Illustration:Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty, Love Productions, CBS
You don’t have to look hard to see how far the influence of reality television has stretched into the culture at large. Plenty of reality TV contestants and participants have become famous (or infamous) cultural figures. And intentionally or not, reality shows hold a mirror up to society, untangling big social and political issues. While politics and culture have always been intertwined, a reality television host becoming president of the United States brought that dynamic to a new level.
These are just some of the many factors that make reality TV an art form worthy of deep dissection and scholarship, which is the throughline and guiding principle of “Spectacle,” a new podcast about the history of reality TV. Created and hosted by Mariah Smith, each episode dives deep into a pivotal series of the genre, including shows like “The Real World,” “Survivor” and “The Bachelor,” with the help of guests like culture reporters and critics, entertainment and media scholars, as well as some of the producers and contestants on these shows.
A writer and comedian in Los Angeles, Smith is a voracious consumer and observer of reality television. For years, she wrote a blog for New York Magazine’s The Cut analyzing continuity errors on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” (called “Keeping Up With the Kontinuity Errors,” of course). She also used to be a producer on Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” so she has looked at the genre from many angles.
What makes reality TV a fascinating source of analysis is that each show “really reflects the time we’re in,” she said in an interview. “Every show — from the most ridiculous, like ‘Flavor of Love,’ to the more serious, like the celebrities tracking their genealogy, shows like that — is a time capsule of society as it stood at that moment.”
Through the lens of reality TV, especially long-running shows, you can watch everything from the television industry to society at large transform right before your eyes. For instance, an episode of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” from 2007, the year it premiered, looks very different from a 2020 episode, Smith said.
While most episodes of “Spectacle” take a deep dive into a famous show from the 1990s or the 2000s, the first episode introduces a show less familiar to modern-day reality TV viewers: 1973’s “An American Family,” a 12-episode PBS docuseries that became a model for modern reality TV shows. It was meant to be a slice-of-life series about an upper-middle-class California couple, Pat and Bill Loud, and their five children. But it went on to capture a lot of dramatic moments, particularly for the 1970s, such as the couple deciding to divorce and their oldest son coming out as gay.
At the time of its release, the series was highly polarizing, and it hasn’t been widely available since (though PBS has a few excerpts online and re-aired the series in 2011, when the story behind the making of the show was adapted into an HBO movie: “Cinema Verité,” starring Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as the Louds). As Smith explains in the podcast episode, viewers back in the ’70s weren’t accustomed to seeing what we now understand to be common reality TV tactics: getting viewers deeply invested in surprising and intimate moments, edited together from hours and hours of footage and mined for maximum drama.
From there, “Spectacle” is structured chronologically around shows that built on what came before and formed today’s vast reality TV landscape. Episode 2 is about MTV’s “The Real World,” whose creators were directly inspired by “An American Family,” taking the model of following a family’s most intimate moments and applying that to a group of strangers. Episodes 3 and 4 are about “Survivor” and “The Bachelor,” respectively. The former created an easily reproducible and financially viable formula for reality competition shows. The latter contains a lot of the same DNA as “Survivor,” trading the tribal council for the rose ceremony.
Upcoming episodes of “Spectacle,” which premiere each Wednesday, will cover “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” the “Real Housewives” franchise, “90 Day Fiancé” and “The Great British Bake Off,” Smith said.
One of the podcast’s strengths is in illustrating what these shows say about our society. The “Survivor” episode shows listeners how the long-running competition series reflects the tribalism of American politics, especially in some of its most infamous seasons, like when it divided contestants based on class (“Survivor: Worlds Apart”) or race (“Survivor: Cook Islands”).
Smith, who hadn’t watched the show much before watching a lot of it for the podcast, said she was captivated by the way “it takes what I loved about reality TV — like, throwing strangers into an environment — but it strips away all of the material things surrounding that.”
“You really get to see how people can turn from humans into monsters quite quickly. That, to me, is what we see even today in politics, like what we saw in the insurrection,” she said. “You see how quickly and how easy it is for your mind to flip a switch from just everyday human to survival mode, and trying to do what you believe is right — even when it is, you know, objectively wrong.”
The podcast also explores how these shows were simultaneously groundbreaking for their time, while perpetuating offensive stereotypes and tropes. For example, early seasons of “The Real World” made waves for candidly addressing issues like race, gender, sexual identity and class. However, the show’s producers often did so in deeply manipulative, cynical and hamfisted ways.
Smith’s fascination with reality TV began at an early age, starting with MTV’s Spring Break coverage, which led to her watching “The Real World” and its sister show “Road Rules.”
“When I was growing up, my parents were always like, ‘You can learn from any type of media,’” she said. “No matter what it was, even if it was Spring Break or anything a little bit more highbrow, we would talk about those shows and dissect them as though they were cultural artifacts.”
On their face, reality TV shows can often be ridiculous and over the top, and many have become objects of dismissal and mockery. Today, a lot of fans know that many “reality” shows are typically the result of a lot of artifice and stagecraft. As “Spectacle” lays out, those behind-the-scenes choices have implications far beyond the universe of the shows themselves — making them endlessly fascinating subjects for cultural analysis.