This is the Real World?

Reality television faces a choice between manufactured drama and audience boredom

For someone who does not own a television, I somehow manage to watch an alarming amount of it. Even worse, my bar seems to get lower as time goes on. There was a time when I confined myself to the highbrow scripted dramas, but following the endless eruption of new reality shows on MTV, VH1, and Bravo, I succumbed. Now my tastes have expanded to include shows like “The Real Housewives of Orange County” and “The Hills.” (I am happy to report that I am still holding out against watching “Celebrity Fit Club” or “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila.”)

I don’t know anyone else who bothered with “Laguna Beach” spin-off “Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County.” Even as I followed the lives and dramas of Newport’s privileged teens, I found myself wondering why. It’s not difficult to become caught up in reality shows, but their appeal proves subject to a paradox. They end up exposing the very fact we try to escape by watching in the first place: Most people’s lives are really boring.

Reality television programs have dealt with this actual reality in a number of ways: They liven up the more mundane moments of everyday life with high-stakes competition, exotic locales, or the prospect of fame, no matter how faint (see: “The Surreal Life”). Some combine all three of these things.

Only in the last few years has the “Laguna Beach” genre fully emerged, enlivened only by the wealth and egocentrism of its protagonists. These programs walk a fine line between scripting drama into nearly “normal” lives or simply allowing tiresome lives to unfold as they are.

The challenge is obvious, but reality-TV producers have risen to it magnificently. They’re experts in making viewers think something will finally happen (in just another minute). I constantly find myself on the treadmill at the gym, staying on past the next commercial to see the promised drama go down. Most of the time, though, those interesting moments were already in the “Next time…” trailer from last week, and I wait just to watch a couple order dinner and gaze at each other in a challenging silence. Thanks, but I could be having my own awkward dates and staring contests.

The so-called “stars” of reality shows may live out their lives publicly, on camera and in tabloids, but the irony is all that exposure shows how little we actually know about them. Lauren and Heidi (of “The Hills”) both recently launched their own fashion lines, but their show makes next to no mention of their budding new careers and its headaches. The high schoolers of “Laguna Beach” were never shown bothering with that little inconvenience the rest of us like to call class and homework, which would have been a big, boring part of their lives. Instead, producers capture these characters’ self-involved, repetitive conversations in which the back-story is dutifully recounted so the viewer can identify the episode in question. These scenes—and the obvious voice-overs that often accompany them—only call attention to the artificial lens that captured them. Nothing like a bevy of editors thinking about the possible confusion of their audience to guarantee that only a faint semblance of real life survives onscreen.

Again, we can’t deny the addictive nature of “The Hills” or its ilk—after all, they’re still on the air. Indeed, it seems like each day a new one crops up, as endless Bravo advertisements exhort us to “watch what happens.” But the fact is, most of the time, nothing happens, and real people don’t have Larry David there to make that nothing funny. As reality shows catapult their subjects to fame, they also undermine the illusion they create—any life we see depicted is always highly selected, reworked and dressed up to maximize our entertainment. With some good editing and the right background music, anyone’s life can become drama-filled—if only for the moment before the credits. But let’s not call that reality.


Claire G. Bulger ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Straus Hall.