The year in reality TV, 2009

That smell in the air is nostalgia from the past year, and it’s time to reflect back on what we’ve seen and learned. The last year of the 2000s began with Kara DioGuardi coming on board and ended with Simon Cowell threatening to leave, and included the new president telling kids they wouldn’t be reality stars (outrage!).

Also this year, Phil Keoghan stripped to his underwear, Sanjaya said he’d pose nude, Mark Ballas got an erection, and Jeff Archuleta got arrested for a happy ending. Melissa Rycroft was dumped and found redemption, Jane Goody got married and died on TV, miniature models stampeded, a former Big Brother cast member accused me of slander (if only he knew what that meant), and MTV’s drunk cast trashed a house.

The following are the trends in reality TV I noticed while looking back at those stories and a lot more. Thanks for watching and reading with me these past 12 months, never mind 9.5 years. Happy new year, and I’ll be back in 2010, when I’m sure there will be a lot to talk about.

  • Big personalities entertain us and get our attention. From table-flipping Teresa to tale-spinning Benjamin “Coach” Wade, Adam Lambert to Susan Boyle, the year was dominated by big personalities. Of the three of those people who were on competition series, none of them actually won, but they all gave us a lot of entertainment. Sometimes those personalities were already big–there was the “blood fued” between Annie Duke and Joan Rivers, Dennis Rodman’s intervention, and Clint Black’s masturbation–but as it should, reality TV either introduced us to new sides of those people or to brand-new characters like Russell Hantz.
  • Winning isn’t everything. Quick: Who won Top Chef 5? The answer: Hosea, possibly the weakest winner in a year of weak winners. The person who stands out from that season, Fabio, got his own show. Yes, as noted above, winners aren’t always the ones we remember. That’s not to say winners like Survivor Samoa‘s Natalie didn’t deserve their wins, it’s just that winning doesn’t have the same impact it once did. Russell Hantz is the only cast member people are really talking about, Adam Lambert outsold Kris Allen, Molly got dumped but still got Jason, and Susan Boyle blew everyone away despite losing. Wins can still be impressive, like JT’s unanimous victory on Survivor Tocantins, but it doesn’t always matter. Just ask all those Top Model winners.
  • It’s still not okay to be gay. Although reality TV brought television its first openly gay person on An American Family back in the early 1970s, being gay can still “fuck things up,” as American Idol‘s Adam Lambert said. Sure, there’s been progress–After Elton’s Michael Jensen points out that “the discussion about Adam’s sexuality also took place in the mainstream … and unlike with past contestants, the buzz about Adam possibly being gay didn’t seem to hinder him at all”–but despite clear evidence of Adam’s sexual orientation, he didn’t come out until after the show ended. During the show, the media created a fake feud between allegedly conservative Kris Allen and flamboyant Adam, but Kris proved he was more than fine with Adam, who, it turns out, can sell records, but let’s not forget recent reaction to his AMA performance, which shows the world isn’t quite comfortable yet. Meanwhile, CBS closeted a whole bunch of Amazing Race contestants while Nigel Lythgoe freaked out about two men dancing on So You Think You Can Dance, and then defended his homophobia. He eventually softened and may have even grown. Hopefully, other people with similar attitudes can grow, too.
  • The Bachelor‘s has its most amazingly dramatic incredible season ever. ABC’s romantic reality series spawned dozens of copycats and parodies, but has been in the middle of a renewal ever since it decided to embrace its failure to produce lasting relationships. But the 13th edition may have set the bar too high: the bachelor dumped one woman and picked another, and then dumped the woman he picked in order to pick the woman he dumped. It was so outrageous bloggers claimed it was fabricated and planned but producers and the show’s host denied those charges, and even said it was the bachelor’s decision to do that on camera. ABC milked all of this to death, perhaps because it realized that there’s nowhere really for the show to go after this but down. What could be more shocking, besides the bachelor proposing to Chris Harrison? I guess we’ll just have to wait until after the break to find out.
  • Editors, producers, and networks distort reality. Editing a reality show has to be one of the most difficult jobs associated with production, because hundreds or thousands of hours of footage have to be condensed into understandable, entertaining narrative arcs. Often, that means excluding things that happen, or editing around someone who’s boring. Sometimes, though, editors, producers, and networks use the editing to distort reality, and that’s not okay. The broadcast of Big Brother 11‘s first big fight, which was full of racism, actually sanitized a contestant’s bigotry and worse, altered reality to make it seem like other people were overreacting to the racism. Later, CBS issued a pathetic statement that attempted to explain why they did that. During the most recent season of The Amazing Race, we learned that the editing lied about all kinds of things, from Ericka’s mother’s problem with Brian to the Globetrotters conflict with the gay brothers. The worst part is that none of that was necessary.
  • Reality TV can still be real. In a universe that includes the Jenner/Kardashian family and Heidi and Spencer, it’s worth remembering that reality television can bring us genuine reality in an entertaining form. Top Chef Masters humbled some impressively humble and talented chefs, while Hoarders illustrated mental illness in a stunning way. Standbys like Mythbusters and Dirty Jobs kept us informed and entertained, while other shows took us to awesome new places, from Out of the Wild‘s Alaska to Whale Wars‘ Antarctic. Thankfully, truly unscripted TV still has the power to do that.

Review: Married at First Sight

Marriage At First Sight

In an era of Tinder and Grindr, instant acceptance or dismissal of a potential partner, or instant sex with another body, Married at First Sight offers the thrill of watching strangers deal with the very basics of relationships.

Beyond the headline-grabbing premise, the series has turned out to be a stripped-down, authentic exploration of something very interesting. Read the full review.

about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.