At the beginning of every television season, any given entertainment journalist is eager to proclaim that this season, ladies and gentlemen, will sound the death toll for Reality Television. Smug, elitist Reality-hating writers gladly rip new Reality shows to shreds and search for any small flaw in the old standbys, desperately trying to prove that Reality TV is a trend, not a staple.
This false conclusion is no doubt fed by endless ultra-cheap, rip-off reality shows broadcast around the dial. What critics fail to recognize is that many of those short lived shows were designed to be just that- temporary filler. Therefore, their disappearance shouldn’t be surprising or an indicator of future trends in Reality TV. For example- Joe Millionaire was a one-trick pony. Even though the trick was exceptional, it was still only meant o be a one time deal.
Whenever a new Reality show is axed, it is generally blamed on the waning popularity of Reality TV on the whole. But upon looking more closely at the flops, we see the reason that they fail is because they are cookie-cutter replicas of far superior shows still on the air, or made with an all-concept, no content format. It is the copycatting of premise that gums up the works, like so many police or hospital dramas. Instead of one bad apple- it’s like a zillion bad apples rotting the one good one.
This writer believes that Reality TV is a not dying genre- it’s simply eating itself. The big shows create replicas, the replicas are spurned, and the original show feels the backlash long after the rip-off has been forgotten. If the cannibalism ends, then the genre has a chance to heal.
No series illustrates this trend more than ABC’s The Bachelor. It single-handedly spawned: The Bachelorette, Temptation Island, Love Cruise, Chains of Love, Average Joe, Joe Millionaire, For Love or Money, Anything For Love, Cupid, Forever Eden, Outback Jack, Paradise Hotel, My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé, Who Wants to Marry my Dad/Mom/Grandpa and Race to the Alter. Whew! Of course, one could argue that The Bachelor itself was spun out of Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire (1999), which was actually spun from Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but the point remains. All of those rip-offs moved farther and farther away from the underlying good idea, and tarnished the Bachelor irreparably while doing it.
Another major culprit is American Idol. It has fathered: American Juniors, Nashville Star, the Next Action Star, Last Comic Standing, Superstar USA, So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing With the Stars, Are You Hot, But Can They Sing, the upcoming Skating With the Stars, and had a place in inspiring America’s Next Top Model (one of the few replica shows that has not only managed to survive, but has also generated it’s own copycats with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Model Search and The Starlet).
Then there’s the Apprentice, which has “inspired”: The Cut, Who Wants to Be a Hilton, Wickedly Perfect, The Assistant, the Restaurant, and the Apprentice: Martha Stewart.
Not to be left out, the Amazing Race brought the Mole and Celebrity Mole; Survivor brought I’m a celebrity Get Me Out of Here; the Biggest Loser has Celebrity Fit Club, and Big Brother begot the Surreal Life, which begot Strange Love and my Fair Brady.
The original shows are obviously not to be blamed. The burden of contributing to the degeneration of a genre should rest with the network executives and show “creators” who feel that it is OK to go ahead and borrow ideas.
This is all old news to us Reality fans. We knew the clones would be as inevitable as another installment of Law and Order. What IS new, however, is the delightful trend of the original Reality shows steady improvement in both quality and fan base, and the slow but constant demise of the replicas. This improvement has made this one of the best Reality TV seasons in recent memory, proving that the big Reality shows will fight to keep respect for their own premise; and has set CBS aside from the rest of the pack as far as Reality programming goes.
The Big Three
The Institution : Survivor
After what many proclaimed to be a poor season, Survivor has come back with a triumph in Guatemala. The combination of casting, location and some of the most killer challenges have given millions more a reason to return, or check Survivor out for the first time.
The clever plot twist of bringing Stephenie LaGrossa and Bobby Jon Drinkard (two former non-winning Survivors) back to the game has given long-time viewers an interesting new focus. Stephenie has gone from beloved loser to,well, slightly less-beloved loser, and Bobby Jon provided many entertaining hours trying first to decipher his words, and then the meaning behind them. “I win like a man, I lose like a man; that’s just the way it is”, “You know what? I’m a man. You turn me loose in the woods and I’m going to act like a man acts.” And the ever popular nugget of wisdom: “That was just because that’ was how I had felt at that one moment. Today, tomorrow, the sun comes up.” Couldn’t have said it better, Bobby.
Casting triumphs like The Great Barfing Liar Judd, borderline paranoid schizophrenic Jamie, and silent-but-deadly ex-pro quarterback Gary have made every Tribal Council more than memorable. Grueling challenges like the eleven mile hike to camp on day one remind us that this is a difficult physical contest after all. My only beef with this season is that there have been too many food rewards. Perhaps this is a sharp tool for creating dissent amongst the tribe(s), but I feel that hunger has lost its place as a real factor in the game. I have only one worry about Survivor's longevity. Replacing Jeff Probst as host could unintentionally start a downhill slide in ratings, possibly leading to Survivor's premature end.
Survivor constantly proves that the less you stray from the original formula- the better. Any surprise tweaks fit nicely within the format of the show without breaking the “rules” that long time fans have come to expect. Burnett and Co. know how to keep it fresh while keeping the fans happy. This is their key to remaining in the top 10 week after week.
The Critical Darling: The Amazing Race
If only the Amazing Race would learn from Survivor’s example. After years of steady, Emmy-nominated viewing and a growing fan base, the still excellent Race decided to change format this time out and go with families of four. I can’t even pin down all the reasons why this was a bad idea, but it mainly has to do with the amount of intimacy and suspense that teams of two bring. Not to mention that asking a viewer to familiarize themselves with 40 people is a bit much, especially a new viewer! Many viewers simply didn’t even try, preferring instead to join the show more than halfway through, after the numbers had been sufficiently reduced.
The locations during this Race have been lackluster as well. One of the major draws of the Race is getting to see foreign lands. How the teams deal with being in these places makes up about 60% of how they make decisions, communication breakdown, and whether or not teams get near the breaking point. Seeing America has been lovely, and watching people get lost in their own home states has also been amusing, but only in passing. The producers have sucked out the two biggest reasons the show works, and hopefully this will be a one-shot experiment.
That being said, the Race still gets it right in general format and casting. Layering bland families with outrageously memorable families has been the saving grace of this season. One family in particular has had an incredibly negative response from a majority of the show’s fans.
The Weaver clan regularly extol the virtues of Christianity while simultaneously passing crude judgments on any team (“the desperate housewives”), place (“Utah is for losers”)or Race Rule (cavalierly eating McDonalds on the Yield mat, appearing disinterested in their butt’s being saved by another non-elimination leg). This coupled with schizoid singing and dancing routines has been able to keep viewers interested after the other resident crazy team, the Paolo’s, were eliminated. In defense of the Weavers, they have gone through the horrible tragedy of losing their father/husband in a race track accident, and appear to have only been strengthened by it. Say what you will about the daughters’ wardrobe choices- this family actually loves each other and it is apparent. They seldom argue, and even after being baselessly ignored and ruthlessly taunted by everyone but Phil they have kept it together. Genius in casting or editing- either way it’s a big plus for the season.
Also in the Race-for-most-annoying family is the Godlewski clan. This four-sister group illustrates why four sisters should probably never be stuck together for longer than an hour or so at a time. Poor Christine Godlewski. She overanalyzes, talks waaaay too much, is defensive, overly emotional, hyper sensitive, and has a glass breaking vocal quality to boot. Equally offensive is the way this woman is treated by her siblings. Their reactions vary from surreptitious eye-rolling, jaw clenching and forehead massaging to plain-old cold shoulders and insensitive bitchy sarcasm. When watching these four, I wonder why in the world they thought this was a good idea. Oh, yah! I guess a million bucks would make up for any amount of sullen back-seat crying.
Even with a format tweak misfire, this edition confirms the Amazing Race as part of the long-lasting CBS trifecta of Reality television. Since this is the only Reality series beloved enough by critics to receive Emmy love, I’d say it has a chance to outlast them all.
The Guilty Pleasure: Big Brother
Even a novice in the Big Brother world recognizes that this was just about the best season ever. Again, while staying within the format we expect, fresh ideas were introduced, challenges were spiced up, and character reigned supreme. Once considered the lowest form of classless Reality TV, Big Brother is proving its critics wrong at every turn. Former Houseguests receive as much press and promo-time as Survivor, and have the most impressive fan-base of any Reality show. Recently the show has seemed to even gain a bit of love from CBS, whom has finally realized that Big Brother is, in fact, the largest part of their summer programming success.
The driving force behind the fan base is the Live Feed concept coupled with the three- nights-weekly format, one of the last Reality devices not yet stolen by a replica. Thank goodness for that, because who needs a Surreal Life Live Feed destroying Big Brother’s cred?
Casting has also been a major bonanza at Big Brother this season in particular, giving us memorable heroes (Kaysar, Janelle, Howie) and despicable villains (Eric, Ivette, Maggie, April). What other show has been able to give us a hero of Middle-Eastern heritage? Seriously, has any scripted show done this? Fans have literally said that Kaysar Ridha single-handedly changed their opinions about both Iraqi-Americans and Muslims in general, shattering stereotypes and preconceived notions alike. What other Reality show can boast of those results from a bold, original idea?
When former Big Brother seasons reach syndication, like Survivor and now the Amazing Race, it will leap its final hurdle towards stellar ratings, full CBS support and the respect of industry know-it-alls.
How Other Networks’ Reality Ranks
After countless misfires (and I do mean countLESS) and a little British plagiarism, FOX finally figured it out with American Idol. This partially redeems them for exposing an unsuspecting public to years of Temptation Island clones and endless reruns of COPS.
Definitely entertaining and surprisingly impactful, this simple premise (thanks, Star Search) has managed to do nothing short of creating international celebrities. However, the most recent season failed to leave as lasting an impression as those before it, which is why it hasn’t made the Big Three cut. Could this show be waning after only a few years? It’s possible. While we all love to watch both train-wrecks-in-progress and underdogs-turned-superstars, we do have a cheese limit.
Shelving the juvenile group songs, “special appearances”, guest judges and unbelievably lame mini-commercials would hone American Idol into a more suspenseful nail-biter of a contest. Not to mention shaving off about a half an hour per episode and giving that much more rest and prep time to the contestants.
2. UPN -aka- the Little Network That Could
I am sure that UPN is aware of how big this show is for them. Yes, they do have Veronica Mars now, but until this season America’s Next Top Model was the only bright spot in an otherwise bleak schedule. The networks other attempts at Reality (Chains of Love, Road to Stardom) have not even registered on the Reality map, yet ANTM is quite possibly the best show that no one watches. Strange, that such a tiny network would produce a Reality show that far surpasses everything NBC & ABC have done in the last few years! Campy, emotional, and surprisingly tense- ANTM’s rating have grown with each passing year.
The lovely, funny, and whip-smart Tyra Banks does not skimp on either quality or content, and her active participation in every episode adds an extremely valuable aspect, that is, she actually cares about this product with her name stamped all over it. Trump could take lessons!
Hopefully, ANTM can overcome the critical derision and turn the Big Three into the Big Four.
Donald Trump should thank every member of NBC personally with a check. The Apprentice has done something for his image that no amount of real estate ever could have. It gave him some kind of human appeal, made him almost hip.
At least, for the first two seasons.
This played-out format has been painted up, undressed, turned inside-out, smashed and rebuilt and still nothing will improve it, or stop its inevitable decline. Had it been left alone to mature, one season at a time with no replicas, it might still be a big thing.
There is nothing, I repeat, NOTHING that distinguishes one season of the Apprentice from the next. Same insipid, endorsement heavy challenges (they even managed to make Star Wars boring). Same insipid, endorsement heavy “rewards”. And last AND least, same unnecessarily long and live finale. Finales are meant to be jaw-dropping and emotional (see The Biggest Loser), not yawn inducing, staged and uncomfortable. And speaking of staged, Donald, enough with the table-slap, OK? And why don’t you just REPLACE George with Bill already! Maybe you can knock off his clone over at Martha Stewart and give her the REAL George. Couldn’t hurt at this point.
Speaking of the Apprentice: Martha Stewart, it has received the lion’s share of the criticism for the franchise. In all honesty, it is NO different from Trump’s, even the stiff Elimination style remains (heck, even George and Caroline remained). Was anyone really surprised it didn’t take off? Why on earth would we want to watch the same show over and over again twice a week and also on MSNBC reruns? If the show were more compelling, then maybe- but Ms. Stewart can’t even decide on a catch phrase, and the show is already over!
Given enough of one thing, people will reject it and never look back. Martha’s show may have succeeded if the network had abandoned its “one-two punch” (actually a sucker punch) and let it run alone, in between Trump’s versions. I would personally love to celebrate the end of this boring saga. If NBC insets on rehashing it again, how about one season with Trump, one season with someone else, etc, but alternating. I don’t think people would watch the same show twice in a week even if it was Survivor played by Big Brother contestants!
Well, NBC always has that remarkable Average Joe franchise to fall back on…
Once a reality contender, the Bachelor/ette series has dwindled into an MTV’ish Real-World type experiment in sociology. The only highlight of the show is watching 20 males/females trapped in a house while all making out with the same person that half of them don’t even like. Wait, that’s the highlight? Gross. Seriously, how disgusting and wrong is that idea? I’m all for matchmaking, but come on!
Nothing can improve this series short of a mega-superstar taking the lead, and what celebrity would want to heap that kind of shame upon himself? The Bachelor’s kitsch value has long since worn off (“up next, it’s the most shocking Rose Ceremony EVER”), and the entire dating show format is too passé to even care. How many Trista & Ryan’s does ABC expect to find? The show has gotten so ridiculously bad that their last truly awful, uninspired (and probably final) Bachelorette couldn’t even be bothered to choose a final man! If she didn’t care, why should we?
ABC is thanking their lucky Dancing With the Stars that they have even one Reality hit. They should stick to developing C and D list celebrities to stock the dance floor.
Reality TV isn’t dead, dying, or even sick. The originals remain, and every once in a while, a new delicacy joins the menu, like Project Runway or Hell’s Kitchen. What IS dying is the replication trend, as networks discover that it might smell like reality and look like reality, but it still tastes like Spam.
-A.L. Cronenberg is a freelance writer and avid Reality TV fan from Denver, Colorado.
Comments welcome at One.21Gigawatts@hotmail.com