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

4 thoughts

  1. I’m glad you picked up on this passage because it is exactly the one that intrigued me as well. Here’s another take on it.

    Why does Wood say that “catching people in the act of being on reality TV” is showing only a “limited reality”? It’s limited not because we’re seeing only a bizarre subset of the general population, nor because they are inauthentic, nor because it’s produced and edited, but simply because “being on reality TV” is a limited and non-representative aspect of reality at large. Not only most people’s lives, but even most of the lives of “vain, emotionally volatile extroverts”, is just lived at a lower key.

    We are seeing what the contestants choose to offer in that context, but the context is so peculiar that perhaps it doesn’t reveal much.

    It’s like cockfighting. The roosters are “really fighting”. They’re not pretending to fight. But that doesn’t tell you much about roosters.

  2. They need a reality show about the obamas. He is so guarded in public, more so than any other modern president. His wife has got to be some piece of work in private. A show about the obamas wouldnt be pretty that’s for sure. I believe they have a lot to hide from us.

  3. The quote is great as I think it makes you ponder the heart of the matter. And, honestly, that is do people really believe in the “reality” of these shows on either side, or is it a mutual cynical game? Do people really believe that the Kardashians are “living” what they see for real? Do the Kardashians believe they are “living” the show for real? Or is it various degrees of the two?

    We all know these shows are heavily edited, so once you start the clipping process where does the reality go? On the cutting room floor. It’s pretty well known that these shows edit for drama, suspense etc and swap footage around to a sequence that never happened. Is that real? Was the Kardashian wedding “real”? Did it jolt people to question “reality television”?

    I think the only thing it reveals, really (ha) is people’s taste in television is for drama. Whether that drama is scripted totally, or semi-scripted and left open isn’t really a big deal to most people. They realize that it’s not “real” in the sense of their own living. Watching other people’s catfights, family arguments, career struggles, and daily goings on makes you feel better about your own. That’s the reality, nothing more. You think that people don’t know “The Bachelor” is a total setup job by now? But they watch anyhow because they get a fantasy “reality” vicariously and get to also live the drama aftermath when dreams are shattered (like their own) and then get to feel better about their own lives (“Well, as least I’m not so bad as poor Vienna!). The lines between a character and a person are thus blurred.

    As in Zen do not seek reality beneath the surface, for the surface is reality.

  4. “But it does suggest that America contains a huge number of vain, emotionally volatile extroverts”

    America is huge. It contains a huge number of every kind of person.

    More interesting is that such a large share of American viewers want to view this particular kind of person. Reality shows are null reality–but actual reality is full of people who want to watch null reality.

Comments are closed.