What Reality TV Says About Us

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What do you get when some of today's finest contemporary writers—including Neil Strauss, Neal Pollack, and Stacey Grenrock Woods—get together to dish about their favorite reality television shows? An insightful anthology called Reality Matters: 19 Writers Come Clean About the Shows We Can’t Stop Watching. Edited by self-proclaimed professional reality TV viewer Anna David, the book contains 19 personal essays by TV-addicted authors—and sheds some light on the genre and how we’ve become conditioned, in some ways, to crave it. I spoke to David about the book, her own TV-watching habits, and the future of reality TV.

What inspired you to publish a book about reality TV?

I was doing TV commentary and I got called in to start talking on this show, Reality Remix. We would engage in these roundtable discussions about who betrayed who and what alliance on Survivor, and which Real World make-out session was the most scandalous. We would have these really serious conversations with really smart people. So I already knew that I could talk about reality television. And it started to occur to me that some of the more interesting conversations I was having with friends were about reality TV. I'd get into some of these sort of passionate diatribes about Bethenny and Jill and the Real Housewives and especially shows like Sober House and all the Dr. Drew shows. I began to realize the way people felt about reality television really said a lot more about them than it did about the shows, and that what they had to say was often more interesting than what was happening on the shows. That was the sort of incentive.

When you started getting the writers' stories in, did you find certain truths and themes starting to emerge?

Well because all of the stories are so different, there wasn't really one essential truth. Just that my sort of initial thesis that how we felt about reality shows, even the shows we hate, says more about us as viewers. It really had nothing to do with what these people are doing on television. It has everything to do with what the shows inspire in us. And that's not that different from any other form of entertainment, except there's something more passionate about reality TV cause we feel like we know the people on it. They're somewhere between movie stars and our friends—sometimes we have friends that we talk crap about all the time. So reality TV is something that really seems to inspire feelings in people that regular old television does not.

One author, Rex Storgatz, describes watching The Hills as a sort of meta experience; he says the show "makes me think more about its own creation than anything I have ever watched." Do you think watching yourself watching these people is another element of why reality shows are so addictive?

I think it is. I love Rex's piece and I love that point. You get used to seeing those mic packs on the back of their pants to the point where it starts to look weird when you're watching other television and they don't have a mic pack on the back of their pants. There's something about the idea that I could be there that makes it so addictive. And I think a huge part of it, honestly, is a sort of superiority complex. Therapists say that a very unhealthy way to raise your self esteem is to look for people who you feel you're better than. We're all guilty of it. I think watching Real Housewives and seeing that they have all these material advantages, that they can afford to spend $16,000 on a purse, but look, they're really miserable, and I seem to be happier than they are—it isn't such an unhealthy thing. And I think that's one of the reasons reality TV is enjoyable or addictive.

You also can't help but think what motivates people to actually go on reality shows. You've written that many years ago, you wanted to be on The Real World: San Francisco. What was driving you to try out?

Basically, I was in my early twenties and I looked at my life, and I was in San Francisco. And I went to New York and I couldn't get a job in magazines and I ended up back in San Francisco, working at Parenting magazine making $17,000 a year and thinking, what happened here? I thought the world was going to embrace me, and this is what my life has become! And suddenly I met this person who was on The Real World. And to me that just seemed like the immediate answer to all that ailed me. I just didn't have the vision at that point to understand that it wasn't the answer to my dreams.

The Real World is very different now than it was when it first started. And it was technically the first reality show, right?

It's true, I hadn't actually thought about that! It really is remarkable. It was a real event when it first started. That first one in New York in 1992, it was the strangest thing, people were talking about it, and then Los Angeles, and then the third one in San Francisco was arguably the one they talked about the most because of Pedro and Puck. And now they're in Season 26, I think. It's sort of a different batch all the time, and nobody knows the difference between the different people and the different casts, but I have to admit for me I actually think I like watching it more now.

Why is that?

I have this affinity for trash television. I just love it. And it's a very specific kind of trash television. I mean, this is terrible: I like the people to be very attractive—real thin, in great shape, and to live in some kind a place that I can't afford. And I like to watch them have all this and still—it's still just what I was just talking about—behave in ways that is more screwed up than the way I behave. Something about that is incredibly rewarding for me. I am a victim of the formula. I enjoy the different stereotypes. I kind of find it comforting to think I know what is going to happen, but yet not know.

Do you think reality shows have value aside from escapism and advertising dollars? For instance, in the book Richard Rushfield calls American Idol the ultimate drama.

I think so, I think that Idol sort of shows give us this message that dreams can come true and lives can change overnight. And while that's not really realistic for most of us, I think the world we live in today is so depressing in so many ways, and that to put out this positive notion—You don't actually need to know anybody! True talent can prevail!—is a good thing to put out into the universe. I sort of think of reality TV as what people do when their ids are unleashed. What we would all do if we didn't have self control. I mean, these anti-role models are real. I actually learn from it. When I watch Real Housewives, I watch what happens. They get hurt feelings and instead of saying, 'Oh I have hurt feelings,' their ego takes over, and they talk about it and they say terrible things about whoever hurt their feelings. And then they feel guilty and ashamed, but they don't know that, so they continue to say terrible things. And then the entire thing escalates and then they end up in tears. And they have no idea that they're sort of the product of their own misery. I have the same instinct as these people, and I think that a lot of us do. I've learned not to act that way, but a constant reminder isn't a bad thing.

I'm reminded of a line from Wendy Merrill's essay: "We all know that reality shows are to real life what Pringles are to the potato." Do you think that reality TV has ever actually been real?

I do think it's probably becoming less real, cause they've got the formula down. I think shows like Intervention and the Dr. Drew rehab shows are real. They're showing what's really happening and I think James Frey makes a really good point in his essay about how there's real and then there's truth. These are real emotions. And even with Real Housewives, the producers say that all that's manufactured is the [scenarios]. They say, let's create a scenario where Jill is going over to talk to Luann and they sort of make up a reason. Everything that happens once they're gathered is true. I think some [shows and scenes] are way more manipulated and fake than others. But I think we're getting savvy as viewers, and we can sort of tell what's manufactured and what isn't.

As audiences get savvier and savvier, what do you think will be the future of reality television?

I think it's really hard to tell. I know with the success of The Hills, suddenly everybody was saying, 'oh it's only going to be docudramas.' But there are new non-docudramas sort of launching all the time. And when there was all that scandal with that show Megan Wants a Millionaire, suddenly everybody was saying, 'we don't want these trashy VH1 shows anymore. We want to do important shows.' And then I think their next hit was Tough Love. I think that nobody knows. I think they throw things against the wall and see what sticks. And viewers can be kind of surprising about what they like and what they don't like.

What reality shows do you watch, and why? What do you think your TV habits say about you?

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