Reality TV Is No Longer a Form of Escapism

Reality TV has undergone a metamorphosis over the years. Even before the pandemic, the line had begun to blur between the on-screen drama and the everyday lives of its contestants and viewers.

Watching contestants in successive seasons of various reality franchises has begun to feel like staring into a cocoon as someone transforms from a regular person into their own digital avatar. Reality TV contestants too often make it seem as though they are really competing for future endorsement deals, and not the program’s prize. Many end up hawking meals-in-a-box or dental whitening kits or various cleanses on their Instagram accounts.

This reality-to-influencer trajectory is now obvious to everyone watching, as well as those participating. The shows have been infected by this knowingness and feel increasingly performative. Every season, the sweethearts seem more intentionally sweet, the villains seem more intentionally villainous. But this influencer’s mutation process from real to hyperreal is, again, not reality TV’s product, but its projection. Straddling on- and offline existence is something we all experience, if not to the same degree.

These three Netflix series were not the only classic reality TV shows to debut this spring. As I watched ABC’s The Bachelor spinoff Listen to Your Heart, where aspiring singers are thrust into a mansion to quest for true love and a recording contract, I was struck by how much it all felt like something created in 2005, not 2020.

Whereas most reality TV in the past few years, including (and maybe especially) The Bachelor, had been infiltrated by wannabe social media influencers, LTYH’s contestants appeared relatively normal. At the very least, they seemed less self-aware, less sleek and glossy, and more likely to do or wear something unflattering. They all had Instagram, of course, but mediocre follower counts. They wanted influence by singing us — not selling us — something. They seemed like people on TV as I once knew people on TV.

Unlike the Netflix shows, LTYH contestants lived together in a mansion and built close physical relationships, something that’s currently nearly impossible, even if you’re not on TV. All of this enhanced the juxtaposition of now versus then, the pre- and post-pandemic. Watching LTYH was like examining a historical artifact, like something that might as well have been recorded decades ago for all it has in common with our contemporary existence.

But there’s an even more warped sense of nostalgia attached to shows like The Circle, Love Is Blind, and Too Hot to Handle. Watching them in our current state doesn’t prompt a memory of our former routine lives or the closeness we once shared with other people. Instead, they create a strange longing for a time when the extreme scenario we now seem to inhabit was still considered… well, extreme. Perhaps now our binge-watching preferences have simply flipped. Our escapism is no longer in reality TV’s extremes, but in our boring old lives — the formerly routine existence that shows sought to manipulate. We miss when things — even people — were, for lack of a better term, normal.

That feels like a simpler time, when reality TV was not merely comfort food for the brain — a warm loaf of mental sourdough — but also a way to witness a distorted and unfamiliar version of our world, safely. Because as effective as reality TV is at amplifying human nature beyond its usual limits, it’s equally good at bringing things down again and returning us comfortably to a place where, by comparison, our own lives feel under control. Like taking a journey through a carnival funhouse, reality TV lets us enjoy seeing ourselves as distorted and distended caricatures, while knowing we’ll step back out unchanged into the same world we just left. A bunch of really weird shit might have happened in the latest episode that aired, but things will still end happily ever after by the end of the season. Someone will get engaged. Someone will get rich. Someone will get famous. Everyone will get to go home.

But then I think about Joey Sasso and his TikTok post. I think about everyone who says this pandemic, this lockdown, this endurance test, feels like reality TV now. And I worry. I worry whether that feeling is actually less about how a few shows seem to reflect our current lives and more just plain old wishful thinking. It would be nice if we were in a real-life Circle. We might then have an idea of where this is all going. We might even guess at where everyone will end up. Above all, we would know that, no matter how weird things got, in the end we could always just go home, back to the world we left. The reality is we can’t.

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