The Underlying Premise of Reality Television

Whether it’s a survival show or a cooking contest, a singing or clothes designing competition, a program about dating, or an offering featuring “friends” or families living in unusually close quarters or interacting in unusually intimate ways, the underlying objective of most “reality” television today is to put people in an environment in which they will be mean to one another.

Think about it.  Do you watch for the competition?  For the premise?  No.  You watch to see those awful housewives be vicious to one another.  To see people plotting to have someone tossed out of “the house.”  To see Kourtney use that limited gray matter between her ears to explain, in that horrendous monotone of hers, that one of her sisters has, for the eighth time in the past month, done or said something so evil that she will never, ever forgive her.  To hear Simon tell some poor soul that she is utterly devoid of talent.  To see that terrible matchmaker shrew behave in a manner that tempts The Curmudgeon to describe her with a word he has never utterly aloud.

The Curmudgeon is not an expert on reality television – in fact, he tries to avoid it as much as possible – but you’d have to live in a cave not to be aware of the doings of Snooki and the Situation, of Bethany and Ramona, of Tyra and Tabatha, of Padma and Jeff Lewis.

Are we interested in seeing the food the competitors cook or the unspeakable abuse that Gordon Ramsay heaps upon them?

Are we interested in the everyday lives of the housewives of New Jersey or are we just interested in seeing how Teresa will next demonstrate her astonishing stupidity and cupidity?

Are we interested in seeing who will be the next “supermodel” – as if there’s anything at all super about women whose foremost physical attribute is that their shape most closely resembles that of a clothes hanger – or are we really interested in seeing Tyra and the other judges she recruited from the circus freak show belittle the contestants’ “talent”?

Are we interested in seeing the Big Brother or Survivor competitions or listening in on the machinations of the contestants as they plot against one another?

Are we interested in seeing which walking advertisement for Valtrex that Bret Michaels will choose to join his harem or do we really just want to see how those silicone-inflated, tattoo-covered, attention-craving, addled-brained women will attempt to destroy one another?

No, it’s not the substance of these programs that interests people:  it’s the inter-personal fireworks.  The formula is simple:  put people who don’t really know one another in a close environment, force them to live together or spend time together in highly contrived joint pursuits, and watch the animosity bubble to the top.  (Okay, The Curmudgeon realizes he is now mixing his metaphors.  Anything that bubbles to the top would probably douse the fireworks.)  Think about it:  why else would the contestants on America’s Next Top Model need to live together except to spice the competition by fostering animosity within the I-just-ate-half-a-bagel-and-boy-am-I-ever stuffed gang that makes that competition very personal?  Why do the women on the “housewives” programs routinely vacation together when many so clearly cannot stand one another?  Do you routinely vacation with people you don’t like?

The mold seems to have been cast on MTV’s Real World during a season in which a particularly obnoxious cast member seemed to go out of his way to exploit every opportunity to alienate his housemates.  Eventually they demanded his ouster from the house, the show’s popularity soared, and a new form of popular television entertainment was born.

The premise of these programs isn’t nearly as important as the casting.  The key to a successful reality program is picking the right contestants:  obnoxious people, people who want to use the program as a launching pad toward a type of stardom they believe they deserve even in the absence of anything even remotely resembling talent, people who like to be confrontational, people who are just so thoroughly unlikeable and so utterly clueless about what’s going on around them that they don’t really have to go out of their way to lose friends and alienate people.

The king of casting the dregs of society for such programming appears to be Bravo TV’s Andy Cohen, who may be more responsible for the decline of civility in the U.S. than anyone since the late Morton Downey, Jr.  Cohen has a genuine knack – calling it a talent would be inappropriate, akin to describing a pedophile’s ability to seduce young boys as a talent – for finding obnoxious people and putting them in front of a camera.  What’s worse than him being America’s foremost sleaze-monger is the degree to which he absolutely revels in it.  See him on his own Bravo program – when you’re the boss, you can put no-talents like yourself on the air.  There, you’ll find his phony over-the-top gay man routine with a hint of a boy from the hood (sort of reminiscent of Damon Wayans and David Alan Grier reviewing movies on the old In Living Color television series:  “That Nene is two snaps up, girlfriend!”). See him take utter delight in the cornucopia of crap he has created.  Seeing Cohen in action reminds The Curmudgeon of a scene in the old West Wing television series in which members of the White House staff have just met, against their better judgment, with a distasteful political consultant.  When the meeting ends, the consultant acknowledges their displeasure with him and suggests that they probably think he’s Satan.  No, replies one of the president’s aides:  “You’re the guy that runs into 7-Eleven to get Satan a pack of cigarettes.”

Cohen, of course, is far from alone.  All of the networks employ fundamentally bad people to create fundamentally bad entertainment, but he’s the only one with the bad taste to go on television and flaunt what he does.  He is as false as the programming he creates.  The others probably know that what they’re doing is bad, and even wrong, but not Cohen, who chooses to celebrate his poisonous creations.  Together, these people are chopping away at the collective American IQ and lowering the level of discourse in this country.  They foster an environment in which people believe it is not only acceptable, but also their inalienable right, to turn off that little censor we all have inside us that regulates our common sense so they can do whatever they want to do and say whatever they want to say, no matter how hurtful it might be, because that’s how it’s done today so we can “keep it real” – as if keeping it real entitles us to abandon our moral responsibility to treat one another with a modicum of respect and kindness.

And all of us – including those who miraculously have managed never to witness even a moment of any of this nonsense – are the poorer for it.

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  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On October 1, 2012 at 12:02 pm


  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On October 1, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Totally agree. The “Housewives” in particular have elevated provincial mean girl tactics to an art form (I use the term “art” loosely). And I enjoy the way you express your views, and the length of your remarks–most of the time.
    BUT…aren’t you the same Curmudgeon who recommended “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” a few short weeks back? I believe the Curmudgeon, too, was enjoying himself at other people’s expense.

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On October 1, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      Regarding the housewives, The Curmudgeon believes that Aaron Sorkin referred to their programs as the equivalent of human cockfighting – and he used the term in his “The Newsroom” series more generically. And yes, The Curmudgeon recognizes the contradiction of his dislike of reality tv in general and his laugh-out-loud reaction to “Honey Boo Boo.” But we all have our weaknesses. The Curmudgeon likes pop/rock music with lyrics that say something yet adores Meatloaf’s entire “Bat Out of Hell” album and similarly likes movies that have something to offer yet is inexplicably drawn to “Roadhouse” and “The Replacements.” Go figure.

  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On October 1, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Yes! Total consistency is suspect. Not real life at all, I agree. I recall relating the “cockfighting” comment previously. I love Sorkin; I love “The Newsroom”. Really missing it.

  • foureyedcurmudgeon  On October 1, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    I thought cable for rich people was the same as cable for poor people: they produced a show and then broadcast it over and over and over and over. If HBO isn’t being as generous as Andy Cohen, you can watch “The Newsroom” on your computer or other gizmos at Of course, if you’re missing it because there are no new episodes, you’re gonna have a loooooooooong wait, sad to say.

  • Peaches Shimmerdeep  On October 2, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I have watched each episode of “The Newsroom” at least three times through On Demand or HBO Go, and I will likely watch again. I long for new episodes, though. (And cable is cable. I’ll venture that most of us who pay for HBO are hardly classified as “rich” people.)

    • foureyedcurmudgeon  On October 2, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      Last night around midnight The Curmudgeon finished tour number two through the entire series – and that’s in just three weeks, since he discovered this web site that offers a lot of pay cable stuff for free. He figures it must be an unlawful site and is bound to disappear one day, so he’d better get it while it’s hot.

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