Since a reality show host decided to run for president down south, I’ve had the format on my mind more than usual.
What makes a show a reality show, anyway?
There seem to be two basic kinds (although they overlap and have fuzzy edges).
The first is a kind of staged quasi-documentary. Before we knew what to call reality television, we had things like Britain’s Living In The Past and MTV’s The Real World.
Survivor, which started in 2000 and has now racked up 33 seasons, introduced the reality-competition format to a wide audience. It quickly set a template for scheming, alliances, and for booting one person a week until the ultimate winner was chosen.
I started watching Survivor again this year for the first time in a decade, and I was startled to see how little it has changed. About the only difference from the first couple of seasons seems to be that people now try to form alliances in the first couple of nano-seconds instead of waiting, you know, an hour or two.
It was kind of underwhelming how familiar it all felt.
But there are some shows that use that template while sharply diverging from it.
My favourite reality shows may eliminate people, but they aren’t about backstabbing or scheming. No one ever says “thrown under the bus,” either.
Face Off is a pretty standard contest show in which special effects makeup artists compete to be the best. From about 16 or so, they’re whittle down to the final three in weekly challenges. Make a cyberpunk troll! Create a whimsical pirate! Turn your model into a stick insect!
If it was a normal reality competition show, you’d expect lots of trash talk, maybe even some attempts at sabotage.
Instead, you frequently see contestants helping each other out, asking advice, sharing techniques.
The thrill of watching a show in which people actually make something is at least partly because it’s fun to watch people create something real.
There are now scads of shows like this – food and fashion, hot rods and cakes. Teams or individuals try their hardest, they get judged, and people get the boot… but it feels different from Survivor or The Apprentice or even a dating show.
Even if a contestant has to get kicked out of a task-based contest show, you often see them talk about how much they learned. It’s a brutal boot camp, but it’s a lot more fun to watch people try to make something other than alliances.