“It’s far easier to be entertained by reality TV than to participate in our own reality.” — Bruce H. Lipton
Ok, perhaps the word “reality” is used very loosely when talking about reality television, but with the possible exception of the news (and even that varies), everything on television is some kind of fakery, right? Sitcoms, dramas, cop shows, soap operas, and the entire Hallmark channel are all about some imaginary world we won’t ever be part of, and isn’t that why many of us watch? We want a small way to escape our real lives and spend time in a world created on a Hollywood sound stage.
Growing up, I liked fantasizing about what it would be like to be a Brady kid and get to play in that AstroTurf backyard. What was it like to ride the Partridge Family school bus to a concert or pop in and out of a bottle in a cloud of pink smoke? Television then was a fun way to spend a few hours away from my boring life.
Then came reality television. The first show I remember watching was in 1992 on MTV, “The Real World.” I was a bit older than their target demographic — I had a toddler when it premiered, so my days of roommates and parties were well over. Still, I watched it religiously, getting into the cast members’ lives. It wasn’t until years later that I realized there wasn’t much “real” about it. On what planet do seven unemployed young adults get to live in a massive loft in SoHo and do nothing but argue and order takeout?
There is no way your average 22-year-old lives that kind of life. Nothing about that is real, but there were millions of people tuning in, and that was before social media told us all what to do. It might not have been the first-ever reality-television show, but it paved the way for others to come along.
While reality television has changed the entertainment industry, has it changed the audience? It definitely has. Could anyone have imagined 30 years ago that 2.45 million people would tune in to watch two 70-somethings get married after meeting on “The Golden Bachelor?”
Before these shows were a thing, Peg Bundy and Claire Huxtable were television housewives. A “real housewife” was a suburban stay-at-home mom who drove carpools and made cookies. Now, the whole world can share the lives of housewives from California to Dubai. Camera crews follow these women to the spa, lunch dates, and sometimes even to a job, and they film them at home, too.
I’m not going to lie; I was mortified the day the mail carrier had to come into my kitchen so I could sign for a package. The sink was full of dirty dishes, the dog was murdering her new Snoopy doll, and the trash bin was overflowing. Think about it, though — isn’t that a more realistic situation than a TV housewife flipping a table or throwing a prosthetic leg across the room at a dinner party?
We all have a choice on what to watch, and it won’t always be high-quality. Reality television isn’t 100% real, but it provides some harmless escapism. It doesn’t even have to be a whole show — any quick browse of YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook will show short videos of people oversharing the details of their lives.
While it can sometimes be a little TMI, it makes me feel better about my own issues. I might struggle with clutter in my home, but I’ve never made a video from my car complaining about the Target manager not letting me use an expired coupon from Walmart.
Reality videos and shows also allow me to indulge my inner Gladys Kravitz and be a looky-loo into other people’s lives without being a pest about it. However, there’s a fine line between getting a glimpse into another person’s world and becoming a virtual “peeping Tom.” Have these videos made us all into voyeurs? Not entirely, but they have blurred the lines between public and private and what we share with the whole rest of the world.
I’ve found a good compromise, though. I discovered a webcam that broadcasts from the Namib Desert, and I can watch hyenas, jackals, and antelopes come to the water hole and frolic around as the sun goes down. I hope they don’t mind that I drop in occasionally.
Brenda Kelley Kim has lived in Marblehead for 50 years, and is an author, freelance writer, and mother of three. Her column appears weekly.