The Anthropocene Reviewed — Reality Television
What are we watching, anyway?
Author’s Note: My book club recently finished reading John Green’s collection of essays, The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet. We were challenged to write one of our own reviews on something from the modern world, and this is what I came up with. This essay is in no way affiliated with or condoned by John Green, it’s just a token of admiration for the though-provoking insights he wrote.
The other day I attempted to watch an episode of NBC’s new reality show, The Courtship. The Courtship is basically The Bachelorette but with a “Regency” twist: the show takes place in an old manor house and the contestants all wear vaguely “Regency”-themed clothing and follow the rules of courtship etiquette from the time (allegedly).
I’m using a liberal amount of quotation marks and parentheticals because I’m skeptical that anyone involved with the show knows much about the Regency time period. The show is promoted as finding love “Jane Austen-style,” but I am similarly skeptical that anyone involved with the show knows much about Jane Austen.
I’m a firm believer in letting people enjoy what they enjoy, so if you’ve watched The Courtship and liked it, more power to you. For me, it was hard to get over the hurdle of suspending my disbelief that the show is anything but a desperate money grab, targeted toward people like me. I can almost imagine the group of executives sitting around and trying to figure out what women in my demographic like:
“Henry Cavill,” they tried first, but he was too expensive.
“Chocolate?” But how to turn that into a show?
“Bridgerton!” someone hit on at last, because let’s be honest, this was the real inspiration for The Courtship, not Jane Austen.
I like all of the separate elements that were seemingly brought together to try to make The Courtship. I like Bridgerton, and Jane Austen, and romance, and costumes, and trying to inject more racial inclusivity into two genres (reality television and period dramas) that have historically been very bad at including anyone but white people.
Through the first episode, though, I couldn’t quite shake the uncomfortable feeling that I was looking into a very unflattering mirror. This is what network executives think someone like me would want to watch. This forced, uninspired bastardization of one of the greatest authors in the English language is something that was made for me.
It provided some uncomfortable self-reflection. But then, I suppose, all reality television does.
I’m not going to do the thing where I pretend to hate reality television on principle. It’s been the trend for some time to claim to hate reality television when the sheer number of viewers tells us otherwise. If everyone hated reality television as much as they claim to, networks wouldn’t keep making new iterations of the Real Housewives franchise, and the Kardashian-Jenners wouldn’t be some of the richest people in the world.
In that spirit, I will admit I have watched some reality television in my day. Like most hypocritical viewers, I am very forgiving of the low-brow pleasures of my reality shows of choice, and incredibly disdainful of the vices of others. Temptation Island, Teen Moms? Pfft. What a waste of time. Nevermind that I binge-watched Love is Blind at a frankly astounding rate, and that I have been deep in the pit of Bachelor Nation for longer than I care to admit.
Thankfully, I am in good company. Meryl Streep recently admitted to watching reality television to numb the pain of existence. Billie Eilish, Selena Gomez, Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga, and Jennifer Aniston have all made their love of reality programs known. Reality television might be the lowest of the lowest-brow entertainment, but it has a certain level of cultural cache if Hollywood’s hottest stars are all paying attention.
Plus, again, the numbers speak for themselves; while most scripted series have slowly dwindled and died a prolonged death on network television, reality TV clings on as one of the only types of entertainment still capable of bringing in viewership. Just because something is popular doesn’t make it good, though; and bandwagon fallacies aside, I will not attempt to claim that reality TV has much merit, despite my participation in consuming it.
The pleasure of reality TV seems to be, for most people, in the recognition that it is bad, and trashy, and mindless. It is also a form of entertainment that thrives off the willing suffering of others. I would (probably) not spend much time watching people do what I really do in my day-to-day life; but I am endlessly entertained by humans only vaguely resembling myself doing things I would never in a million years put myself through willingly, and calling it “real.”
Even when I am watching people arguably more glamorous, beautiful, wealthy, talented, and privileged than myself, I can see the ways they behave in extreme circumstances (ways they were doubtless coached or coerced into behaving for my very entertainment) and look down upon them. Because I, in the comfort of my home and safety of my normal day-to-day environment, am somehow better than them. This version of reality, in which I can judge the choices of others from a safe distance, is a comforting one.
It’s an experience not unlike the ancient Greek tragedies, where audiences experienced a collective catharsis in watching the hero make his tragic mistake, allowing his fatal flaw to ruin his life. In the absolute destruction of his existence, the audience comforted themselves in knowing that at least they were not him.
Not that I’m trying to make reality television sound any nobler than it is by making this comparison. It is not noble. It is pure vengeful fantasy. Despite its moniker, the real pleasure of reality television seems to be an escape from reality. We watch, most of us recognizing that what we are seeing is not real. It is, at best, a heightened and edited reality, and at worst, a convoluted RPG for hot people trying to get famous. (And often succeeding.)
Television might be one of the newer outlets for our fascination with watching the lives of people just like us but very, very different, but this fascination has existed for seemingly as long as people could write about other people. Gossip columns, celebrity memoirs, society reporting–it seems humans have always been interested in other humans. That’s why a good piece of gossip at the office will spread like wildfire and why we just can’t seem to get enough of social media. That is why the next logical stepping stone after reality-television fame is building a platform on Instagram or YouTube or TikTok. So we can keep watching.
We like to look at other humans as long as it doesn’t make us look too carefully at ourselves. If we recognize ourselves–our bad behaviors, our selfish choices, our ridiculous qualities–in a reality show, then the experience quickly becomes uncomfortable. How often have we watched the dating shows and gleefully identified the people that were never going to get picked as finalists, even though most of us would be shattered to hear others deem us unworthy of love? How often have we laughed at the bad singers they bring in for the first round of American Idol, and wondered how they could be so self-deluded, all the while ignoring the ugly thing in ourselves that likes to watch others fail?
Reality television isn’t good, even though it can be very entertaining. There’s no shame in watching it, but there might be shame in refusing to see what is actually real in it, and failing to acknowledge what it shows us about ourselves.
I give reality television two stars.
Elizabeth Gilliland is a teacher, wife, mom, Dr., and the author of What Happened on Box Hill, the first in the Austen University Mysteries series.