The Seven Circles of Reality Hell

Reality TV, like scripted dramas, runs a full spectrum of chic, well-intentioned shows to tawdry spectacles of the most desperate depths of human nature. Viewers may lose a few hours of their week being held in thrall by harmless/trashy entertainment, but for contestants and participants of reality TV, the costs can be much higher. Much like Dante's seven circles of hell, the last and deepest being the most agonizing, Reality TV has seven rings of progressively horrible lows to which the would-be rich and notorious can descend.

Level One: The Fickle Hand of Fate

Games Shows and Home Makeover TV
(Examples: Extreme Home Makeover, Wheel of Fortune, Pimp My Ride)

Extreme Home Makeover

One day you may wake up, hand the keys to your neighbor, and come back to find they've installed a new game room in your house. Amazing! Xzibit takes your car to his shop and brings it back with turn tables in the back and a microwave up front. Magical! Cable and primetime are choc-a-bloc with these Fairy-Godmother shows. Generally a half-hour format, they take less than a day to film and the human interest in the contestant is necessarily positive. No secrets will be revealed that you don't specifically want mentioned on camera, and no one's going to recognize you on the street from your stint on The Price is Right. However, lucky winners can find themselves blasted by debt thanks to IRS claims on taxable winnings, especially on trips or prizes that aren't easily split into percentages (like say, head rest LCD screens.) Even Extreme Home Makeover, which has won a couple Emmys for changing the lives of downtrodden homeowners, can leave those same poor families bankrupt when their houses new assessed value bumps them into a different tax bracket. There's also the chance your house turns out kind of gross or that in a cruel twist of fate you lose all your winnings on one of the many random gambles of a game show. Provided you do your math right and can weather a mind-numbing amount of adrenaline, these are definitely the least hellish.

Notoriety: No.
Pay Off: Moderate to Low.
Degree of Hell: Same Amount of Terror as a Roller Coaster

Level Two: Trial by Fire

Professional Career Competitions
(Examples: Project Runway, Food Network Star, American Idol)

Project Runway

If you want to talk about TV at work, you know you're safe bringing up Project Runway, Shear Genius, or Top Chef. With high production values, rewards based on merit, and smart editing, these shows stay classy by allowing viewers to assess a lot about the contestants without turning the camera's all-seeing eye onto their personal lives. While mild dramas are inevitably sparked by the high pressure to perform against impossible deadlines, the winners can expect an exponential increase in demand/attention for their services. Careers can be launched! The inevitable trio of judging celebrities will rip you to shreds mercilessly, aware that their job security rests on making you look like an ass in as few words as possible. American Idol also fits into this category, as well as So You Think You Can Dance. Even if you don’t win, the good publicity will far outweigh the bad. But make no mistake, win or lose you will be in a hell of having to do the best work of your life under the hardest circumstances possible while cameras and over-it judges wait for their chance to break you down.

Notoriety: Can be huge & positive
Pay Off: Potentially HUGE
Degree of Hell: Crucible-like Intensity.

Level Three: The Soul Breaking Battle

Survivor & Travel Challenges
(Examples: Survivor, The Amazing Race)


Survivor is almost its own category. Doubtless at least in part as the inspiration for Hunger Games, Survivor pits random contestants from all walks of life against each other mentally and physically, forcing them to create and destroy relationships to manipulate the necessary alliances of the game. The incentive of a million dollars (minus taxes, as Richard Hatch will no doubt remind you) can be almost secondary to the primal adventure, not to mention the lucrative contracts and multiple-season casting that can await fan favorites. On the other hand, a lot of people could describe Hell on earth as sleeping out in the wilderness amongst a clique you kind of hate who haven't washed in six weeks while rain pounds down on your thin bodies and spiders run across your toes. Plus a night-vision camera beams in your face. Similarly, travel/adventure shows feature real people enduring weeks without proper rest, nutrition and sit-down toilets, with the added inconvenience of dealing with time zone change, language barriers, and airplane security; all of which seem much more grueling to me than sleeping in the rain. You are also guaranteed at some point or another to have to eat something straight out of your nightmares, and there's the psychological wounds of being betrayed, defeated or voted out by your tribe. It’s hard to find someone in this country who hasn't rabidly followed at least one season of Survivor or The Amazing Race, and depending on how you conducted yourself, they will either love you or hate you.

Notoriety: High, but possibly negative
Pay Off: Maybe Big Money, Definitely Big Adventure
Degree of Hell: Prolonged Physical and Mental Misery

Level Four: The Ass Menagerie

Strangers Thrown Together
(Examples: The Real World, Big Brother, Jersey Shore)

Bad Girl's Club

What began as a vaguely anthropological, idealistic use of hand-held cameras by MTV in 1992 with the first season of The Real World, ultimately became maybe the single most successful and reiterated reality premise. It’s been repeated in every possible form (Bad Girl's Club), location (like, Jersey Shore), with multiple ages (the memorable Kid Nation) simply because it’s interesting. If you throw a bunch of people in a room and lock the door, who will become friends with who? Even "dating" series like The Bachelor or "competition" shows like America's Next Top Model–these are essentially people zoos. The producers play God, skew the show toward graphically sexual (Paradise Hotel, Temptation Island) or popularity contests (Big Brother), and souse the contestants with alcohol to accelerate the process. While the creature comforts abound, these shows are guaranteed to be a lasting embarrassment to the participants, who more and more seem to turn to these shows purely to avoid paying rent. As we grow more culturally savvy, the overt grabs at screen time have become shamelessly histrionic. While someone could arguably list playing Survivor on a resume, People Zoo shows feed off of adolescent drama, and cast people either desperate enough or unsocialized enough to meet those expectations. This in turn creates a surreality, where people are acting more like heightened tropes instead of human beings and often calling on some of the least helpful cultural stereotypes to rally the audience and justify their behavior. ("I'm a diva! Love me or hate me!" "This is how a guido does it!") At this point, all reality has been collapsed out of people zoos, and the surreality is such a dense mix of hybrid stereotypes and honest eclectic behavior that it’s hard to look away.

Notoriety: High and More than Likely Negative
Pay Off: None
Degree of Hell: Part of Mind/Soul Forfeited at Door

Level Five: Shame of the Fame Whores

"Real-Life" Reality Series
(Examples: The Real Housewives of Orange County, Jerseylicious, The Hills)

The Hills

I can remember the excitement surrounding the first season of Laguna Beach. These kids were beautiful! And privileged! And dramatic! So much like a soap opera, but the mumbling and eye contact was so weird and raw and awkward, it had to be genuine. Laguna Beach laid a modern framework for the Real Life Reality series, in which a group of people would essentially open their doors and lives to a camera crew for compensation. As the kids got older and started moving around Southern California, Laguna Beach spawned The Hills, a glamour magazine come to life with twice the product placement (there was a companion clothing line to the show). The Housewives series founded its empire on its first season The Real Housewives of Orange County in the same privileged Southern California bubble, and is now ruining lives nationwide. Both series' popularity would lead to the content becoming more scripted and staged, and the intrusion of a filmed "reality" on someone's actual identity became increasingly psychologically damaging. You only have to look at Heidi and Spencer Pratt, who tried to make a career out of essentially buying each other presents on camera, and how they became physically and mentally warped by surrendering their personal identities. More troubling is the Teen Mom MTV series, and how high school girls have reportedly intentionally gotten pregnant to apply for the show. The inherent voyeurism of the show is captivating, but the contestants irretrievably commodify their lives, their relationships, their identities, and often trade any chance at a creditable career for the notoriety, making viewers mentally shelf their social responsibility/higher mental functions to get through an episode.

Notoriety: Huge, likely negative
Pay Off: High, but Fleeting
Degree of Hell: Loss of Soul, Relationships, and Integrity

Level Six: The Fallen Ones

Celebrity-Centered Reality Shows
(Examples: Celebrity Rehab, The Anna Nicole Smith Show, anything with Tori Spelling)

Anna Nicole Smith

Its one thing when a random person from the real world gets swept up by the lure of fame and agrees to be part of a reality series. Real jobs are hard and it’s rare you have one you love. Who couldn't use a couple hundred thousand dollars for dressing up nice and meeting friends for lunch? After all, it’s possible to be the hero of the series if you act like a decent human being. Celebrities who get their own reality shows are under no such illusions. They have burned through their opportunities and savings and now all they have is enough people who recognize them and a driving need for cold, hard cash. When a celebrity agrees to become the center of a reality show, it’s inevitable that they will be the butt of the joke, that the editors will cut the arc to showcase at once their past successes, current failures, and outlandish surreal behavior. They don't need to have staged get-togethers and create drama to hold interest, they just have to embarrass themselves or show how low they've fallen. Shows like Celebrity Rehab would be the extremely depressing example, more light hearted (but just as damning) would be 2007's Hey Paula! or Breaking Bonaduce. 2011's Celebrity Apprentice brilliantly illustrated how the relevancy of a star is directly related to how much cash they can rustle up via connections, and in the darkest recesses of this category is maybe the most sad reality series of all time, The Anna Nicole Show. At one point in the series, a fan walked up to Anna and said "I think you're lovely, but you shouldn't let them film this, they're making a fool out of you" and Anna simply said, "I don't care as long as they pay me." That’s the essence of Celebrity-Centered reality shows.

Notoriety: High But Not Like It Was Before, Baby
Pay Off: You Can Keep The Wolf From The Door
Degree of Hell: Existential Nightmare

Circle Seven: The Blistering Core of Reality Hell

Bachelor Pad
(Examples: Bachelor Pad)

Bachelor Pad

Now why, you ask, would the center of Reality Hell be something as comfortable as Bachelor Pad? A dozen or so hot-looking individuals perform challenges, vote each other off, get drunk and play in the pool. Surely Survivor has more psychological twist and turns and physical extremity. Surely burned out celebrities weeping in group therapy is more humbling. How could this possibly be the worst, the lowest of the low?

First of all, the grand prize is insultingly small. A quarter of a million dollars is not something I'd kick out of bed, but it’s also not even the grand prize on Deal or No Deal. It’s less money than any other competition that takes that long to play and less than the producing network ABC purportedly paid to its first couple that married on the Bachelor, which begat Bachelor Pad.

Secondly, it’s openly hostile to its contestants. There are no flattering shots. The challenges are not just goofy or stressful, they're humiliating. In a recent episode, the guy contestants were each asked to throw a paint-filled egg at the girl contestant they found the least attractive. The editing carefully frames each contestant to appear as dim, petty, and vapid as possible.

Thirdly, this is a show dealing with one clique of people. The previous casts of The Bachelor mix and mingle at various ABC and unofficial events. Many of them have had long relationships, some of them have gotten together and broken up, a lot of them have experienced high degrees of notoriety, but no one comes in a stranger. We can guiltily enjoy heartbreak in the People Zoos of Real World and Big Brother, but when a group of people who start the game already know each other, the dynamic is a lot more malicious. When there are betrayals amongst the cast of Survivor, we can reason that they hadn't known each other that long and were approaching each other from a strategic angle from the beginning and there's no correlation to real life relationships. Bachelor Pad takes existing relationships and blows them apart, showing how insupportable loyalty is to someone hell-bent on furthering their personal brand. It doesn't help that part of the Bachelor Pad's built in strategy is for men and women to partner up to protect each other in a same-sex voting process (all the guys vote off one girl, all the girls vote off one guy) which means a lot of queasy make-out sessions where you know that one guy or one girl is essentially prostituting themselves to keep staying in the Bachelor Pad, for the free drinks and screen time and $250,000 (before taxes!). If this were some esoteric cable show it wouldn't merit Hell-Core status, but this is a two-hour, major network, prime-time block that is covered extensively in tabloids and major news. That means every embarrassing, soul-devouring, fake-relationship moment will probably register with every person you meet in the future, from your future kid's teachers to the next job interview you apply for. There is nothing more degrading distributed at such a wide scale, on television in the world right now.

Notoriety: Huge
Pay Off: Relatively Small
Degree of Hell: Throw Your Soul Over Your Shoulder, Feed Your Future Into the Hell Mouth


…What's your favorite reality show?

…Which reality show do you think is the center of reality hell? (Ice Truckers?)

…Does Reality TV make us a better society? A worse society? No difference ?

…Is Reality TV super entertaining?

…When is someone most honest: alone in front of a camera, alone in front of another person, or with a person in front of a camera?

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