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Reality TV Finally Crashed Into Reality

An American Family, a first-of-its-kind documentary series that aired in 1973, promised to reveal behind-the-scenes truths about American life usually hidden from display. Regular public life was the approved, edited, curated story of a family, the concept implied, and peering into one’s intimate spaces would present a more honest portrait of who people really were. The show provided access to the Louds, an affluent California family, depicting the kinds of snappish arguments and deep, frightening divisions that viewers knew existed within families but could only see within their own homes. Son Lance came out as gay and moved to New York, something his parents struggled to understand; fractures depicted in the Louds’ marriage later led to their divorce. Nearly three decades later, the first season of The Real World,in 1992, operated on that same central concept: a picture of unfiltered life capturing “what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”

Since then, reality television’s challenge has been to protect that promise. Yet as unscripted TV ballooned throughout culture and viewers became more savvy to its devices, the general understanding started to shift: This sense of disclosure is fake. Everything is manipulated. Every interaction on The Bachelor is prompted by producers, who whisper gossip in the ears of people they cast to cause mayhem. Every elimination on every competition show is decided by a shadowy executive producer pulling strings based on a need for drama rather than talent or skill. On Housewives, every meal is a predetermined setting for an argument, and every argument is a self-aware bid for a good edit. For decades, the social contract remained. With no alternative, audiences tolerated the presumption of falseness. Maybe some things were faked, and you could either maintain a willing disbelief or stop watching entirely. Then in 2023, the walls came tumbling down.

Perfect Match set the tone, though subtly enough that it was easier to see in retrospect. A new Netflix unscripted show, itwas meant to be a crossover machine: a bit of dating-show hook-up drama within a competition show-challenge structure, all mashed together as a shared universe for various disparate Netflix reality shows that so far existed entirely in their own little spaces. What if your favorite single from Love Is Blind hooked up with the messiest star from Too Hot to Handle?But counter to the typical crossover model, which often presents itself as if it’s being captured on camera at the exact moment of joining, Perfect Match started with the nonchalant acknowledgement that yes, all these people already know each other. Of course they do; they all exited their respective shows and started DMing on Instagram. The series begins with Joey Sasso, star of The Circle, describing a series of pre-filming conversations between himself and Kariselle Snow from Sexy Beasts, nudging Perfect Match toward an acknowledgement reality TV has always wrestled with and always struggled to embrace: “Real” or not, produced or not, manipulated or not, a reality show can only ever present one small bubble of a person’s life. Admitting there are other contexts, other perspectives and histories, other realities in a person’s life doesn’t have to undermine the one presented on TV. They might even work in concert.

Perfect Match put a crack in reality TV’s façade, but in early spring, an earthquake hit the Bravo-verse. There is life before Scandoval, and there’s everything that followed. After nearly a decade together as Vanderpump Rules co-stars and romantic partners, Tom Sandoval had cheated on his partner Ariana Madix with their friend and co-star Raquel Leviss. This stunning turn of events was a massive romantic betrayal between key players on a blockbuster Housewives spinoff that echoed a cataclysmic affair storyline on the same show nearly a decade earlier. But the real juice was not just that infidelity took place. It’s that the story was revealed, discussed, developed, and played out in public — first on TMZ, then confirmed by sources inside the series as amateur investigations spiraled across TikTok, Reddit, and seemingly every corner of the internet — months before it appeared in an episode of Pump Rules. Compared with most scripted film and TV, unscripted series can be produced fairly quickly, but the scope of this story and its long trail of evidence across multiple platforms instantly outstripped Bravo’s ability to capture the scandal in its entirety. Any remnant belief in An American Family’s argument for its purpose — reality TV as a conduit for a real story you can’t find in public — was obliterated in the gleam of those lightning-bolt necklaces. The boundary between public life, private life, a reality show’s official edit of a story, and the enormous maw of public appetite for something even more behind the scenes, even less caught on camera, even more personal, all collided into one inseparable mass.

A decade ago, even a few years ago, pre-BravoCon and before TikTok had grown so substantially, it might’ve been possible for Bravo to present a version of Vanderpump Rules that revealed Scandoval as a brand new piece of information for its audience. Stemming from that idea of the reality show as the singular truest narrative, full of special and privileged insight above and beyond any other version of the story, a Vanderpump Rules season might’ve tried to ignore the tabloids andReddit threads and attempt to film an ending where Scandoval arrives as a shock to everyone involved. But now, in 2023, Talmudic TikTok videos dissecting every second were just as important narrators as anything that happened on the show itself. Scandoval became a multiverse of storytelling: The show version existed alongside the social-media version, the tabloid reported version, the podcast appearances version and the extensive meta-layer of the “Scandoval, explained” digitalcomplex. After years of push and pull between the official record of what happens onscreen versus the murky, disputed meta-narrative of everything that happens off camera, Scandoval was proof of two things. It’s no longer possible for reality TV to pretend to be the only version of reality. And just as importantly, that acknowledgement does not undermine the show.

After Scandoval, the fluid slosh between onscreen and off-screen story seemed to be everywhere. More voices, more narrators, more edits and contexts and sponsored posts and reply threads. Love Is Blind’s fifth season pivoted around the discovery that two participants had a relationship that predated the show, forcing the edit to include a plotline about its participants’ lives before the season began filming. On The Ultimatum, a sudden pregnancy discovery interrupted production, requiring the show to pause to explain why two cast members had exited abruptly. And just in case the line between fiction, reality, and a carefully produced version of reality was not already blurry enough, Netflix debuted Squid Game: The Challenge, a dystopian reality iteration of its fictional show about a dystopian reality show. Back on Bravo, there were micro-dramas, like on Real Housewives of New York, where the bleeped name of a restaurant became an instant search for the real one’s identity, then looped back into a story about which housewives would and would not have agreed to eat there and why. There were much more serious examples, too. On Below Deck: Down Under, a long-simmering, genre-wide conversation about how reality productions handle sexual misconduct became part of the series after two castmates made aggressive, unwelcome sexual advances toward other members of the cast. The final cut of these episodes included footage of producers intervening to prevent assault from occurring. Two events played out simultaneously, with the show’s version of events and the conversation about the show’s version of events having equal weight.

The most potent extension of reality TV’s collapse into reality came mid-summer, as Hollywood strikes in scripted storytelling sparked a new conversation about unionizing unscripted talent spearheaded by former New York Housewife Bethenny Frankel. Though a union is not yet formally established, the very act of discussing reality show cast members unionizing began with the fairly radical shift of defining them as a labor force. It required seeing the reality show as a workplace and the people depicted on these shows as performing work rather than blithely being themselves. There are, of course, additional layers of intention and suggestion. Is Frankel, in proposing a union, performing in a bid for more reality-show attention? Is it a messianic call to arms for her colleagues, or her own longing for the return of the camera’s bright glare? The world outside the reality show has surged up to meet reality programming, but the reality show itself has not yet been subsumed. It’s still an important legitimizer, a thumb on the attention scale, a source of that main-character sheen. Frankel’s involvement in the union effort has meant that the two versions of the story are interwoven: The idea of the union breaks the reality show’s bubble of realism; the involvement of Frankel twists it back into a cynical ploy for screen time.

2023 feels like the moment of no return, the final death knell for any vision of reality TV that attempts to hold itself apart from, or in a more intimate relationship with, the rest of reality. But it’s the culmination of pressure building for decades now. The Kardashians have been playing with off-screen versus on-screen depictions of their lives for years, enabled by their own power as producers of a universe of shows. The gulf between the two stories hasn’t been as notable as with Scandoval because the Kardashians have been such canny and careful curators of every iteration of their lives. (It’s hard to notice collapse if the show versions and social media versions map neatly onto one another.) The other major predecessor is the 2010 finale of The Hills, which felt remarkable at the time and now reads like a vision from the future. In one concise shot, a reality star stands forlornly in front of the Hollywood sign, watching his ex drive away — until the Hollywood-sign backdrop falls to the ground, revealing everything being faked on a studio backlot.

It’s a wink to the show’s critics and a sly way of nodding to the truth of its production: Yes, this is a manipulated world, and yes, there is a hidden, more real world somewhere behind all the fake backgrounds. Now, 13 years later, reality TV has finally embraced the futility of denying that split exists at all. Rather than destroy Vanderpump Rules, the collapse between show and reality catapulted the series into better ratings than it’s ever had before, with the biggest audience of any Bravo series in over nine years. The real world was not a spoiler. It was a promotion.

Kathryn VanArendonk , 2023-12-01 14:00:16

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