On Sunday, I discovered that I can no longer make it through an episode of Mad Men: it’s well-acted and the production values are strong, but the pace and repetition of themes from earlier seasons leaves me incredibly bored. On Monday, I started binge-watching USA’s Chrisley Knows Best and couldn’t stop watching.
I’m deeply ashamed.
But let’s talk about it. USA just renewed it for a second season, having finally found a reality show with strong ratings after failing with shows such as Summer Camp. I initially ignored Chrisley Knows Best because of the preview, which showed Todd Chrisley discovering his teenage son was watching porn and throwing his laptop in the pool, and which seemed more like the staged crap cable networks shovel our way.
The surprise was how real the show seems. This isn’t a fly on the wall documentary by any means, but it surprisingly does not feel scripted. Instead, it feels like a throwback to the era when reality TV followed people who were living their lives but were acutely aware of–and often playing to–the cameras. That said, there are certainly moments and scenes that are clearly set up for the sake of the production, and some feel just fake (like Todd throwing Chase’s iPhone into the lake). And I’m not yet sure if 7-year-old Grayson is just being a kid or is sometimes being coached.
Regardless: I’m watching because Todd Chrisley is a terrific character, a crazy, entertaining bundle of contradictions, a super-rich flamboyant straight man who has been sued for sexual harassment by both men and women.
He’s an insane parent who has absolutely no trust in his kids and is obsessively controlling with his entire family. Yet it’s oddly tolerable, even compelling, to watch, only because he’s aware of what he’s doing and has a sense of humor about it. And his one-liners are pretty hilarious.
That doesn’t change how crazy his parenting often is, though. He’s disturbingly obsessed with his kids’ sexuality, spending a surprising a lot of time focused on his daughters’ bodies and parts under the guise of being concerned about how others are looking at them, such as when he asked his 16-year-old daughter to bend over while trying on a dress.
Todd Chrisley’s family acts as foils, whether his kids are openly defying him, secretly defying him, or just screwing with him. All of it creates light conflict between people who have a real bond, unlike most of the Real Housewives, who were just cast to fight with each other.
In addition, Chrisley Knows Best offers an undercurrent of the typical rich person reality show thing where we feel superior to the people on screen even though they are better off than we are. This show mostly illustrates how money can be spent but really can’t buy certain things (e.g. perfect teeth). But that isn’t what makes it watchable; it’s more than that.
A lot of networks have tried to air “reality sitcoms,” using real people’s lives to badly script unfunny scenes, and nearly all of them have failed. What the show’s producers, Maverick TV and All3Media, have found here is a family that does most of their work for them, just by being real–really nuts, that is. They’ve been compared to The Osbournes, and I hope the comparison stops before the point at which that show became increasingly, pointlessly scripted.