A moderately famous friend of mine was asked by a cable network to star in her own reality-television series. The offer was tempting enough that she didn’t turn it down flat. She asked me for advice.
I reminded her that all of these shows are created in the editing room by producers looking for the most lurid and nutty angle. With the right editing, even a normal person can be made to look mentally and emotionally imbalanced. Not to be too rude, I said, but you’re already kind of erratic. Imagine what they’ll do to you!
Reality television didn’t start this way. When MTV’s The Real World premiered in 1992—arguably the first modern reality-television series—it had all the trappings of a hip sociological experiment. A bunch of young people hung out in a colorful loft in downtown New York and interacted with one another on camera with occasional breaks to enter a “confession room” and reveal their deepest secrets. The show was compelling enough to last 25 years and take place in dozens of cities. It also felt right on the contemporary edge: Here were young people, on the young people’s network, hashing out issues of race, sex, sexuality, class—years before these things became ho-hum parts of every high-school curriculum.
It may have felt groundbreaking, but it wasn’t. (“Groundbreaking” television rarely is.) The Real World was an updated, more physically attractive version of An American Family, a documentary series that had aired on public television 20 years earlier. For seven months, An American Family followed the Louds, a Santa Barbara family, capturing on film some unforgettable moments—such as when Pat Loud, the mother of the family, demands a divorce and Lance Loud, the oldest son, announces that he’s gay. In 1971, that was revolutionary television.
The current favorites of the reality genre—Bravo Television’s The Real Housewives franchise and E!’s Keeping Up with the Kardashians—don’t touch on third-rail cultural issues or contentious political battles. Unlike their predecessors, which tried to show real people grappling with contemporary crosscurrents, these newer reality shows aren’t really about anything at all, except highly emotional outbursts and weirdly irrational anger.
There are screaming hysterics in practically every episode. People are always storming off, leaping from the table, erupting in obscenities, throwing drinks. There’s scheming and double-dealing and endless confrontation. In The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, former child-star Kim Richards dissolves in the back seat of a limousine, shrieking and sobbing. You stole my house! she screams at her sister, while the viewers are left puzzled and out-of-the-loop: Wait, what? Her house? How do you steal a house?
In an episode of The Real Housewives of New York, one of the stars removes her prosthetic leg and tosses it on the table. I’m not sure exactly why, but everyone freaked out for the next half an hour, and there was lots of screaming.
It must be said: You can get seriously rich appearing on reality television. The Karadashian family counts two new billionaires around the dinner table. During her time on the Real Housewives of New York, Bethenny Frankel launched a line of bottled cocktails she later sold to Beam Global for $120 million. Others have launched wine brands, clothing lines, hit records. So maybe it pays to be mentally unstable on camera.
The kids from the old Real World haven’t gone so big. Jon Brennan, from Real World Los Angeles, is now a youth pastor in Kentucky. Eric Nies, from the very first season of Real World New York, is a life coach and an advocate of ayahuasca, the Peruvian psychedelic plant medicine. Yes, Sean Duffy, of a spinoff series called Road Rules, became a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, while his wife, Real Worlder Rachel Campos, is now a Fox talking head. But that’s about it.
Rewatch Pat Loud ask her husband to move out of their house—you can see it on YouTube—or the ejection of the troublemaker David “Puck” Rainey from the Rachel Campos season of The Real World, and it’s impossible not to notice the relative restraint everyone shows on camera. An American Family is a quietly gripping documentary of a pretty quiet family. The kids from the early seasons of The Real World at their most rambunctious were a lot saner and more put-together than any of the Real Housewives, who are practically walking advertisements for clozapine. And next to the Kardashians, the Louds seem like members of the House of Windsor.
The question is, does appearing on modern reality television make normal people seem crazy, or do the dozens and dozens of reality-television programs attract the mentally and emotionally unstable? After all, normal people with normal jobs and normal lives can’t integrate the supervisory requirements of reality television into their real lives. It’s only people with nothing at all to do, and no dignity to lose, for whom it’s an option, which suggests that American reality television is now a holding pen for ambulatory psychotics, like a kind of televised One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
It’s impossible to say, of course, but it certainly seems as if the people who are appearing on reality television are getting crazier and more unstable. Some of the Real Housewives have had brushes with the law, some have done time. The winner of last year’s Food Network competition show, Worst Cooks in America, was recently arrested for murder.
At the moment it appears that Americans struggling with mental-health challenges fall into three broad categories. The lucky ones get the help they need, from family and medical professionals. The unlucky, unfortunately, end up on the street where they terrify passers-by with violent behavior. The rest appear on reality-television shows where they slowly, inexorably lower the standard of what passes for normal behavior. And/or get rich.
My actress friend called me up to tell me she was turning the reality-television producers down. She didn’t trust herself, she said, not to do something truly nuts on camera.
Nuts like what? I asked. And she told me this story:
She was about eight and she was babysitting for the newborn baby of close family friends. It wasn’t babysitting babysitting—the infant was asleep in the crib, the parents were downstairs—but she was thrilled for the opportunity to take care of a real live human.
The baby was snoring peacefully, but when you’re eight and you’re excited about your first babysitting gig, that’s a pretty disappointing way to kick things off.
So she picked the baby up. And you know how this goes, right? You pick up a sleeping baby and before you know it, you have a crying baby on your hands. But this baby didn’t wake up. Just kept snoring away like a happy, sleepy lump. So she took the baby and lightly tapped its little head against the side of the crib.
It was a very light tap, she says. The baby woke up and started crying, so she held it against her and rocked it to sleep and gently put it back into the crib and had the full babysitting experience. And was complimented by the adults later. You have the magic touch, they all said, and she beamed with pride and completely forgot that she had banged an infant’s head against a piece of wood in order to make it cry so she could comfort it afterwards. What if I do something like that on camera? she asked.
“C’mon,” I said. “You’re not eight years old anymore.”
“I know myself well enough,” she answered, “to know that in the course of a day, I still say and do things that would make me look pretty crazy and repellent.”
She had a point. For now, anyway. Wait a few years and her brand of crazy may not be crazy enough. Things on reality television have a way of getting worse. Oh, and The Real World is being revived.
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