Writing in Christianity Today, Kate Shellnutt recalls appearing on CNN, where fellow guest Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker said that TLC should bring 19 Kids and Counting back to show the aftermath of Josh Duggar’s public disgrace. “I really feel reality TV deserves to become more real,” Tucker said, “so when something like this happens, let the Duggars come back on for another season and confront what happened in their lives as a result.”
As it happens with these sorts of hot topic TV panels where guests are drafted in at the last minute and appear remotely from different cities, Shellnutt didn’t get to respond to Tucker, but she wanted to disagree. “TLC avoided focusing in on the Duggars’ theology during ten seasons of the show,” she wrote. “I doubt a network best known for series like Say Yes to the Dress and Toddlers & Tiaras could appropriately portray the complicated factors in child sex abuse, recovery, and restoration – especially in a way that would be healthy for Josh’s victims, who allegedly include some of his younger sisters.”
For her part, Shellnutt says she doesn’t think reality TV does “deep” or “serious” particularly well, or at least her own taste in the medium doesn’t favour shows without that light or frivolous touch: “I’ll watch everything from Cupcake Wars to Swamp People to Millionaire Matchmaker; no reality series is too low-brow for my DVR. But once shows start peddling the helpless (The First 48, Hoarders, Intervention), I have to change the channel. These programs, which follow real-life criminals and addicts, purport to help the subjects and educate audiences about their conditions. But by exploiting them on TV, I fear we risk making things worse, not better.”
I have a soft spot for reality television. If you count the official history, the genre is almost as old as TV itself, but its latest incarnation began when Survivor, Big Brother and The Amazing Race made it a primetime ratings phenomenon at the turn of the millennium and began spawning its own stars. It happened to be the time when I began writing a daily TV column, so I was obliged to take it as seriously as my own distrust of television on the whole allowed me.
While I wrote my column, the reality TV genre exploded, absorbing game shows and talent shows, police procedurals, soap operas, cooking shows and historical documentaries into its DNA and dominating the airwaves for the better part of a decade. Most of it was appalling, but there were rare treats.
An early favorite of mine was Black. White, a 2006 FX series produced by the rapper Ice Cube where two families, one black, one white, switched places thanks to wigs, makeup and wardrobe and lived on the other side of what was – and is, Obama notwithstanding – still perceived as America’s defining racial divide. The very liberal white family overenthusiastically throw themselves into evangelical Baptist masses and slam poetry events; the black family’s son finds himself comfortable with white friends using the “n-word.”
It was very provocative and – years before Rachel Dolezal – imagined how a white person might actually consider it exciting and even advantageous to pretend to be black despite the expectations of systemic racism. It was also a complete set-up – the white family were portrayed by actors and the situations were stage-directed.
While this sounds deceitful, it’s understood that all of reality TV works this way, with an army of underpaid producers orchestrating scenarios and writing dialogue while the talent, either hired or eager for their moment of fame, happily go along.
By now, though, everyone watching reality TV is aware of this deceit, to the point where the “reality” is undercut with a knowing arch of the eye or ironic quotes. It’s certain that – like most public outrage – most of the dismay directed at TLC and the Duggars is as staged as the show, and qualified by the certain knowledge of all parties that very much less than a family’s real life was on display in 19 Kids and Counting.
Perhaps it’s time for reality TV to pull back the curtain and admit that it prefers to provoke than portray, and to start making the morality plays that it has only tentatively put on the small screen in the guise of shows about poor whites, gold diggers or motorcycle builders. The genre could be on the verge of a golden age.