The Really Real Reality of Reality of TV

James Wood on John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead:

One feels that Sullivan shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways: if reality TV is “really real” because it catches people in the act of being on reality TV, it has only a limited, or possibly null, reality, and Sullivan is just being cynical and jokey. On the other hand, if reality TV is really real because it connects us with Poe and Whitman, and displays America for us as we really are, then large claims are being made for reality TV’s (perhaps inadvertent and unwitting) powers of mimesis. It can’t quite be both, and the ambivalence perhaps alerts us to the fact that essays like this one have their own unexamined unreality, too.

Why does Wood say that reality TV has “only a limited, or possibly null, reality” if the reality it presents is how people behave on reality television? This comes as raw assertion, and it wasn't at first clear to me that he might be right.
I'm familiar with Sullivan's argument only through the passage Woods quotes, but it strikes me that Sullivan is indeed making a large claim, not at all inconsistent with the fact that reality TV is at best the really real reality of people caught on reality TV.  Isn't the idea that when Americans accept the offer to make their lives public–when they get their fifteen minutes, when they've readied for their close-up–they mostly offer tearful confessions of stymied aspiration, outraged entitlement, myopic self-justification, avid but dumb cunning, and an unending parade of hurt feelings?
Of course, the casts of reality shows are manipulated by producers, are often “performing” the words and sentiments they think the producers think makes “good television,” and the final broadcast product has been heavily edited with a view to maximum drama. But what makes a good reality show so gripping is that these people are so willing to be goaded, that their hair-pulling performances of petty emotion are so authentic. And there is a remarkable implied consensus about the humiliations those of us at home most enjoy.
I think Woods' strongest argument would be that reality shows cannot reveal America's Freudian Id because we are only ever shown people who thought it was a good idea to appear on a reality show. Reality TV selects for vain, emotionally volatile extroverts. Fear Factor doesn't prove that, as a general matter, Americans will eat bugs for money. It proves that Americans who won't eat bugs for money don't show up at casting calls for Fear Factor. Sullivan's argument that “There are simply too many of them—too many shows and too many people on the shows—for them not to be revealing something endemic” pretty clearly fails to get around the self-selection objection. But it does suggest that America contains a huge number of vain, emotionally volatile extroverts. That's significant in itself. And surely the verbal and emotional scripts America's dim, neurotic, self-infatuated chatterboxes most readily deploy are drawn from and thus indicative of the broader culture. “[T]he test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe,” are the monsters among us who most guilelessly channel and enact the ambient American spirit, and a huge swathe of the rest of us want to watch. It's hard to see that as a “null” reality.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center