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Why reality TV worked and what changed, according to West Wing’s executive producer

Why reality TV worked and what changed, according to West Wing’s executive producer
Reality TV used to deliver surprises. Not so much any more. (Illustration by Shutterstock)

When those who work in scripted television offer thoughts about reality television, the appropriate reaction is often an eye roll. Those kinds of critiques tend to come from people who don’t really watch or work in the genre, but who still feel qualified to make gross generalizations that unfairly malign all shows because of sins of a few (or many!).

But the executive producer of The West Wing and Sports Night, Thomas Schlamme, who has more recently directed episodes of FX’s fantastic The Americans, has pinpointed some of the genre’s current problems.

Yes, there is terrific unscripted television out there now. And yes, at the end of this quotation, Schlamme steps over into the area of overgeneralization. But his points are still well-taken.

Here’s what Schlamme told The Huffington Post Australia:

“When it first happened — ‘Survivor’ I think was one of the very first ones, if not the first — I loved it.

I didn’t watch it that much but I loved the idea — I thought what reality TV was doing at that moment was saying ‘we’re tired of network one-hour dramas that tell us exactly how it’s going to end. We know the ending before you do — television is too predictable.’

That’s what I took it to mean. For instance, the first season of ‘Survivor’, the winner was an unlikeable gay guy [Richard Hatch] and it was like, ‘oh my God, he won! You would have never have been able to script that.’

But then, the bastardisation of that came along. I think it became mean spirited, I thought culturally it was not uplifting in any way.

The biggest crime to me regarding reality television is the name. It shouldn’t be called reality. It has nothing to do with reality. It’s as scripted and manipulative as any drama.

There’s this perception, ‘oh that’s the way the Osbournes live, that’s the way the Kardashians live — but that’s just the way they have edited their lives.

My wife and I, we have been married for 33 years. I can edit a horrible marriage and I can edit a glorious marriage, out of our whole marriage, if I decide to selectively shoot and show you only what I want to show you.”

Yes. Absolutely, yes.

Let me summarize and elaborate slightly:

The challenge now, I think, is to roll back a lot of what has become standard. Whether it’s become standard because of budgets, expectations, or something else, it’s time to recognize that it isn’t working like it once may have.

Of course, I’m generalizing, and thankfully there are shows that prove  breaking free of these artificial constraints produces entertainment that reminds us of  what we love about reality TV.

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means.

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