By Kerry Tinga
Reality TV. Whether we hate it or love it, most of us have to admit we have seen a few hours of it, and a lot of us have to admit to watching a whole lot of it. Chances are, while flipping through channels, we have chanced upon an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and decided to finish it to pass the time. Either that or we have been following it episode after episode to, well, keep up with the Kardashians and why they are so famous just for being who they are.
Some reality TV show—let us say most—are trashy and involve a lot of over-the-top drama created by the producers. There are others that are truly like fly-on-the-wall perspective that has little interference with the people involved, like this Japanese show called Terrace House, which people can watch on Netflix. It is so normal and mundane there is a charm to it not found on other shows.
Reality TV fulfills human being’s odd fetish for people watching. Whether they are waiting in line, or sipping coffee at a shop, or just gazing out the window while we are supposed to be doing something else, people love watching other people. As I wait for my friend to meet me for coffee I look around at the other people around me. First I wonder who they are, then I make up scenarios of who they could be by looking at what they wear or their body language. Are the people next to me a couple, or friends, or siblings? Then I hear a bit of their conversation, just one line of dialogue, and it adds more to the intrigue as well as to the story I have created in my head. I admit it could border on creepy as I fill my time wondering about the people around me, and I refrain from eavesdropping (but sometimes cannot help myself if the conversation looks heated). Yet, it is a pastime we as humans have been engaged in over the ages, which is where reality television comes in, just an updated version of this old pastime.
There is the issue of whether people can be said to be acting honestly when they know there is a camera filming them. The antics we see on television must be exaggerated for the fact that they are on television, or so we think and hope. I subscribe to the thought behind the French documentary filmmaking style called “cinema veritè.” It accepts the fact that there is a camera and that the subjects are being watched, instead of being just about the subject and the subject matter itself, but about the truth in filmmaking and observation of the subject matter.
An American Family debuted in 1973, 300 hours of footage cutdown to 12 episodes. Often considered the first “reality” TV show, it was meant to chronicle the life of the Loud family of California, a typical “American family.” The result showed the breaking down and ultimate divorce of the parents and the coming out of one of their children, Lance Loud, who became an icon of the LGBT community. The family blamed the presence of the cameras and the media scrutiny that followed for the breakdown of their parents’ relationship. An HBO film, Cinema Veritè, starring the late great James Gandolfini as director Craig Gilbert, provides an account of the stress the reality TV put on the family, Gilbert expecting his crew to keep on filming even during extremely personal moments. In a moment of anger after finding out her husband is cheating on her, the matriarch of the family tells Gilbert she wants the confrontation filmed to embarrass her husband. Not only does he film this, he films the personal conversations she has with her family and friends about this deeply upsetting matter. In may not seem like the most extraordinary thing nowadays with half of the shows on TV showing some sort of confrontation in every episode, but back then it was completely novel and paved the way for all this type of shows we have now.
In a New York Times Article it is said, “Some critics argued that the camera’s presence encouraged the subjects to perform. Some even said it invalidated the project. That line of reasoning, as Mr. Gilbert has pointed out, would invalidate all documentaries. It also discounts the role of performance in everyday life, and the potential function of the camera “as a catalyst, not simply an observer.”
The reality TV we watch can be criticized as not being reality at all. Nobody in real life has cameras following them around or someone interviewing them every time there is a crucial moment. The wine throwing, hair pulling, calling out in public are often said to be stunts just to be on camera. There is a disconnect between calling it “reality TV” and if it does in fact reflect reality. Nonetheless what is shown on the screen was in reality said and done. Whether or not it is provoked by the camera is beside the point. It just presents a different reality, the reality of a subject being observed. While we can criticize the subjects of The Real Housewives or Love Island, we still tune in to observe.
While it is perfectly normal to people watch and have guilty pleasures of reality TV, the important thing to remember is what a camera can provoke in people. A friend turns their phone to you and you either pose or cover your face, a reaction to being observed and documented. It is reality, especially in our digital age where the line between public and private is blurred over social media and the Internet, and there is a lesson to be learned in watching it (although 99 percent it is just something to fill up time).