), they get to helicopter away to a fancy hotel for an overnight date. The stragglers cook together and end up bonding. These conversations encouraged me to write scenes in a less plot-centric way. Often in fiction, it can feel like there is no room to just “hang out.”

Change Days, meanwhile, is a show about couples at an impasse trying to decide whether they should stay together or break up. When the participants go on dates with new people, the viewer knows their backstories and partners, which gives added layers of context and raises the stakes. Watching the couples argue felt more relatable and expansive than watching shows whose participants have left their lives behind and are presented as clean slates ready for new futures. Getting this private peek into the complicated, painful, confounding, beautiful, terrible tangle of long-term relationships felt thrilling and sometimes overwhelming.

Scrolling around on KOCOWA (Korean-language Netflix, basically), I discovered His Man, a show in which eight single gay men live with one another and date one another. His Man felt groundbreaking to me. It showed me personalities and a kind of camaraderie that I’d never seen on TV before. One man sometimes did makeup for the others. There was a date on which both men wore flowers behind their ears. The show had a bizarre, funny rule: every night, the men were summoned one by one to a phone booth on the roof to call one of the others on his cell phone for a minute, without revealing his own name. Sometimes, a man would call his roommate on the show, and have to sheepishly return and face him after the call. Some men would receive many calls every night. Others never received any. By the end of the show, they’d all become great friends, even though some hearts were broken along the way.

—Rachel B. Glaser, author of “Dead Woman

The other night, I spent ten minutes watching Jeopardy! Masters during an ad break on American Idol and was thrilled to see Ada Limón’s beautiful face and strong, sparkling, welcoming spirit as she asked the Poetry questions. (And I answered all but one right!) Thinking of her poems, and of the other poems that were read around the NYU M.F.A. program workshop table years ago, reminded me again that the arts invigorate and encourage us!

This is why I like both singing and sports shows—for the occasional great note or jump that moves us to tears. I don’t think of such shows as lowbrow but as popular, unintimidating, and emotional, helping us find our feelings—to weep for love and loss is a gift art gives us, don’t you think? The kindness and wisdom radiating from Keith Urban’s voice on the American Idol finale helps me live, just as the beauty, grace, and power of Anthony Davis’s moves on the court during the NBA playoffs fill me with joy and awe.

Art helps us live! Megan Danielle, Wé Ani, Colin Stough, Oliver Steele—their singing voices calm and thrill and inspire me. Lucy Love’s voice and power, her expressiveness and wild courage and originality, show me imagination and the hard work of hope. Zachariah Smith, with his throaty grit, his teeth showing, his visible, audible longing and passion, shows us the peace-warrior work of art, which can save lives. And most of all, Iam Tongi: the shocking sweetness of his throat’s beauty helps me feel as if I’d had parents who were able to love their children as Iam Tongi’s parents love him and give him means of joy and generosity. When I hear Tongi sing, I feel safe in the arms of protective love. 

As a child, I drew cards for people to give thanks for gifts. So this is my thank you to these artists. At Willard Junior High School on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, I wept with joy at the rock-and-roll ballads that released our feelings and gave us hope that tragedy could be lived through, and emotional damage survived. At Berkeley High School, a pair of best friends—Joseph Davis Gilbert (1940–1964) and Edward Brown (whom I hope is still alive and singing!)—lifted the spirits of the student body with a rendition of “The Fox”: “the fox went out on a chilly night.” Joe ’n‘ Eddie soared our spirits over into joy—never a note sharp or flat—as Solomon Wheat made a touchdown in the Tournament of Champions at the Cal stadium itself! Surely art exists to make life less unbearable, yes? Singers and athletes, the gifted, like gods for the rest of us, charged our souls with joy—as if we could be, at moments, worthy of at least part of the beauty of the earth.

Another memory arises: when I was fourteen, my mother was finally taking the brave action of divorcing my father, and she was suffering from anorexia nervosa. Her older sister, who loved her and could afford a gift for her, sent my mother and her three kids to Hawaii for a month. My older sister and I took surfing lessons, and got to know the teenage teachers a little. We would go for walks on the beach after supper. This is where I met the first young man I kissed and was kissed by. Some circle of good fortune seemed to close when I watched this latest season of American Idol, shot in Hawaii, and Iam Tongi was named the new American Idol for 2023.

 —Sharon Olds, interviewed in issue no. 244