The year in reality TV, 2008

Another 12 months have evaporated. The year started with American Gladiators, trudged along with a dull-ass American Idol season that even its lead judge admitted was boring, and was brought to a close by The Hills’ fourth-season finale. Along the way, we had everything from a bachelorette giving panties to the bachelor to an overexposed idiot’s search for a new best friend.

During the year, there was also shocking news and bizarre news, and intriguing news like the fact that people who watch reality TV are more likely to be huge whores online. Andy Cohen still has a job hosting reunion shows for some unknown reason; Bravo and Fox Reality both offered half-assed, insulting reality TV-focused awards shows; and let’s all forget that September disaster except for Jeff Probst’s Emmy win.

Yes, the year that gave us the final two Bravo Project Runways and hopefully the final Farmer Wants a Wife was crazy, and not just because the summer’s break-out hit was the oddly crazy-fun Wipeout. Amid all of this were some trends I noticed this year, and those are outlined below. Of course, a lot more happened, and you can take a look through the 2008 archives for other examples.

Thanks so much for reading in 2008, and I’ll see you the first full week of 2009, rested and ready for the new spring reality shows.

  • Adults finally get their own Real World in The Real Housewives. MTV-style reality shows are watched by all age groups, but while their frightening demographic groups (12 to 24, and 12 to 34) leave some room for adults, it’s not much. And although they provided entertainment to us in the past and sometimes in the present, it’s honestly kind of skeezy to watch a bunch of drunk 20-year-olds hook up and create artificial dramas in their empty, meaningless lives. The problem is that the casts of The Real World or Bad Girls Club or other similar trashy fun shows have very little by the way of lives that are relatable, so all they end up being is mockable, as in, ha ha, look at them, not my pathetic self for still watching Real World for the past 15 years. Enter Bravo’s The Real Housewives, which first debuted on Bravo in 2006, but became a full-fledged phenomenon in 2008, thanks to the debut of two spin-offs. The Real Housewives of New York City’s craziness was only eclipsed by the debut of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which took us places MTV has never even approached. In all of these absurd, hysterical, nutty people, Bravo has given us a guilty pleasure that can be enjoyed guilt-free.
  • High definition makes it clear that Survivor is back. Survivor never went anywhere, but has now delivered three solid, sometimes spectacular seasons in a row—or five if you count Fiji and Cook Islands, which I would. Survivor Gabon wasn’t anywhere near as good as last fall’s Survivor China or spring’s Survivor Micronesia (with its series of blindside, shocking blindside, holy fuck blindsides, but season 17 delivered from start to finish—and it really stood out because it was the first to be filmed in HD. The images are now so stunning that it’s impossible to believe the show never looked like this before. (The Amazing Race now looks a finger painting in comparison because it stubbornly refuses to switch.) Despite having debuted eight summers ago, Survivor was the eighth-most popular show in 2008, and why that is the case is very clear now.
  • Good reality show ideas are often really bad ones disguised by nostalgia, greed, or something else. This year, we saw many attempts to revive or create unscripted shows that seemed like good ideas at the time, but ended up sucking. The Mole and Paradise Hotel both attempted new versions, and both fell kind of flat—particularly when compared to their predecessors. The spring, strike-induced version of Big Brother was boring, a mortal sin greater than the appalling behavior that took place in the house and the control room. ABC tried to squeeze more money from two of its franchises, High School Musical and Dancing with the Stars, but the results, High School Musical: Get in the Picture and Dance War, were terrible. After firing her years ago, Trading Spaces brought host Paige Davis back, but seriously, who watches anymore? Sometimes, no matter how much we miss them, we need to lead dead things stay dead.
  • Good can actually prevail, even on reality TV competitions. “Judas” Dan Gheesling won Big Brother 10, the show’s first non-revolting winner maybe ever, and Bob the teacher won Survivor Gabon, having managed to both play the game and be a pretty good guy. It’s nice not to have to force yourself to barf after a season finale.
  • Trying to hide sexuality from reality viewers is kind of pointless. While Big Brother 9’s James admirably copped to and shrugged off his gay porn career and bisexuality, the show ignored those parts of his life, even though fans knew what was going on. Ditto with American Idol 7 and its ambiguously gay duo of finalists. Meanwhile, at the start of the year, Clay Aiken insisted he has no sexual desires, but later (finally!) admitted he really does desire men, while Real World Seattle slapper Stephen admitted he was gay. No surprise to anyone there. Still, networks and stars continue to try to hide what they shouldn’t bother to hide. HGTV told Mikey Verdugo he couldn’t come to the finale because the openly gay police officer’s gay porn past came up, which was pretty pathetically transparent and obnoxious on HGTV’s part, just as it was for the show’s editors to ignore his sexuality.
  • Acting is not for reality TV, but apparently it is. I won’t even mention The Hills here (whoops!), but far too many shows gave signs that their genuineness is compromised by fakeness this year. Some series actually have talking head robo-hosts who are fed lines by producers, while Extreme Makeover: Home Edition forces its beneficiaries to become actors by filming retakes. Even Deadliest Catch disappointingly admitted using pick-up shots (read: retakes). Stop this lazy bullshit, okay? If you don’t get it on tape, it doesn’t belong in the show.
  • Reality shows that are actually real are better than ones that aren’t. Last year, I cited great reality shows, and this year, 35 years after An American Family, TV gave us even more great shows—and the best of them were actually real. Go figure! Animal Planet’s new direction brought us the entertaining and thought-provoking Whale Wars and Grizzly Man Diaries, while MTV gave us The Paper, which followed high school journalists. There was also The Alaska Experiment on Discovery, Carrier on PBS, and Architecture School on Sundance. Even VH1 gave us Celebrity Rehab, which seemed like penance for its 74,125 moronic dating shows, which have their moments but as a whole are repetitive and unaware self-parody. Watching quasi-celebrities suffer through their addictions is captivating and its depth offers more fulfillment than anything else VH1 offers. As a bonus, it’s so popular VH1 is spinning it off. That’s the kind of real drama television really needs.

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