Welcome to Reality TV, America, 2020. Ushering in a new decade, we must return to the concepts that defined those before us. The most formative concept to hit screens since the ’90s is that of reality television. It’s a time-sensitive concept, requiring shared viewing experiences that are oh so rare in the modern television landscape. Something truly significant has changed: the bell toll of Trump’s presidency. We have just bared witness to the most surreal reality television of all, as an impeachment followed by a game show State of the Union set into very clear relief that we have really accepted a reality show magnate as the leader of the free world. It is terrifying, high stakes television, to be sure. But it has readied us for other innovations and a refocusing on just what these shows mean in the public conscious.
Real World was formative after school programming for me. It showed us how to leave home. That as we all were outliving our adolescence, MTV, that network that defined for so long the course of pop culture, would give us a taste of early adulthood. And so it became our own. It was not exactly as it showed, entering the real world. It did not come with such high-end productions or interest in living regularly. But it prefigured a social media context in which we might be ready to share the wealth of our everyday life. In the premise that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, we sat with fixated interest, realizing the greatest human interest stories were in exploring the beats of life, living large within the mundanity of the thing. The best moments of Real World were when real people faced real problems. They showed us the very human thing nobody had yet thought to script: the way we could just sit with characters and experience them on their own human terms. They got right the things the French New Wave of filmmaking already knew about: Cinéma vérité and documentary filmmaking is the shit. We did not need a genre, we needed humanity.
Soon after Real World, the greatest-of-all-time format premiered in Survivor. The first many seasons were landmark cultural events. The characters were cast for drama. They drew large shadows over their resident beaches. It was within that first decade of Survivor that we have gifted a crop of extremely tangible, legitimate people. They were not exactly fledgling TV wannabees. To gain entry, they had to forgo that very usual comfort. Survivor is back this year and significantly so. The early 2020 season is the most prime the content has ever been. Twenty of Survivor‘s past winners have been gathered to compete. Everyone from Boston Rob to Yul Kwan have assembled. It’s truly Marvel-like in its gathering of so many years of episodic content, like a complete accumulation of everything that has come before. The producers rightly figured now is the exact time for the content. That 2020 is the year of reality TV. Beyond having two teams of all the best talent they’ve ever stuck on an island, they made one brilliant change: providing a currency for players, giving them some material weight, even once eliminated. It’ll prove to be a true game-changer as the season develops. The one certainty is that we are all actively watching and talking about Survivor again. All this, just a year after the show was leveled with accusations that may cause many viewers to call it quits. The show itself is required to undergo a redemption arc, providing greater safety and methods for its contestants to ensure they are not being sexually harassed on the island. That is not the kind of reality TV anyone is looking for. Considering, the shift towards an all-in method finds the show absolutely begging for views, putting everything it has on the table to save face.
The prototype between Real World and Survivor that would change the course of reality TV were dating and Big Brother-esque programs. Television found specific ways to gamify relationship building, without the island dressing. Truly, every episode of The Bachelor has its own tribal council. This year, we have found radical reinvention of these more home-spun gamified concepts in two original Netflix series: Love is Blind and The Circle. Both have embraced the very nature of our everyday reality show with social media. Love is Blind holds contests behind a barrier where they meet the man or woman they are going to marry. They are paired out as a social experiment, before ever even seeing their future spouse. It works absolute wonders for drama, withholding everything to show meaningful connection too often missing from TV. Because of Netflix’s unique relationship to formatting and lack of advertiser demands, the first episode of Love is Blind is strikingly spent with one interracial couple, trying to prove the thesis that love is not only blind but color blind. It is that talk show staple of answering questions from that hidden stranger, extended to its most logical extent.
Netflix’s The Circle is our truest revelation. In the guise of a new format of Nice TV, it embraces sincerity above the fake-reality TV programming that ultimately ended the acute, very real pleasure founded in Real World. Netflix found the most amazing cast here. I remember harassing fellow The Twin Geeks editor Kevin Lever constantly, he had to watch this show. There was a guy, a Joey Sasso, the kind of guy we’ve experienced so much on Jersey Shore type shows. Yeah, he would seem to self-identify, raised on Goodfellas, but then he carried a great generosity of spirit. With the ever-humble Shubham Goel, a true bromance for the ages developed. There was a beautiful and real TV connection that reminded everyone of the inherent good that can come with reality if it would only show us how we are. The premise of The Circle is several contestants are not who they say. Shubham was the realest of the genuine contestants and broadly believed in by everyone in The Circle from go, he also has political aspirations (he once ran a small campaign for Governor of California), showing a brighter side of how politics play themselves out in the average reality game. What Netflix found out, between the veil of Catfish-like false adventurism, is that given false options, we respond best to authenticity in the face of adversity. They cracked the modern code on reality TV.
Above all, Netflix has broken the release cycle. While we once (and often still) waited week by week, they’ve broken their reality shows into mini-seasons. The shows air in three short bursts. The bulk of the episodes occur twice, and then a finale wraps us up in the end. In a show like The Circle (originally developed in outlying countries, as many of our reality TV is), we realize that they have charted the course for instantly accessible gold. It did not even harm the conversation. There are so many shows now it is not going to be the only headline, the only watercooler conversation. By revitalizing the release mechanism, Netflix has self-created a renewed interest in form and exposure. They have brought binge culture to the most bingeable format once and for all. It should not be very long until networks must follow suit.
The big elephant in the room is that we have been superlatively and tragically shaped by reality TV culture already. Yes, that orange man in the White House is the resultant end of this culture’s worst impulses. More so, the result of the manipulative mid-lifespan reality TV that emerged with The Apprentice. Let us agree on the premise that it is our most important reality TV show. We might have a functioning government without it. This is like Time magazine giving person of the year to someone who’s a net negative. There has been no figure to emerge from reality TV with quite the fervor and expansion in the public imagination as one Donald Trump. Good and mostly bad, The Apprentice is America. Election night was the tribal council for all our misdeeds and failures as a country. We’re all fired.
The real reality TV aside, new formats and reinvigorated interest in aging programs point to 2020 being the finest year of reality television yet. Netflix is onto a sure thing with The Circle. They have found what has always been missing. There may never be an impetus to say any year but 2016 is more responsible for shaping the reality landscape, but now we have lived with our reality TV president in our reality TV country for a while and must return back to where it all started. Sometimes we must live vicariously through the big and small moments of other folks’ lives. Right now, that is better than dealing with the Real World. Send message.