Some Reality TV Wants to Be Good For You. But It's Not. And That's Ok

Stacy London gives a makeover on Love, Lust or Run.
Stacy London gives a makeover on Love, Lust or Run.

“Self-love.” “Inner beauty.” “Meaningful connections.”

Where do we most often hear phrases like these? A person of an older generation might say, “The self-help section at Barnes and Noble.” But a millennial might easily answer, “reality television.”

We’ve entered the age of compassionate reality TV. But not everything is as it so cheerfully seems. 

These feel-good phrases are straight from the mouths of three of the biggest names in reality television today, describing the purpose of their programs: Nev Schulman, host of Catfish: The TV Show, has said his series helps people accept their true selves. Stacy London, host of Love, Lust or Run, wants to show women they’re beautiful on the inside. And Patti Stanger of Millionaire Matchmaker claims to know the secret to deep and lasting relationships. These hosts, who operate on MTV, TLC and Bravo, respectively, are strikingly different from one another, yet they all express the same sentiment: that watching (and being on) reality television can somehow make you a better person.

Catfish, which entered its fourth season on Feb. 25, is perhaps the most tonally at odds with what we’ve come to expect from reality TV. Schulman and his cohost/film partner, Max Joseph, travel the country to find young people who have developed suspicions about their online relationships. The two young hosts use some not-particularly-impressive cyber-stalking skills to locate, and eventually unite, these potential “catfishes” with their significant others. Not so surprisingly, there are lies to be uncovered, and many if not most of the target parties are divergent from their online personas, whether in looks, personality, gender or some combination thereof. But the key to Catfish is that no matter how shocking the curtain reveal is, Nev and Max look with kind eyes upon not just the victims of the catfish scheme but their perpetrators as well. They provide comfort, advice and a crying shoulder for the hapless perjurers, pointing out potential life lessons with a shrug and a smile. The result, episode after episode, is a messy but ultimately uplifting story about love, fear and the importance of being true to oneself.

Nev Schulman, center, and Max Joseph, right, meet a Catfish perpetrator.EXPAND
Nev Schulman, center, and Max Joseph, right, meet a Catfish perpetrator.

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Yet even as they operate on a foundation of apparent compassion, the producers of Catfish thrust their TV cameras mercilessly into the homes of their victims in search of the “truth,” and the force of their demands can be disturbing. It is not uncommon for an episode of Catfish to coerce an outing upon a subject: of sexual orientation, gender identity or past trauma. During last season’s finale, catfish Brogan (real name: Tia) was rather aggressively strong-armed into admitting and then confronting an incident of sexual assault in her past. The tears flowed freely and the music swelled, but it was hard to reconcile the disconnect between the sensitivity of the moment and the fact that the scene was being broadcast to an international audience of millions, whose investment in the show is crucial to its survival.

London’s Love, Lust or Run, which began its run in January of this year, is modeled closely after her first foray into reality television, What Not to Wear, which ran for 10 years on TLC. Like London's former gig, this job involves criticizing, undressing and ultimately "making over" victims of bad fashion, with the intent of rebuilding the subject and her wardrobe from the ground up.

But the pageantry of Love, Lust or Run is designed not just to give makeovers but also to force emotions: A woman is forced to watch strangers gawk and laugh at her outfits. A frosted glass panel shows the raw outlines of her body as she strips bare. The final “look” is revealed only after she stands in literal darkness, presumably unaware of what she looks like, as Stacy gives her one last pep talk. When the lights come on, the remade woman will reliably double over in tears as she blubbers her undying thanks to Stacy.

A similar blubbering takes place in the closing minutes of Millionaire Matchmaker, when daters inevitably express the magnitude of the “journey” they've been on, how much they’ve learned about themselves and, of course, how grateful they are to Patti Stanger for making it all happen for them. Stanger, whose biggest pet peeve is “critical people,” has spent the previous 40 minutes violently berating her “clients” for their dating faux-pas. 

Patti Stanger, center, and her assistant provide dating advice to Larry Birkhead on Millionaire Matchmaker.
Patti Stanger, center, and her assistant provide dating advice to Larry Birkhead on Millionaire Matchmaker.

The take-away of these shows is the same: The subjects will walk away from the experience as better people, and we as audience members may expect similar revelations in ourselves by virtue of following along. But despite a vocabulary of positive catchphrases and touchy-feely hosts, these shows ultimately run on the same emotional manipulation and sense of voyeurism that have come to define the genre of reality television.

The invasion of the “compassionate” reality show negates the sense of “guilty pleasure” usually associated with reality programs: We actually feel that we’re somehow doing good by watching them. But there’s nothing inherently more sympathetic about these programs than others. It's only the angle at which they are marketed — and, of course, the way that we choose to receive them.

It is a relief to shed the nagging shame we associate with watching reality TV, and when these shows apparently allow us to do so, we feel we've regained time otherwise wasted. But why the obsession over whether reality television is a waste at all? When we spend so much time hate-watching, guilt-watching and otherwise "ironically" watching reality television, we distance ourselves from the truth of the matter: that maybe we just like this stuff. And is that such a bad thing? We celebrate scripted television when it moves us or tugs at our emotions. Why deny that same permission to the unscripted? 

Maybe reality television hasn't changed at all, and it's just as exploitative, manipulative and silly as it ever was. Maybe it's not reality TV that needs to be more compassionate toward viewers. Maybe viewers just need to be more compassionate toward reality TV.

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