The year 2000 saw the dawn of a new age for television with the launch of the Big Brother franchise – unscripted, ‘real’ people being constantly filmed and put out on air for our viewing pleasure – spurring a spate of new observational ‘reality’ shows: Survivor, Fear Factor, America’s Next Top Model, and, now, entire channels dedicated entirely to them. In 2001, the genre even gained its own Emmy category.
But, last year the sun rose on something new on television, something with the same name but yet tangibly different: something shinier, more tanned and with smooth storylines, narratives which might, almost, maybe, have been written? From The Only Way is Essex to the newest (and punniest) addition, Desperate Scousewives, we are left wondering how much of what we’re seeing is spontaneous dialogue and interaction between characters and how much is managed by ‘story producers’ such as Daran Little (of TOWIE AND MIC), who by some insane and probably totally unrelated coincidence is an award-winning script-writer for Coronation Street.
This new genre goes by many names: reality soap/docu-soap/reality-drama/structured reality with the thin pretence of being a kind of anthropological study of a certain social group (the K-Rahs/the Essex Girls/the Scouse Elite). But, with the obvious content of, in the words of Charlie Brooker, ‘a glossy-looking soap opera performed by non-actors half-improvising a non-script’. Have we actually just been lulled into watching some sort of really painfully budget soap opera? A soap opera with untrained and unskilled actors? And even more predictable plotlines?
Whatever this enigmatic genre is, it’s everywhere and there’s a terrifying number of us glued to our screens screaming inane things like ‘Oh My God – she’s SO stupid!’ in the full knowledge that the fabulously false-eyelashed, fake-tanned and dentally-veneered figure on our screens whom you’ve inexplicably found yourself shouting at, has almost definitely been told to say exactly that spectacularly stupid thing, to elicit the exact reaction you just gave. We’re all following the invisible script, both behind the screen and in front of it.
The end of the last decade witnessed Big Brother’s retreat into the broadcasting purgatory of satellite-only channels. So what happened to TV reality? ‘There’s a new kind of reality, and it’s scripted’ says Sam Wollaston, but why do even our ‘reality’ shows now need to be scripted and airbrushed into a self-consciously perfect reality? Why does nobody on our screen look like the people in the street unless it’s a news item or a mugshot? Can we no longer handle the truth about how people actually look and how they really behave?
In a time when even David Attenborough is ‘structuring’ his footage of polar bears, we’ve got to face the facts (if we can remember what they look like). Reality on screen is over. Our dalliance with reality entertainment was great, it really was, but it’s over. It’s not the genre, it’s us. We just don’t feel the same way any more. We’re out of love with reality.