Reality Bites: the way out of Essex

It all started with Big Brother, the elder sibling of all reality shows. During the first series psychologists and anthropologists enthused that this was a groundbreaking social experiment, an insight into how normal people behave in extraordinary situations. Fast forward 12 years and as Big Brother declines, a glut of self-destructive, hyperactive 21st century siblings run the show. Like an unchecked cockroach infestation they multiply across subject areas, channels, and social media.
In its premature old age Big Brother shuffles off to Channel 5’s graveyard slot. The strangest thing, to me, about this infestation is that the focus has shifted from displacing people into remarkable scenarios (I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, Survivor) to recognising certain people as remarkable.
The dominant sub-species of reality television is now ‘structured reality television.’ This bizarre hybrid presents people as worthy of mass consumption due to the way their lives differ from some shadowy, TV executive-defined concept of ‘normality’. Jersey Shore, Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex, The Hills, Keeping up With the Kardashians: here and in the US, each program claims to define an apparently self-contained social strata through certain triggers; bad taste and modest intelligence is claimed by The Only Way is Essex; plummy accents and rich parents by Made in Chelsea; unchecked vanity and anger by Jersey Shore. The list is ever growing.
A strange dichotomy is played out in the presentation of these ‘real’ lives to the public. At first we relished the shocking truth about other people’s quirks (‘How could he/she ever behave/dress/flirt/lie like that? Unbelievable!”’) but over the years we have become spoilt, requiring increasingly outrageous scenes and behaviour to pique even the slightest interest.
And so character-people were created, caricatures of what they believe we want them to be: very stupid, very plastic, very arrogant or very posh. All very unreal. Perhaps because of this falseness, structured-reality shows are treated as aspirational. People pay to see Mark Wright in Evolve. Clothing lines have been released so you can dress like Lauren Conrad, even if you don’t have her Beverly Hills postcode. As spontaneous reality disappears from television, we are fed Frankenstein monsters of self-referential confusion to simultaneously deride and lust after.
So where are we to find representations of lives, concerns, realities that we recognise as comparable to our own? The dark and precisely observed comedies that have crept onto our screens in recent years offer one possibility. Initially this quiet movement was a peculiarly British affair. The Inbetweeners in all their ‘comedic’ ridiculousness were disturbingly similar to my teenage brothers (sorry boys). Even as it pertains to deal with stereotypes, Fresh Meat is painfully reminiscent of life in a Rootes corridor (apologies).
On the other side of the pond, HBO’s new superstar show Girls is an even more effective example. Creator Lena Dunham’s characters are all confused and self-absorbed in the way a significant number of newly graduated twenty-somethings are (yep, sorry again). Dunham’s irreverent ‘warts and all’ approach to plot and character writing says that it is ok to still be working things out. That the economy is “ridiculous” at the moment. That you cannot earn a living on an intern wage. That the path to any sort of love doesn’t necessarily run smooth. All realities that we face, have faced or are going to face in the coming years.
This recognition of shared experience is the ironic strength of all these fictional shows- and the downfall of reality television. The novelty of a catchphrase or a bizarre hairstyle tire very quickly. Writing that seems to have listened in on the world you inhabit, however, and has something to say about that world, retains its value almost indefinitely.


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