Ask a few people right now to name what the worst thing on TV in recent history was, and it can be guaranteed that at least a few will say The Jersey Shore or Keeping up with the Kardashians. Reality shows such as these are generally regarded as the lowest common denominator of TV. They allegedly appeal to the shallowest and most superficial of people, who want complete mindless entertainment. But here’s the thing: it’s tough to find those people. As much as we like to make fun of fans of the Jersey shore, this author hasn’t found people who watch the show because they’re interested in it or its characters. Most people who watch these shows seem to do it in part because they know these shows are terrible.
What’s interesting is, even just a few years ago, one did not have to go far to find people who liked reality shows. That’s because back then, reality shows were a bit different. Think of the really big reality shows of years gone by (basically 2000 to 2007, when Keeping Up with the Kardashians premiered). What comes to mind? Big Brother, Survivor, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race, America’s Next Top Model, The Apprentice, Top Chef, and Flava of Love. What all of these shows have in common is that they follow a group of people that have an end goal. These shows usually feature a contest with some sort of prize for winning. In essence, they can be looked at as a form of game show, but they last a full season and feature drama.
Now, some of these shows still exist (heck, some have multiplied, as evidenced by Rock of Love, a Flava of Love spinoff, and the seemingly 10,000 shows featuring chef Gordon Ramsay yelling), but they’ve been supplanted by a new type of reality show. These are shows like the Jersey Shore, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Toddlers & Tiaras, Honey Boo Boo, 16 and Pregnant, Ghost Hunters (and its spin off Celebrity Paranormal Project, which featured the eternally hilarious quote, “the only truly scary thing in this house is Gary Busey”), The Osbournes, and Breaking Amish to name a few. These shows do not feature any sort of prize or contest. They basically just take a camera crew and get them to follow around a group of people. Then the editors come in and BAM: instant drama. As mentioned earlier, everybody seems to enjoy these shows because they are something to be gawked at and mocked.
This is troubling. When something is exhibited so that people can mock it, it brings to mind the circus freak shows of the early 1900s. These shows, for which people like P.T. Barnum became world-renowned, were basically parades of people, who the audience would pay money to gawk at and be shocked by. Think about how these shows, other than the cast, are any different from what we do with The Jersey Shore. They serve much the same purpose. It is disturbing when this mentality is applied to Honey Boo Boo, 16 & Pregnant, and Breaking Amish. These shows feature hillbillies, pregnant teenagers, and Amish people, respectively. In essence, people are gawking at different cultures and people in different situations. Making a show about any of these groups that basically invites mockery is unethical and dangerous. Imagine if a person’s first impression of the Amish was the people in Breaking Amish, and how skewed that opinion would be.
Now, keep in mind, these reality shows are practically progressive compared to those circus side-shows, they just bring that to mind. The people who watch them aren’t necessarily like the people who went to those shows. Many are watching not to mock with a sense of superiority, but rather just to have a good laugh. The problem is simply that they are laughing at real people who are being practically exploited. But still, for most people, there is no malice in their minds when they watch these shows, and they are not like the audiences of the 1900s. So, don’t fault them.
If any readers are a little confused at this point due to their unfamiliarity with some of the aforementioned shows, here is an explanation:
Honey Boo Boo: This show follows the life of the Thompson family and their rambunctious, Mountain Dew-addicted child, Alana (A.K.A Honey Boo Boo). Honey Boo Boo originally appeared on an episode of Toddlers in Tiaras, where she was apparently a big enough hit with the audience to warrant her own show. The Thompson family owns a pig, they put puts ketchup on their “sketti,” most of the family is obese, and they play in the mud in one episode. Also, the family farts and burps a lot.
16 & Pregnant: This show tends to have a rather simplistic plot. It follows a girl, usually from the South, who is 7-9 months pregnant at the age of 15-18, during the last parts of her pregnancy. They usually have jerk boyfriends, who they often knew for only a few months before getting pregnant. The prospective mother is given a choice: keep the child or adoption, and they usually choose to keep the child. The appeal of the show comes from looking into another person’s life, or to put it another way: gawking.
Breaking Amish: The premise of this show is “look at those backwards Amish people.” It follows a group of Amish young adults who have decided to leave their villages to go see the world (in this case the world is New York City). The major theme is culture shock: the Amish kids face major difficulties integrating with the modern world. The other big thing, at least in the first episode, is showing how fundamentalist and socially strict the Amish people are. They have their rules about marriage, family and church and so on, that would appear primitive to many people today. The editors make it seem as though being Amish is like living in a totalitarian state (the bishop’s wife is always watching you), and that’s where this show goes wrong. It doesn’t say the Amish are different, it says they are backwards and strict and god-crazy.
An interesting side-note in this trend of the contest-free reality show is shows featuring blue-collar workers just doing their jobs. This trend seemed to have started with American Chopper back in 2003, and has culminated today with dozens of shows such as Swamp Loggers, Ice Road Truckers, Moonshiners, Pawn Stars, Cake Boss, L.A. Ink, COPS, and The Dog Whisperer.
The bottom line is this: reality shows used to be just glorified game shows, featuring added drama, but in the late 2000s, they mutated into shows meant to give the audience something to mock and laugh at. This trend is dangerous, and can lead to the non-acceptance of people with different life-styles. One wonders what will happen next.