People say that reality TV is bad for you, but so is candy, and I consume reality TV like it’s candy. By which I mean a lot. And unironically. I don’t refer to it as a “guilty pleasure” because I don’t feel guilty about it. And I don’t use that cowardly trick where people say they watch Jersey Shore because it makes them feel like their lives are great in comparison, or the Real Housewives franchise because it reassures them that Those rich people? They’re actually miserable. There are better places to get therapy than television, and your life is not going better than Snooki’s because Snooki gets paid millions of dollars to hang out with her best friend all day.
Here’s how reality TV is not actually like candy: It has improved my life. And not in some “thank god I’m not like these shallow, boring people” way. I get the same thing from “unscripted” shows that we all hope to get out of any book, movie, whatever, the thing that I would argue is the whole point of stories: They reflect back to me some of the difficult stuff that’s going on in my own life, and help me sort through it, while providing entertainment. And by showing me that, for example, even the Kardashians have massive insecurities, reality shows remind me that everyone has something in them that you can grab hold of and love. Yes, I’m saying that reality television makes me love people more.
I got really into my first reality show, MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County (the precursor to The Hills), as a pop-culture-obsessed 16-year-old. I was initially drawn in by the exaggerated hokey glamour and beach-y lifestyles of the cast, a clique of unrealistically beautiful teenagers navigating a privileged high school existence. But then a weird thing happened: I got sucked into the actual storylines. While other shows that were popular that year were about solving mysterious deaths or escaping death row, the drama on Laguna rang true. Even though the cast were much richer and better-looking than anyone in my high school, the personal politics they had to navigate were a lot like mine: My crushes became my friends’ crushes and vice-versa; best friends grew apart and got close with former enemies; people got in fights, were betrayed, and seemed like they were doing OK on the outside, but inside were desperate for love.
In the spring break episode “What Happens in Cabo,” the whole underage gang goes to Mexico together, seemingly without chaperones (except MTV’s crew), and on their first night there they end up at a rowdy bar. When mean girl Kristin’s over-the-top good-time dancing gets the better of her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Stephen, he snaps. This scene is hard to watch not just because it’s recorded on a phone pointed at a TV, but because he is so cruel to her. I winced when he called her a slut, but I also identified with his desperate jealousy and his inability to sort out his raging teenage hormones. I remember seeing my first girlfriend have an amazing time without me after we broke up. My heart, stomach, and brain felt like they were all spinning in different directions. I wasn’t drinking in bars or going on beach vacations with my hot pals, and I have never called a girl a slut, especially not in a drunken rage, but I recognized the pain that sent Stephen spiraling down. When I saw someone mirror that pain back at me and actually act on it, I knew I had to get my feelings in check. Watching that scene again now, I still feel ashamed for ever relating to Stephen, but also weirdly protective of this kid I’ve never met for making a fool of himself by disrespecting someone he obviously cared about.
Maybe this is part of the reason people don’t just criticize reality TV, they get angry about it—this thing they claim they would never watch. It’s uncomfortable to have ugly or awkward parts of ourselves blown up and put in front of our faces. It’s hard to admit that these overblown characters that we call “trashy” or “blank” or “dumb” are actually a lot like us. And it’s also hard to admit how fucking boring we actually are. No matter how scripted (very) reality television gets, for some reason the producers haven’t figured out how to avoid long stretches where nothing really happens. Or maybe they don’t want to: What’s more “real” than total stultifying banality? Sometimes you’ll watch two people on a reality show sit across from each other at an outdoor café and avoid a touchy subject for three full minutes. Sometimes their conversations are superficial, stilted, trivial, or nasty—the word bitch gets thrown around a lot—which is unfortunately exactly like some conversations I’ve had with my own friends. I don’t know about you, but I would never want my awkward teenage dates broadcast to millions.
I’m not here to argue that all reality TV is a gift to humanity. Some of it is just absurd. A lot is unwatchable to me (personally—I won’t judge you!). The Real Housewives universe has too much screaming for me, Intervention and Teen Mom get too dark, and competition shows (especially singing or weight-loss) feel schlocky. Even The Hills, my love for which I have never hidden from you, went totally bonkers toward the end, when the Heidi and Spencer relationship overshadowed all other storylines. (Having just entered the steep-descent part of the fame cycle, she turns to plastic surgery, he to healing crystals.) But even under all that, there are always glimpses of realness: People fall in love and shut out their friends, people grow apart for no good reason, people allow themselves to be guided by jealousy, pettiness, or insecurity. Or they rise above those base instincts: Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Keeping Up With the Kardashians are, in the end, about family and loyalty and love (not to mention body positivity). The City (another Laguna spinoff) was about a young woman creating and running her own career. Jersey Shore is about the importance of friendship.
Real life, like these shows, can be terrible: filled with heavy silences, uncontrollable crying fits, and humiliation piled upon humiliation. (Just ask Kristin and Stephen.) It can also be silly and fun and full of redemption. The ride is unpredictable and exhausting. What a relief, then, to be able to get off every once in a while to just sit back and watch. ♦