As someone who loves reality television, and loves a great reality TV series, I always root for shows to succeed. I want producers and networks to take risks, and to risk failure to try something new. I want great unscripted art and entertainment, and I want it to do well.
And then I read about shows like the two below and I just roll my eyes and sigh.
These two shows represent the opposite ends of the spectrum of desperation that far too often lately seems to guide decision-making. On the one end is the predictable and familiar; on the other end is sensationalism and shock.
It’s as if those in power are thinking: Maybe they’ll watch if we do something totes cray cray! Or: If we just do that show that kinda works but change it this tiny way maybe most of those people will watch, cross our fingers.
And then there’s the icing everybody likes to put on their shows now: If it’s live people will watch and not use that DVR box thing and ruin everything.
Here are two examples; both are shows that were announced today:
- A&E’s Fear: Buried Alive, on which three people will be buried alive, live, in coffins on Oct. 26. A&E is pretending there is some kind of purpose here beyond watching pure terror unfold via infrared cameras: The network says the subjects will be “closely monitored under scientific conditions as they endure a series of escalating horrors designed to test the strength of their psyches,” and altogether “it is about enduring and defeating true terror.” Just caught a rerun of Fear Factor, did we?
- Fox’s new dancing couples show. Despite Dancing with the Stars‘ existence and declining ratings, and despite already having a flailing dance show, So You Think You Can Dance, which has suffered declining ratings, talent, and creativity—despite, yes, some thrilling highs—Fox is developing a new dance show. This one will have couples training and then performing live dances each week. Deadline says that SYTYCD’s fate and this show are unrelated, and points out that former DWTS producer Conrad Green now has a deal with Fox. Still, this has “tired” written all over it and it hasn’t even been ordered to series yet.
This is the best we can do? Dancing with the Stars with couples and a two-act Fear Factor bit turned into a live special? Despite my reaction, I still will root for them to succeed and be better than their descriptions. But still: ugh.
For some reason—perhaps stories like this one, oh shit—reality TV continually gets defined by its worst elements. But that’s unfair, because all genres have their bell curve: some terrible crap, a lot of average stuff, and some truly excellent works. There is great reality television airing now, from The Great British Baking Show to Survivor to StartupU. And more will come.
Still, it does seem that new reality TV frequently finds a comfortable home at one end this desperation continuum—at least, far more than scripted TV does. A few weeks ago, my friend Joe Adalian reported for Vulture on the state of reality TV. It’s worth a read for theories about the current state of reality TV “fatigue,” illustrated by one anonymous executive who cited “too much of a reliance on gimmicks and twists.” Yes.
Related, I think, is that the overthinking and insecurity that plagues scripted TV has finally caught up to reality TV, too, leading to shows like the above that seem like various kinds of desperate. Coming at shows and ideas from those places will rarely succeed.
A true new hit will it come from trying to shock people into watching, nor will not come from doing the same thing everyone else is doing. It will come from what came 15 years ago, and in 1992, and in 1973: something fresh and new, curious and surprising, authentic and real.