I recently came across Nick Couldry’s article Reality TV, or The Secret Theater of Neoliberalism (regressive university paywall, sorry y’all) cited in an article by Henry Giroux. Reality TV is one of those tangential intellectual interests I have that I haven’t yet incorporated into some overarching field; suffice to say it’s pretty much the only television that interests me. Not only does the well manicured narrative fiction of Mad Men and Sopranos (to say nothing of matinee-level pablum like Lost) bore me with big budget soap opera antics, but they feel like such a throwback to a kinder, simpler era of teevee, full of Important Themes, Upper-Middle-Class Characters You Should Desire/Identify With, Blandly Generic Characters… the whole Large Studio Operations Creating Mandatory Mass Culture. Nostalgia for Fordism, I say. Reality TV feels like the avant-garde of the boob tube, the edge of culture that reveals the near-future (and its mode of production — contingent, contract-based, no unions, just-in-time — certainly better resembles the current dominant labor conditions). And the near-future ain’t pretty, suffice it to say.
Couldry’s article ties reality TV to a neoliberal labor regime of affective labor. Just like Walmart employees are required not only to help customers, but to actively enjoy it (recalling Zizek’s parable of the postmodern superego father — or hey, here’s the TV version at about 1:45). There is a continual recourse to authentic feeling, “being yourself” in the self-help jargon that so permeates our common sense. This requires perpetual surveillance.
The result is a permanent monitoring in work of authentic performance, justified by overarching “values”: “the ‘colleagues’, as staff are known, are exhorted to exhibit ‘miles of smiles’. ‘It’s got to be a real smile’, says Smith [head of Human Resources at Asda’s UK headquarters].”
As soon as you bring surveillance into the picture, reality TV wants to sneak in there too, as it’s predicated on continual surveillance of the contestant/characters. In this vein, Mark Andrejevic’s Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched is about the best thing I’ve ever read on the topic. And I think Courdry is on to something when he identifies how unpopular characters are often the ones who refuse to “play along” or don’t socialize well with others. According to Couldry, these people are punished and the obedient rewarded.
Yet, in Couldry’s account I think there’s something crucial missing from the appeal of reality TV. Who watches it for the people who get along, who work well with others, who fulfill their duty? You watch it precisely for the huge assholes, the fights, the backstabbing, the confrontations — without the villains, the people that break the rules and cause trouble, you’re stuck with the meager game show offerings from the producers. Which is not the point at all.
Now, most people avoid open conflict with their peers, especially when, as is so often the case in reality TV, you live with them. As Courdry points out, we have to put on that happy face, even in the “private” world of our social interactions. The passive-aggressive backbiting and gossip that is so characteristic of contemporary sociality — that makes for shitty television. To get people to authentically lash out in front of the televised surveillance of Big (Br)Other, you have to do a couple things: you torture people, and you get them drunk.
Almost all reality TV takes place in situations that are the very least uncomfortable — mass bunking, the removal of communication and entertainment devices, challenges and reveals designed, not to promote sociality and teamwork, but rather to push people to the breaking point. Put people in front of cameras, force them to live together, deprive them of sleep, put them through humiliating “challenges” (one show obscenely refers to this as “taking [the host’s] tough love”), all under the rubric of competition. Why? Because at some point, someone’s gonna snap, there’s going to be a fight, shit will get broken, and you will have a successful reality TV moment. The extreme measures are necessary: a jaded audience knows that the contestants know they are under surveillance. We know they monitor their behavior — indeed, on competitive shows, one of the most damning criticisms is that a contestant is “playing the game” too cravenly by “being fake.” If we want authentic emotion, the kind that pop psychology tells us is buried just beneath the surface, we have to put participants in stress positions so they let down the facade of performance and explode. Authentic emotion on reality TV is not the seamless performance of an amiable Walmart greeter, but precisely its opposite: a no-holds-barred insane catfight.
Occasionally reality TV is upfront about how much boozing facilitates the interaction seen on the show. Top Chef contestants commiserate over wine and beer when the challenges are done, and the producers seem to revel in hinting at the epicurean pleasures of such a lifestyle (indeed, the glorification of a difficult and low-paying service-sector occupation is perhaps the show’s chief function). The Real World and Jersey Shore practically make consuming alcohol a plot point in their series. Other shows are far more subtle — a half-covered Miller Lite can in the corner, an empty wine glass — but rest assured, the interaction you see on a lot of reality shows is powered by booze. This is a convenient short-cut, and a particularly American one, through the messy terrain of social anxiety caused, not only by the preponderance of strangers, but by the cameras themselves — no one wants to watch people titter awkwardly, it’s too real. And no one’s going to be fucking on camera without being intoxicated, same as porn. So ply the contestants with as much alcohol as they can drink, reality TV’s dirty little secret, as this charming NYT expose reveals.
“If the question is, ‘Has there ever been a reality show producer who has used alcohol to get more out of their contestants?’ I would say yes,” said Stuart Krasnow, executive producer of the Oxygen Network show “The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency.” “And I’d be willing to bet my mortgage on that one.”
Encouraging alcoholism? Well, yes, but this can be turned into a plot point as well. A Tool Academy contestant was forced off the show when it was revealed he had alcohol problems, something the producers displayed with dramatic slow-motion clips of the man holding the beer the show gave to him in endless quantities. The show then took credit for this intervention into the contestant’s addiction that it had enabled. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, reality TV, the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.
Now, narratively, the shows always contain these outbursts by mediation, public and private apologies, and the occasional (and routine) expulsion of a contestant, to blanket the inappropriate with appropriate moral garb. But this is clearly a feint — the actual drama is not in the rote apologies, but in the outbursts themselves. This is the true drama of reality TV and its true appeal. And perhaps this is because, under a neoliberal labor regime that, as Couldry notes, requires the increasing discipline of our emotions and behavior on and off the job, we relish seeing someone just fucking lose it every once in a while. To watch a seamless performance is not the desire of the reality TV audience — that’s the desire of the bosses, of the assholes watching footage of his employees counting cash and helping customers. Maybe we’ve internalized a bit of it, and we’re certainly encouraged to by the narrative devices of reality TV. But it’s not our desire, not structurally. We identify with the people on the wrong end of the surveillance footage because that is us in our everyday life. And we want to watch someone rebel.