The year’s end is upon us, and although the transition from today to tomorrow won’t really be noticeable in any other meaningful way, the change from one number to the next prompts us to be nostalgic. So let’s look back at trends in reality TV for 2010.
This past year was marked by a number of milestones, since it marked a decade of network reality TV, including the 10th anniversary of Survivor’s debut (which was celebrated in L.A.) and, about five weeks later, the anniversary of this site’s birth. And around that time, the reality TV-inspired ABC series Lost ended its run.
There was a lot to celebrate: Survivor Africa winner Ethan Zohn’s battled cancer and won, The Amazing Race had its first female winners, and new series like Work of Art and Top Shot proved the genre can still deliver surprises.
Alas, too many people died in 2010: captain Phil Harris, Survivor Palau’s Jenn Lyon, reality producer Denise Cramsey, Corey Haim, Last Comic Standing host Greg Giraldo, a Kitchen Nightmares chef/owner, an American Loggers cast member, a Bachelorette contestant, and a Storm Chasers star.
But there was also a lot of joy. Who can forget great moments such as “the Red Hots are for my mommy,” the most awkward TV performance ever, footage of a hamster masturbating, Hoarders’ Sir Patrick and his secret, the spitting Survivor challenge, Fighting Gravity and Prince Poppycock, or the Zingbot?
Here’s a Bristol Palin-free look at trends I noticed this past year. Enjoy you New Year’s celebrations, and I’ll see you in 2011, when I get to L.A. Wednesday to report from the TV critics’ press tour.
- Old shows show their age and try to reinvent themselves. A lot of stand-by network shows had weak-ass seasons this past year. Biggest Loser got bloated and is now shedding a trainer; Dancing with the Stars lost a host and got a worse one; The Amazing Race gave us weak episode after weak episode, but hasn’t yet tried to fix itself; The Real World tried to get a little highbrow and it didn’t work so they went back to drunken antics and are now even returning to the same cities. Big Brother limped through its season, although more people watched so there’s little incentive to change anything. Last Comic Standing found a great new host in Craig Robinson but was dragged down by its judges. Over on cable, a makeover for HGTV’s Design Star failed miserably.
But there are attempts to fix mistakes, which is great. So You Think You Can Dance made changes that didn’t work and then undid them for next summer. American Idol had probably its worst season ever (despite losing a judge and having its host go crazy) and now it’s getting new judges and a new format. And Survivor, too, is trying something new. At the beginning of the year I broke the news that the show would film its two seasons a year in the same location, necessitating a non-location specific twist for one of those seasons, and the twist they came up with, Redemption Island, has a lot of potential, and hopefully it’ll recharge the series as it moves into its 20s. Even if it doesn’t work, at least they tried, and hopefully other shows will try new things, too.
- Even reality TV information wants to be free. The political world was focused on Wikileaks, but reality TV had its own difficulty keeping its secrets bottled up. CBS tried but failed to keep you from reading the rule book and cast contract for Survivor–and then the big twist for its 22nd season was revealed months earlier because someone left papers in a hotel room. Tim Gunn’s rant against Project Runway’s producers was taken off Facebook but stuck around online. Kara DioGuardi pretended to quit American Idol long after it was clear she’d been let go, while Big Brother‘s producers tried to insist the show was transparent even though it’s often the opposite of that. Some people might like to present their own version of reality to us, but we’ll usually learn the truth, eventually.
- Reinventing yourself is difficult. Soon, Congress will have among its members a former Real World cast member, who was elected after having to answer questions about his time on the show, and Mike “The Miz” Mizanin became a WWE champion. It’s kind of amazing that two stars of an MTV show have something to teach us (just as Tony Danza taught us something when he surprised us by teaching high school for a terrific A&E series), but they do: Reinvention is possible but requires a lot of work. Otherwise, it just makes us laugh, like when a bullying Real Housewives star tried to become an anti-bullying activist, or another fellow Bravo cast member became a lesbian for attention.
- We’re getting better but are still not quite okay with differences. While the star of a ghost hunting series came out as bisexual and reality stars talked about gay teen bullying and told gay teens their lives will get better, this year was marked by a Survivor contestant’s horrifying defense of his crazy rant about gay people. We saw homophobia from contestants and even from judge executive producers, in addition to more ugliness from Big Brother contestants. The Jersey Shore reunion mocked trannies and Trump tried to out someone. Are we really ready to have a same-sex couple on Dancing with the Stars?
- Reality pays. There are lots of ways to take your fame and turn it into something more, like cash. At the beginning of the year, I reported on the increasing overlap between reality TV and porn, and by the time the year ended, The Real World was just casting porn stars and a Big Brother winner pled guilty to selling drugs that he reportedly bought with his winnings. We learned how much money Idols make and that there are creepy consequences to selling your life to a TV network, never mind that you can get $500 to have sex for 24 hours on TV, an offer that attracted multiple reality stars. Also this year, three Deadliest Catch captains quit the show after Discovery sued two of them for $3 million but came back when they got more money, but didn’t seem too concerned about upsetting fans. While The Biggest Loser resumed production with scabs but without its trainers and host, who instead raised money for picketing crew members. Bravo to them for standing up to what they believe in, even if it cost them money.
- Reality still matters. A decade later, there’s so much soft-scripting and heavily manipulated reality TV that what people always claimed about reality TV–that it’s completely fake–is increasingly true. The Hills‘ finale gave a clever wink to its bullshit, which maybe helped repair the damage it did. While we saw creative fakeness from a new MTV series, there were lots of claims of manipulation in series we expect to be honest with us. And there’s an increasing amount of insulting behavior, such as the increasingly annoying laugh track added to shows to tell us how to react. Next summer, TV critics will finally recognize the genre with its own award, and there’s still a lot of genuine reality TV that only blurs the edges–compressing time, focusing on narrative arcs, that sort of thing–rather than fakes its subject matter. In 2010, many series proved just how compelling that can be, and hopefully the same will be true in 2011.
But it’s hard to do new things. The Situation couldn’t get people to vote for him, while Jimmy Johnson failed to coach well–or even really play the game he’d wanted to play for years. Jackie Warner remained unlikeable even though she had control over her new Bravo series, and it remains to be seen what will happen now that Paula Abdul will have six roles on her new CBS series. Jeff Probst admitted mistakes with his failed attempt at creating a reality series, proof that switching gears is difficult. Sometimes it’s better to just stick to what you know, so it’s probably for the better that my attempt to get Conan O’Brien a new job failed.