Despite all the predictions–or hopes–about its eventual downfall, reality TV is finishing its seventh year as a staple on network prime-time television. On cable, many networks have all but given their entire schedules over to unscripted programming. The quality of these shows ranges as much as their popularity, but nearly all of them offered something to talk about in 2007.
From Sanjaya and that bawling little girl to Charla’s triumphant return to The Amazing Race, there were plenty of noteworthy moments, whether they were shocking, awe-inspiring, or just weird. But beyond that Best Week Ever bait, some highlights and lowlights showed up repeatedly, often in different shows on different networks.
Here are those trends that I noticed in reality television this past year. Have a terrific rest of your 2007, and I’ll be back in 2008, ready for a writers’ strike-saturated market full of material for next year’s year-end lists.
- People we met and got to know on TV died. The worst part about getting emotionally attached to reality stars on television is that they are real people, and eventually they’ll die. For some reason, something happened this year, and we saw far too many deaths. Many of those were of reality show stars: The Real World San Diego‘s Frankie Abernathy, Work Out‘s Doug Blasdell, Hell’s Kitchen 2‘s Rachel Brown, Pirate Master‘s Cheryl Kosewicz, and The Anna Nicole Show‘s Anna Nicole Smith. We also lost Kathy Griffin’s dad John Griffin, who died in February, and Lou, the ex-husband of Real Housewives star Tammy. Some people weren’t central players, but were still memorable characters, such as Trading Spouses God Warrrior Marguerite Perrin’s daughter Ashley, while the deaths of people off-screen impacted Dancing with the Stars, after Jane Seymour’s mother and Marie Osmond’s dad both died. And there were those who were tangentially yet significantly linked to reality television, such as Don Ho, whose “Tiny Bubbles” played an integral role in one of the earliest competitive reality series, The Mole, and philosopher
Jean Baudrillard, whose theories on hyperreality helped to explain our attraction to the real people we watch in artificial environments.
- Second chances abounded. For many reality show stars, 2007 was the year of second chances. Donald Trump quit The Apprentice, which had basically been cancelled, but then NBC’s new chief re-hired Trump. Jillian Michaels returned for The Biggest Loser 4 and led her team to victory. TLC gave the Miss America pageant another chance at a reality series, and the directors of the Project Greenlight 3 flop Feast wrote Saw IV and will reunite with their Feast director to produce two Feast sequels. And this year, we learned that at least two old favorites will get second chances come 2008: Paradise Hotel will return in January, and so will TLC’s Trading Spaces, which has re-hired previously fired host Paige Davis.
- Terrible behavior gets way too much air time. Awful, contemptuous behavior–from terrible people?–took up way too much screen time this past year. The UK’s Big Brother faced a racism row, while the US’ Big Brother had a gay man who freely used the n-word and a winner who won because of his horrific behavior, which we knew about even before the season began. Mike “Boogie” Malin used his own STD and promiscuousness to get attention, a Real World Sydney cast member mocked Asians, and Rob Mariano punched a contestant during the auditions for his new reality show. Dog the Bounty Hunter Duane Chapman tried to justify his unjustifiable racist rant, although A&E did pull his show. That was a rare example of punishment–unlike, for instance, the producers of Big Brother, who were unapologetic about their support for their despicable winner. And let’s not forget how they and CBS protected their cast member Amber, who made anti-Semitic comments, just another chapter in an eight-year history of bigotry on the show.
- Bravo’s over-eagerness to please becomes painfully obvious. Bravo has a lot to be proud of. The cable network produces extraordinarily high-quality series, and single-handedly introduced real talent to the talent subgenre. But its success led the network to get cocky, insecure, and desperate all at once. That started as the network pumped out back-to-back seasons of Project Runway in 2006, and then began cloning it relentlessly. Top Design was a certifiable mess, with a drama-less conclusion each week that culminated in reality TV’s worst catchprhase ever (“See you later, decorator.” Stab me in the face now, Jonathan Adler.) In 2007, the one clone with real potential, Top Chef, all but gave up its focus on food for a focus on drama, and besides unethical editing, the focus on character over competition had real-life consequences. That was the one season that wasn’t followed by an over-eager, self-promoting reunion hosted by self-promoting network VP Andy Cohen, who took time away from blogging about his celebrity friends to be with us. Bravo also did some really inexcusable things, such as relentlessly teasing the death of one of its cast members and then shamelessly bragging about it. The network started acting like everything it was not. But 2007 also brought hope: Bravo held the debut of Project Runway 4 and stopped the overkill, and gave us a talent-focused third season of Top Chef. Hopefully, we’ll get more of those sorts of things in 2008, and fewer insecurity-driven decisions.
- Reality TV may be the worst place to find love, but we don’t really care. When Mary Delgado was arrested for punching Byron Velvick, their relationship presumably ended, or at least that put a giant question mark next to one of the two remaining relationships from The Bachelor‘s 14-season history. That show got its most shocking ending yet when Brad dumped both women. Also this year, Jen and Lorenzo broke up, Andy and Tessa called off their engagement, and Charlie and Sarah broke up. And that’s just one show. Flavor of Love 2 and its spin-off I Love New York both ended in break-ups, leading to new seasons. And even on shows that aren’t about dating, there were other assorted break-ups. Love, it seems, is hard to find on TV. The irony is, viewers don’t seem to care, as dating shows are more popular than ever. In fact, the break-ups fuel conversation and maintain interest, and what network executive could ask for anything more?
- There is such a thing as great reality television. It
‘s easy to complain about the shit, and the shows that offer high-quality tend not to make headlines in the same way that, say, The Hills does. The Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch and The History Channel’s extremely popular Ice Road Truckers let us ride along with real people in their really crazy jobs, as did Discovery’s Dirty Jobs, largely thanks to its engaging host. I discovered what many people have known for some time: So You Think You Can Dance, despite borrowing American Idol‘s format, is actually a much better show, thanks to its raw talent. Engaging talent showed up in other places, from HGTV’s second Design Star to Bravo’s Top Chef 3. Survivor pulled out two compelling seasons in a row, earning its spot as a top 15 show. There was even high quality from unexpected places: The earth provided its own drama on Planet Earth, while a student-produced version of The Amazing Race proved to be as gripping as the multi-million dollar version. If only 2008 were to give us just these sorts of shows, but that is not the case. At least we’ll have something to talk about.