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Who is “For Real: The Story of Reality TV” for? Not me

I’m not quite sure who the audience is for the new E! documentary series For Real: The Story of Reality TV.

Is the audience E! reality show viewers who just want to see their favorite Kardashian? (The first episode is clearly targeting them.) Is it people who want a rich history or a critical perspective about the genre? Is it superfans who want new behind-the-scenes details?

There are brief moments when the first episode suggests it could go in any of those directions, but it goes in none of them, taking the Andy Cohen path instead: happily skimming along the surface.

I can say with confidence that—even as someone who loves this genre, and has been thrilled to wallow in nostalgia for its gestation—it was not for me.

The first episode lost me after just a few minutes, when an executive producer for The Osbournes, Greg Johnston, talked about developing the show after The Osbournes’ 2001 appearance on Cribs.

“At that point, I think The Real World was the only game in town,” he said.

Let’s say he’s referring to late summer or fall of 2001, after the Cribs episode aired. That’s one year after Making the Band, Survivor, Big Brother, and the same year that shows like The Mole, The Amazing Race, Fear Factor, Murder in Small Town X, Tough Enough, NBC’s Lost, Chains of Love, Bands on the Run, Love Cruise, and Boot Camp all premiered.

Maybe he meant that Real World was the only non-competition show? Nope: The Osbournes was preceded by documentary-style series such as PBS’s American High, MTV’s Road Rules, Fox’s Temptation Island, and MTV’s Fear.

My point is this: In no universe was The Real World “the only game in town” in 2001. Maybe I’m being too picky here, and I certainly don’t expect perfection (I’ve been known to make a mistake or two hundred thousand in my life), and reality TV’s history is so vast that it’s impossible to cover everything.

But when you add that kind of oversimplification to way too much self-serving bullshit from interview subjects (Bobby Trendy: “I decided to be the villain” on The Anna Nicole Show), and some extremely bad decisions (fucking Dr. Drew is one of the talking heads), the total is zero.

Andy Cohen on an episode of Watch What Happens Live, making the same face I did while I watched his new show, For Real: The Story of Reality TV
Andy Cohen on an episode of Watch What Happens Live, making the same face I did while I watched his new show, For Real: The Story of Reality TV. (Image from WWHL via Bravo)

Andy Cohen narrates For Real: The Story of Reality TV (E!, Thursdays at 9) as if he’s summarizing Real Housewives scenes, but is only on camera and clutching his blue cards during one interview in the first episode.

As he talks to the Kardashians, he manages to wring out an interesting answer or two, like about what kinds of notes the Kardashians give on their episodes, since they control the episodes’ content. But most of the time, he’s just exuding a desire for them to love him.

From the people who are interviewed, there is not any real self-reflection, but there is self-promotion. I suppose that’s perfect for this genre, but the genre is so much more than that, and deserves to be treated thoughtfully.

I appreciated seeing producers and networks executive interviewed—there are more of them than reality TV stars—and sharing stores, yet they all seem well-practiced in promoting their work without saying not much of anything that I found revelatory.

And while the show includes some expert voices who do provide insight, they get less screen time than fucking Dr. Drew, who should been not be invited to provide any opinion on anything except what an asshole he is, especially after what he did last year.

For Real: The Story of Reality TV wants us to find it interesting, with its montages and flashes from old reality shows, and its brief flirtation with depth, like when Melissa Rivers talks about Anna Nicole and mentions “the producers’ responsibility.”

But the show breezes past moments like that, and has been so watered down it just evaporates.

Consider this line from Andy Cohen’s narration: “Critics called these kind of antics car crash television, and charged that reality TV exploited troubled celebs. But because Danny [Bonaduce] had been a part of their TV family, viewers also empathized with his struggles.” And that’s what we hear about a reality star who attempted suicide during the filming of his show.

Moments like that aside, many of the clips and scenes from 2000s era reality TV shows, plus occasional unseen footage like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s audition tape, are fun to revisit.

Yet For Real: The Story of Reality TV also spends about one-third of its premiere episode on Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which just coincidentally happens to be airing its final season right now, also on E!. Of course the show deserves attention in a history of reality TV, but it’s also a naked attempt to attract Kardashian fans (“later, secrets revealed when I ambush The Kardashians,” Andy Cohen teases).

E! only provided the first episode to critics, which focuses on celebreality. It’s possible the other episodes will be better; next week’s is about The Real World and Survivor, and those shows are so close to my heart I may have to watch. But I’d rather watch better reality TV.

For Real: The Story of Reality TV: C

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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. Learn more about Andy.

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