23rd Oct2020

A Trip Through The Trends Of Reality TV

by James Smith

When it comes to the sheer variety of shows that have been on TV, there are few genres that are more maligned than the good old reality TV approach. Most frequently called “trash TV” by both those who deride and love it, there’s no denying that we love a bit of heightened reality, whether or not it can truly still be called “reality TV” as the subjects get more and more implausible.

However, in one way or another, it seems reality TV always seems to capture some sort of zeitgeist, speaking to enough people on a deep enough level that millions tune in to the best of them without fail. Or maybe we just love watching a train crash on TV. Either way, here are some of the different phases and trends we’ve seen reality TV going through and just why they strike such a chord with us.

The Singing Competition

On paper, this isn’t really what you would call reality TV in the way that it’s not supposed to document the real lives of individuals, but is rather supposed to be more of a knockout tournament set-up, a pure test of singing skill, stage charisma, and the other talents that are supposed to make people a star. However, as we moved from Pop Idol to the X-Factor, with other competitions like The Voice and Sing On stepping up to the plate, it became less just about the competition alone and more and more about the contestants who were singing in it.

Whether they were natural or calculated, we found it hard to turn away from the narratives depicting the trials and tribulations of our contestants, and often the public would pick people to love or loathe based more on personality than how they could actually sing. You can probably still rustle a few feathers amongst friends by mentioning the name “Jedward.”

The Dating Game

This is a genre that evolved from traditional game show to reality TV drama fuel in a way like few others have. A US original, “The Dating Game” originally had us watching short snippets of contestants trying to find a good match out of some eligible bachelors or bachelorettes, with Blind Date being a particularly popular UK turn on the genre.

However, over time, the genre started to focus less on the studio game show element, and more on dramatizing the relationships themselves. Perhaps the most famous examples of this happening are The Bachelor and Love Island. Both series have seen plenty of seasons and spin-offs, the former being more of a contest about how cutthroat individuals can be even about pursuing a romantic goal, while the latter is much more about simply throwing a bunch of attractive people on an island and seeing the sparks that fly in all kinds of places.

A peek behind the curtain of Celebrity

There’s nothing more that we love than watching ‘how the other half live.’ Even for those of us who don’t like extravagant wealth or the extravagantly wealthy, it’s hard not to be curious, no? That is precisely what this genre of reality TV is all about. A look at the supposedly “real” lives of celebrity families, this genre of TV ended up introducing a whole new breed of celebrity, including Sharon Osborne, Paris Hilton, and even a different side of Hulk Hogan outside his usual wrestling gigs. Even if some of them were famous for other reasons before, they got a whole new kind of relevance just by ostensibly being with their family.

Of course, it’s hard to say how much of any of these shows were scripted. However, most viewers did enjoy a certain kind of schadenfreude from watching these celebrities get into all kinds of petty and stupid scenarios.

The Real Housewives of yadda yadda

It’s not always called “the Real Housewives” but this general family of TV shows always explores one premise that people just can’t help but tune in to: the trials and tribulations of spoiled, privileged women who are dealing with the most first-world of problems. These shows are drama fuel, taking the pomp and fame of the fly-on-the-wall approach to celebrity reality TV shows, but giving that to a bunch of people (usually housewives of the rich and famous) who really haven’t done anything to earn the platform.

Though a lot of us might tune in to watch some Karen-on-Karen combat, it could be said that the real genius of these shows is always finding someone relatively normal and likeable to root for as she survives a friend circle that probably should not exist. Or maybe we just like saying “yas queen” to people being incredibly extra.

Big Brother

Okay, so this isn’t really a genre in and of itself. However, when it comes to defining the future of how reality TV shows were filmed and produced, nothing has had quite the influence of Big Brother. The initial seasons of this show which has now aired over 440 seasons in over 54 countries, could arguably be described as quite scholarly. How will people react when they’re living in a home with strangers, unable to contact the outside world, while their every move is being recorded and broadcast to the world?

Adding some drama to the mix has always been a factor, with voting housemates out being a staple of the series from the very beginning. However, as the series has gone on, stakes have gotten stranger and stranger, as new contentious elements are introduced, whether it’s one series that sees contestants able to be jailed with only the bare essentials for survival, to others that separate them into effectively lower and upper classes. Plus, Big Brother gave us Dead Set, which is another reason to just adore it, really, and another reason to adore Charlie Brooker of Black Mirror fame.

Surviving the Wilderness

Amongst the first and certainly amongst the most fondly remembered of this type of reality TV show is Survivor, but there have been some really stand-out competitors, such as The Island with Bear Grylls, or I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Here. The premise remains fairly consistent: a group of people, be they celebrities or normies like you and me, are put together on an island without contact with the outside world.

There are varying levels to how much the people on the island are expected to fend for themselves, with some being more produced and involving more of a gameshow appeal, but it seems like we’re suckers for punishment. Unlike some of the others mentioned here, however, people tend to really root for and empathise with the contestants of these kinds of shows.

RuPaul’s Drag Race

Again, this isn’t a genre, but can we simply talk about how much this show has shaped the meme culture and language of the internet and social media? The ongoing theme of “no Beyonces,” “you’re perfect, you’re beautiful,” and “and I oop” being some of the most widely beloved. RuPaul’s Drag Race has become very much its own genre and is an atypically empowering and good-natured take on the often more mean-spirited genre of reality TV.

Reality TV has shone a light over just about every facet of daily life there is, but heightened it to such absurd degrees we can’t help but love it. Though it has been a while since the last big “trend” in the genre, we’re unlikely to ever really get away from reality TV. Which is just the way that some of us like it.

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