Trash TV

Reality TV is the aesthetic of human surplus

“That’s right, just stay tight on my face, sweetheart,” Frank Perry says into the camera after a rectal exam, the medical gown he’s wearing momentarily flapping open as he gets up from the examination table. I first watched this scene, from Perry’s autobiographical documentary On the Bridge, in 1993, a year after its release and two years before I finished high school; I’d stumbled on to it on PBS while rotating the dial on my bedroom television in a spell of teenage boredom during a Seinfeld rerun. It seemed shockingly out of place, almost a kind of emotional ambush, a fire alarm that played only ASMR whispers.

I was moved by the scene, and not just because it depicted a 60-year-old man with a tube in his ass. To watch someone speaking into the lens as if it were a dog he was teaching a trick, directing a camera from such a vulnerable position instead of performing for it, I had the impression I was watching something that wasn’t actually television. Growing up without cable and before easy internet access, TV had become a kind of meditative self-hypnosis, way of erasing the excess hours between homework, meals, and sleep. But here was someone shaking the tether, adding a note of unrest to a peaceful school night. It was strange moment, both startling and comforting, as if I had gotten into a bed and felt the covers suddenly begin to fold themselves around my shoulders with their own invisible arms.

As electronic media began to broadcast an ever less coherent portrait of the present, the burden of truth-telling shifted accordingly. Narratives didn’t speak to audiences; they resonated with them

Perry, a New Yorker who had built a Hollywood career in the 1970s directing minor and now mostly forgotten provocations, including Last Summer (about a teen love triangle on Fire Island that leads to a violent rape), Diary of a Mad Housewife (about a woman caught between an indifferent husband and an abusive boyfriend), and Play It as It Lays (an adaptation of Joan Didion’s novel about the braided events that push an aspiring actor and model toward a breakdown), was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1992, and his first impulse was to film the proceedings, not knowing exactly how they would go or where they would lead. “I became a filmmaker and not a patient,” he said in an interview at the Sydney Film Festival in 1993. “That’s, I think, part of the dynamic that was going on, that the energy and focus was on making the film. So when I got a new black diagnosis or something, or a new prognosis that said it’s spread to your ribs and it’s gone to three or four new bones, and I thought, Well, this is good for the movie.”

I had grown up in the glowing static of screens, but that was the first moment I felt the screen looking at me. I didn’t know whether I was watching a movie, a show, a documentary, or an infomercial for an unrevealed product, but I was instantly persuaded by Perry’s sentiment. His awareness of being watched made my watching feel like participating. It felt not just like the first real thing I had ever seen on television, but one of the first honest moments of reality I had experienced in general. It wasn’t a representation of reality but reality itself, happening to me. It felt like a calling, a model for how to live, seen by an audience who wished only for your best and so deserved total transparency and intimacy. For the first time, I felt valued through a screen.

In the years since, I have become a reality-television fanatic. It wasn’t that I felt less alone when I watched these shows — The Real World, The Challenge, The Hills, The City, Hell’s Kitchen, Kitchen Nightmares, Chopped, Iron Chef, Tool Academy, Celebrity Rehab, Sober House, Supergroup, The Girls of Hedsor Hall, Hoarders, No Reservations, The Bachelor, The Ultimate Fighter, The Bachelor in Paradise, Naked & Afraid, Blind Date, Trailside: Make Your Own Adventure, Two Fat Ladies — but my feelings of isolation suddenly seemed to make sense as I watched. In the way a disco depends on darkness to make its neon spotlights dazzle, the solipsism of everyday life and its shifting labyrinth of manners, civility, and personal space made the cathartic crescendo of, say, a person getting over their fear of heights or learning to say “I love you” have a new depth and drama. It felt good to have my instinct to reject certain types of people or activities evaporate, undone by a handful of montages or a few perfectly edited lines cut into an emotional scene from a postmortem interview. It proved how easily and freely I could give away my own sympathies, which I sometimes worried weren’t there at all. It also had the cross-canceling effect of making real human companionship feel more like obstacles breaking up those perfect moments of grace and clarity.

Over this same period, the logic of reality television — that the raw material for cinematic truth is dormant in all experience, merely awaiting its staging as entertainingly dramatic conflict — has roiled American culture. Donald Trump is the first American president to have appeared on reality television, in not just one series but several. In Vanity Fair, Andy Cohen, the executive producer of Real Housewives of New York, described Trump’s reactionary appeal as having been drawn from his show’s “playbook,” on display in such acts as preemptively withdrawing a White House invitation to Stephen Curry, continually bringing up old grievances against Hillary Clinton, and making belligerent accusations without evidence to preserve his story arc. Cohen referenced a former Real Wives star, Aviva Drescher, who had been forced to leave the series because producers felt her behavior was so intensely theatrical it risked ruining the show’s spell of authenticity. One scene in particular, in which Drescher removed her prosthetic leg in an upscale restaurant and threw it at another housewife in a fit of rage, was seen as particularly egregious. “Housewives like Trump don’t last because there’s no there there,” he said. “When you throw your leg, what else is left?”

Yet that’s just what’s captivating about reality television. It’s what was so captivating about Perry’s self-documentation: the impression that formulas can no longer predict the future and writers’ room machinations have become text rather than subtext. One begins to watch everything else to see how the formulas failed. We can begin to examine ourselves and each other with a new kind of forensics that focuses on the murky and now moribund link between our motivations and behavior as if each of us were specimens in an alien autopsy. We can identify all the traces of psychoanalytic proceduralism from scripted television and film, the detritus of generations of old selves and forgotten beliefs — here’s why I used to want to be an oceanographer, here’s my old high school crush posting anti-Obama invective in between photos of her toddler in her granite-counter topped tract home, here’s why I was wrong to think Richard Nixon was a good president just because Michael J. Fox’s character on Family Ties did — and marvel at how it was possible anyone could have believed in such strange things or behaved in such startling ways.

It’s hard to pinpoint a precise point of origin for reality television, perhaps because it is premised on its endlessness. In a 2011 survey of the genre for the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh argues that the form was expansive, borderless from the beginning. One doesn’t necessarily need to follow any particular show, Sanneh argues, because they all take place in the same “eerie” dimension: “no one fully belongs there, and, deep down, everyone knows it.” Writing in TV Guide, Margaret Mead traced it back to PBS’s 12-episode documentary series An American Family (1973), which followed the Louds, an upper middle-class family, through an unexpected divorce. Mead hailed the show as a new art form, “as significant as the invention of the drama or the novel.”

This reflected an emerging preference in American popular culture for the aesthetics of documentation. In a 1975 interview, Susan Sontag described how the “triumph of the psychological ways of looking at everything” had helped transform fiction that strained toward the authentically nonfictive, like Philip Roth’s My Life as a Man and the host of other works that preferred biography to diegesis. “I have friends who tell me that the only books by writers of fiction that really interest them are their letters and diaries,” she said. Storytelling transformed into a form of documenting, something she ascribed not to a desire to better know history but to a sense of losing touch with the past, being disassociated from it. “Many people don’t believe that one can give an account of the world,” she went on, “of society, but only of the self — ‘how I saw it.’” And without a sense of the past, everything in the present was framed with a amnesiac’s aura of continual revelation.

As electronic media began to broadcast an ever less coherent portrait of the present, the burden of truth-telling shifted accordingly. Narratives didn’t speak to audiences; they resonated with them. Truth was no longer something a person or a program could tell; rather it could only be reverse-engineered based on a kind of epidemiological evidence — how patterns of thinking and behaving spread across populations. One year we’re dancing Gangnam style and quoting Maya Angelou by way of Oprah (“When a person shows you who they are, believe them”); the next year we’re reading Gramsci and explaining the commodity form to our racist uncle. Taste or conviction start to matter less than the intensity with which either are held or defended. People formed imaginary associations with strangers based on a shared mood or aura, projecting a community where there was any kind of generalized reactivity. “The real star today is no longer the performer,” anthropologist Edmund Carpenter wrote in They Became What They Beheld (1970), “but the public. A public relations man can now mold a public as he used to mold a star. A public is born!” The only question was finding a form for it — one in which a public could gaze on itself the way an actor might look upon their own face blown up onto a 65-foot theater screen, falling in love with how much more themselves they appear projected in an auditorium instead of a mirror.

One of the reasons reality television always appears faker than fiction is its pretense that recording things gives them significance

A year before An American Family debuted, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare also wanted to mold a public, building the broadcasting infrastructure for what would eventually become the network TLC, now one of the most prominent reality-television distributors. But before TLC was home to Dr. Pimple Popper, Long Island Medium, and My 600 Lb. Life, it was a more conventional attempt to turn rural Appalachians into well-educated and productive workers. The region was one of the poorest parts of the U.S., with one in three below the poverty line and per capita income 23 percent lower than the national average. More than 2 million people had been forced to relocate at least once due to lack of work. As a small, experimental part of the much bigger Appalachian Regional Development Act, a $1 billion aid program Lyndon Johnson helped push through Congress in 1965, NASA would deliver short broadcasts from one of the agency’s satellites to deliver “real education through the medium of TV,” focusing primarily on people living in remote or underserved areas.

Starting in 1972, fifteen receiver sites in eight states along the southern stretch of the Appalachian mountains received short broadcasts a few times a week intended for teachers, who were encouraged to use them to improve their lesson plans. But in 1978, the NASA satellite used for the initiative was taken offline, and the project was forced to buy time from a commercial satellite and cable providers. The program was reincorporated as an independent nonprofit and rebranded as The Learning Channel, and then gradually shifting from educational material for students enrolled in specific math or medical courses to more general programming, with shows that explained sailboat maintenance or the finer points of bookkeeping. In 1991, Discovery Communications acquired the program’s assets and shortened the channel name to TLC a few years later.

The channel’s programming began to focus on dramatizing information instead of relaying it. One of its early hits was The Operation, which in each 30-minute episode followed a patient from intake to the operating theater and finally into the recovery ward. The series was produced by Bill Hayes, who’d made a living in North Carolina producing instruction videos for surgeons but had always wanted to show the human stakes of the procedures. The Operation didn’t stand out as a cultural sensation in the era of Friends, Seinfeld, E.R., and Law & Order, but it felt like forward momentum for the executives at TLC, who kept it running for six years.

Encouraged by the positive reception, Hayes built a production company, Figure 8 Films, to expand on The Operation’s aesthetic of vocational drama in the American suburbs: There was a series about the inner workings of a hospital, called Hospital, and another that explained the histories of different dog breeds, Breed All About It. He also made movie-length documentaries for TV about everything from transgender teens, called Transgender Teens, to a family of dwarves, called Dwarf Family: Meet the Fooses. In 2006, he produced a TV documentary on a family raising sextuplets and twins, Surviving Sextuplets and Twins. TLC’s executives liked the one-off and made it into a regular series, turning Jon and Kate Gosselin into newsstand celebrities and completing TLC’s transformation into a reality-TV powerhouse. What had begun as an initiative to bring marginalized groups into the American economy ended up capitalizing on their stories, transforming them into a kind of cinematic national anthem, the same essential story of alienation cured by prosperity of screentime. Ostracism became a currency, a precondition of fame and success that some steered after like storm chasers.

In 2010, Hayes turned from sextuplets to polygamists, launching Sister Wives, which would become his longest running series; it was renewed for a 13th season earlier this year. The show was conceived three years after polygamist Warren Jeffs’s conviction on two counts of rape on his compound on Arizona-Utah border, where he was said to have more than 70 wives, and during investigations into the Kingston Group, a Mormon polygamist offshoot of more than 2,000 people living in a compound where child marriage was the norm and members worked for “scrip” on commune businesses ranging from coal mining to doll manufacturing.

The version of polygamy practiced by Sister Wives’ central figure, Kody Brown, with his three-going-on-four wives, seemed almost utopian in comparison. The way the wives described “plural marriage” — their preferred term — it was more about companionship and life bonds women formed to support one another. “I wanted the family, I didn’t just want the man” Christine, Kody’s third wife, says during the show’s opening credits. After a few episodes, though, it becomes clear the show is less about Mormonism or polygamy — the show mostly omits religious specifics — than the monotonous hustle of middle-class suburbanites trying to live above their means. The Browns lived a life held precariously in place by second mortgages, credit card debt, food stamps, car loans, and Brown’s annual salary from his work in marketing, which he listed in 2005 as just below $48,000. Before the show began airing, the family had filed for bankruptcy three times, first through his second wife Janelle in 1997. In 2005, Kody and Meri jointly declared bankruptcy, citing more than $229,000 in debt spread across two mortgages, two car loans, and more than $85,000 in credit card debt. They claimed to have only $5 left in cash and $10 in savings. In early 2010, just a few months before filming on the first season began, Christine declared the family’s third case of bankruptcy, citing more than $25,000 in debt, most of which came from credit cards.

Though not explicit, this precarity peeks through the minor plot distractions. On hearing she’s qualified for a mortgage on one of four new tract homes the family wanted to buy in a cul de sac, Christine says tearfully, “There’s just a lot of things I feel like I’m failing right now, and so being approved was huge. It was huge.” Though TLC has never disclosed the payment given the Brown family; veteran reality TV producers say that stars typically get around 10 percent of an episode’s budget, suggesting a fee of about $40,000 and potentially much higher, as celebrity enhances their negotiating power. Even if they were at the lower end of the scale, payment for the first season’s nine episodes must have seemed like salvation. You can hear the gospel of American prosperity overtaking Kody — a pathologically sober man who somehow reacts to everything as if he’s on his third glass of chardonnay — when, in another episode, he says, “I’ve gotta start believing that I deserve more than a dirt farm.” It’s an inadvertent echo of what the Johnson administration might have hoped TLC’s original Appalachian audience might have said to themselves.

One of the reasons reality television always appears faker than fiction is its pretense, belied by its endless editing interventions, that recording things gives them significance. But the documentary fragment is never enough on its own; it’s increasingly dependent on other fragments for context and meaning. So reality TV has the uncanny effect of making individual documents, if not individuals themselves, seem disposable.

This may be why trash so readily comes to mind when trying to think of ways to describe reality television. There’s something hateful about it. I knew I would hate Kody Brown before I had ever seen him, when a friend described him to me, told me how he calls his feathered, rosacea-blond hair his fifth wife because of how much maintenance it required. Reality television invites us to rummage through a person’s behavioral tics and life choices: Who is this person, what are they worth? In scripted shows, this impulse was often diffused by the skein of fiction: One had to read the characters in order to understand the story. But in reality TV, the story is a means of getting the characters to show their personality flaws and it can take any form it wants as long as it produces them. This is why so many reality sets have the same sterile air of institutionalization, with actors stripped of cell phones, pulled away from friends and family, given a generous stock of alcohol, and then scheduled for regular confessional interviews with producers to unpack their encounters.

Confronted with this spectacle, what else could you do but lament the state of the world and feel an isolating pinch of self-pity, seeing how unaffected reality is by your moral instincts. If that’s how people are, then solipsistic separation must be the only sane choice. Gary Cavendar, an Arizona State University criminologist, observed the acuity of this dynamic with regular viewers of Cops, who were more likely believe that “there’s more crime than there actually is, … that they’re more likely to be a victim of it than they are, … that black people commit more of it than they do, and … that police are better at catching perpetrators than they are.”

One could say, likewise, that competition shows like Hell’s Kitchen, RuPaul’s Drag Race, American Idol, and Shark Tank are driven by their own set of self-affirming false presumptions about how many more opportunities for success there are in America. In today’s era of endless gigging and sub-minimum wage contract labor, steady fulltime jobs have become the fantasy. In place of the old lottery fantasy of early retirement, the idea that one might actually find a job one likes and which pays a livable salary is presented as a glamorous prize. The resentful, horrified gaze pervading reality television stems from that: the fact that we live in a culture that has made survival seem so desperate and zero-sum. We begin as exiles in the internet economy, contestant outsiders who have to prove our worth to celebrity overseers before we can indulge even the fantasy of being included. Reality television is the aesthetic of human surplus.

I assume they call reality shows trash not because they revel in immorality or hedonism but because they anticipate their own disposability

When I read of bankruptcies behind Sister Wives, it was hard not to think of the entangled optimism and panic of trying to make a living on $50 and $100 bylines, each time the thought rising, like a trout swimming against the spring current, that the money may not be enough but the visibility may lead to something better. There’s no day so good that it can’t be ruined by peeking back at a story I wrote in 2008 or 2011 or last year or any year. To have written online for any prolonged period is to leave so much of yourself in public that it’s hard not to start hating yourself, a habit that’s easy to practice on reality stars and turn on oneself when the screen goes blank. As with reality shows, there was a common aesthetic among many of the hopeful new platforms in the 2000s, whether it be Village Voice’s once expansive network of regional blogs, or Gawker, or Thought Catalog: a flood of vaguely nonfictional microhistories whose primary aesthetic was incompletion. The whole undertaking began to seem purposefully unconsidered, on the basis that these half-formed gestures worked better as data points whose meaning would emerge sometime later, richer and more useful, from some postmortem analysis. More careful writing, with its elegant elisions and graceful glissandos across life’s ugly excesses, seemed a kind of falsification. Looking back on what this approach produced, it seems like I had invented a false dichotomy between incoherence and artifice, because I knew in advance I would only be able to manage the latter with what I had to work with.

I assume they call reality shows trash not because they revel in immorality or hedonism but because they anticipate their own disposability, would-be data points that have become single-use pastimes instead for an audience that didn’t seek a greater synthesis or a better analysis but evidence that life could only ever make sense in postproduction. They would have to trust that someone would survive them to add the right music and make all the right cuts.

I thought of Sister Wives again earlier this year, when another friend mentioned it was still on the air. It felt like stumbling backward into a former life trying to catch up with everything that had happened over the seven seasons I hadn’t watched. The four tract homes whose financing and construction had occupied two seasons of dramatic angst had faded into the background — four stucco-and-drywall prayers that had been answered and forgotten as life inched forward. The camera seems to have outlasted the narrative, waiting for some climactic action to come from any of a dozen tearful conversations. The climax of plot lines are postponed to the point where it’s not even clear what the conflict is, nor who cares. Each commercial-break stinger, every episode cliffhanger, leaves the viewer wondering about which minor point of friction — an argument over whether to install French doors or sliding glass doors in one of the family’s homes, a disagreement over parking spots on a family vacation in Hawaii — will be the starting point of some new catastrophe. But the moment never comes.

As I watched the season play out, it reminded me of Perry’s cancer film. His cancer too kept forgetting its lines and missing its marks. The film spun its way through every emotion of cancer treatment — the shock, depression, false hope, morbid fear, genuine hope. The only thing left was for Perry to die, but the cancer went into remission and deprived him of what should have been his tragic, tear-stained third act. I tried to find the film again, which proved difficult. It had never been picked up for wide release, nor was it distributed on VHS or DVD. It’s untraceable on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Mubi.

Always a showman, Perry knew that it’s bad manners to end a story with an ellipsis, but looking back on his year of self-documentation he couldn’t find any patterns, no organizing principle emerged, no parting wisdom to stain his story with the touch of immortality. It ended with him atop a snowy mountain in Aspen, Colorado, where he decided to take up full-time residence after reconsidering his life in light of his diagnosis. As he delivers his final monologue to the camera, he stammers with a new question — not how to face the end of his life but how to accept that it’s going to continue regardless of the conclusions he came to about its significance. Finally, he simply gives up talking, leaves the camera on its snowy mountaintop, and skis downhill and out of the frame.

When I saw that moment at 16, it felt poignant. The camera, which had only seemed like a tool for capturing, became a vessel for sharing, for giving. Watching it now, 25 years later, it seems to commemorate the last time I watched something on television without the burden of my own pre-emptive judgments. As Perry casually departs the frame and abandons his own story, I get the sense that he had reached the limits of his own intuition, leaving in his wake the eerie calm of someone who has nothing left to say, something I have never felt from a screen since. His story had ended in advance of his life. He died three years later. No cameras were present, maybe one of the last moments in American life it would have been possible to say such a thing.

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York and the author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men.