a special guest blog by Nicoletta Kotsianas
This is the decade that TV executives gave up. They stopped getting creative and starting getting real.
Of course, it was really the decade that terrorism and hurricanes hit home, that Wall Street put the housing market on steroids only to come limping for help. Wars were sparked and continue to burn. People still board planes and do things that make our tickers and skin crawl. This decade was book ended by Presidential elections that couldn’t be any more different. Dangling chads and Yes, we can.
For a decade full of some harsh realities and blazing new highs, reality TV became our National Distraction. Popular culture will never be the same; a cultural landscape that would make Andy Warhol’s head spin. 15 minutes stretched to the breaking point by quasi famous people who host The View because they kinda Survived some stuff. A fleet of alumni who wanted to be millionaires or at least marry one or at the very least would settle for a Bachelor/Bachelorette.
Although documentary style television has been around since the advent of the Boob Tube, never before have we welcomed so many real people into our homes every week.
I feel like it all started slightly before Y2K, during the summer of 1999 when Regis Philbin grabbed our attention and asked for our final answer. I don’t remember my family ever gathering around the television save for the Superbowl like that. And we did it every night for at least 5 months.
Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was not reality TV, per se. But it was a low-budget, unscripted program that stole a prime time slot from something scripted from a writer’s mind.
It’s hard to remember all the shows in the time between Survivor and The Jersey Shore although they fall firmly into neat categories at this point complete with cookie cutter casts and a cottage industry of musicians who write dramatic musical scores.
Category One – So You Think America’s Got Some Talent Shows. Can you sing, cook, dance, cut hair, design, or look pretty? You can be on a reality show and maybe even leap from reality show famous to old school famous. Carrie Underwood and Christian Soriano – I’m looking at you. The
Apprentice also falls into the Competition Category although the fever pitch popularity that show achieved at one point is a strange point in American History. Once they let Martha Stewart run the show, it was all downhill for Donald. He has since lost his casino in AC. True story.
Two – We are Already Famous but You Can Watch How We Live Shows. MTV patented the genre while E! perfected it. We The People give a shit that the ugly Kardashian may be knocked up. Bravo E!. Thank you MTV for making us watch the ugly Simpson sister before she got a new nose and decided to have babies named after The Jungle Book hero. The Second Generation of these shows is a hybrid of Category One and Two. That amalgamated category is called So You Think You’re Still Famous and Wanna Show You Have Talent? The Celebrity Island Show with Heidi/Spencer put a stake in that category in terms of acceptability for me.
Speaking of Bravo, Bravo is the biggest winner in the reality show game. A network previously dedicated to James Lipton’s creepiness now solely exists to churn out reality shows. In addition to groundbreaking shows in Category One, Bravo has given birth to the High Artform known as the Reality Shitshow – Category 3. The Crown Jewel? Train wreck housewives doing sublime and ridiculous things. Beloved by hordes of actually real housewives who love to hate and love them. Bridezillas is a Poor Man’s substitute, but same idea – You are a Shitshow of a human but I can’t stop watching you.
Flavor of Love gets its own indescribable category.
Finally, there are reality shows crafted in the tradition of actual documentaries. Intervention, Hoarders, any of the MTV True Life shows broadly fall in this category. Intervention is the reality show for people who hate reality shows. I suppose The Hills falls into this category but at this point it’s all so meta, that The Hills is a scripted show masquerading as a reality show. See how far we have come?
Some lost gems? The Mole – the show that introduced the World to the Silver Fox glory that is Anderson Cooper. It was an Amazing Race-ish idea that nobody remembers except me and Anderson Cooper. Also – the underrated Joe Schmoe which I feel was a deconstruction of the genre way ahead of its time. Google it my friends. Kristin Wiig was also on it, so that’s pretty weird.
What started as way for networks to save money has blossomed into a full-blown Beast that subtly takes our cultural temperature. What show went too far? What people look and sound too much like Us in our worst moments? Who represents America warts and all and who is just hamming for the cameras?
We debate healthcare in the same breath that we debate why Tyra is so crazy on ANTM. We ponder the Afghanistan situation and the next minute wonder how old The Situation actually is. We balance our confusing new world where blogs multiply at the same time that newspapers file for bankruptcy with levity – We read blogs about reality shows.
And for those out there who 10 years later maintain they hate reality shows you can order The Wire on Netflix and thank the AMC powers that be for Mad Men. Or you can join the rest of us and appreciate our national guilty pleasure for what it is. Something besides reality.
Nicoletta Kotsianas inside beat’s second in command during the Bill Bodkin Era. During said era she wrote way too long essays like the one above with too many long dashes and fragmented sentences starting with conjunctions. Today, she is a senior reporter for The Financial Times(that pink newspaper your Wall Street uncle reads) where she covers distressed debt investing and structured credit(aka the stuff that made our economy cry). She lives in NYC with her bf though she still rocks Jersey hair.