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In Defense of Reality TV’s Prestige

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The prevailing wisdom is that reality TV is trash. I disagree. 

I’d take it even further: so-called prestige TV is trash, and reality TV is the most interesting, compelling TV of our time.

I used to be an active admirer of prestige TV and a disparager of reality TV. Over time, both forms have proliferated, becoming self-aware and formulaic. This caused prestige TV to lose its soul–but reality TV to gain a new one.

What happened to Prestige TV?

Gen 1

In 2013, Alan Sepinwall released the second edition of his book, The Revolution Was Televised: How The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Lost, and Other Groundbreaking Dramas Changed TV Forever.

This was the beginning of Prestige TV as a popular concept and the end of it as the best thing on TV.

Alan didn’t coin the term, but he defined its parameters and canonical examples:

  • Serialized instead of episodic plotlines 
    • Think: Breaking Bad’s meandering, multi-season plotlines
  • Weirdly sympathetic anti-hero protagonists 
    • Think: Mad Men’s philandering Don Draper 
  • Big-budget movie-style sets and set pieces
    • Think: Lost’s plane crash
  • Self-contained worlds with intricate political history and moral logic
    • Think: The Wire’s Baltimore
  • Expectation inversion
    • Think: Tony Soprano going to therapy as a mobster 

The shows he covered–let’s call them Gen 1 Prestige TV–have a special place in my heart. They deserved to be eulogized as beautifully as they were by Sepinwall. Their characters in particular were timeless. The settings, budgets, and inversions were just compelling ways to surface the characters’ nuances. 

When I looked at the world through the eyes of Tony, Don, Stringer, or Walt, I felt a part of myself looking too. I could empathize with their pain and their desires, which made me feel complicit in their actions. This challenged me as a viewer and left me feeling like I knew myself and the world better for watching them.

Gen 2

Post-Sepinwall, producers figured out these parameters and doubled down. Gen 2 Prestige TV was born. There was no better example of this than Game of Thrones. Read the parameters above again–it’s like they made a show specifically optimized to them.

This also coincided with the insane growth of Netflix and streaming. From 2015 to 2022, they added over 25 million subscribers a year. All those people needed more stuff to watch, and Netflix (and HBO, FX, etc) saw that this model worked. Netflix’s breakthrough hit was House of Cards. You don’t need Netflix’s 200-person data team to figure out they optimized precisely to the parameters of Prestige TV.

Other mid-2010s Gen 2 shows include Orange is the New Black, Girls, True Detective, The Good Place, The Walking Dead, and Silicon Valley. All pretty good shows with a point of view. But it’s no coincidence that these all whimpered out with weak final seasons. They had more to say about society than about people, so their characters couldn’t hold their own once the point about society was driven home.

Gen 3

When you turn a journey into a roadmap, you risk missing what made the journey worthwhile. As we entered the 2020s, demand for streaming shows kept growing, and Prestige TV got even more formulaic as it proliferated.

Showrunners seemingly dropped altogether the idea that Prestige TV should have anything to say about people. For Gen 3 shows like The Last of Us, Westworld, Queen’s Gambit, and Severance, characters are just one part of a show’s mise en place, in service of the viewing experience instead of driving it. 

These shows create moody, big-budget worlds for their anti-hero character arcs. But to what purpose? Gen 3 characters are charismatic and sometimes mean, but we can no longer see ourselves in them. Joel on The Last of Us is a surly badass, but despite Pedro Pascal’s acting, nothing about him connects to our universal hopes and anxieties. 

They twist themselves to create inversions of expectations that don’t matter. When Gen 1’s Buffy presented as a tough killer instead of a victim, it was a delightful inversion in service of her characterization as a teenager thrashing for her right to autonomy. On Gen 3’s equivalent Yellowjackets, every teenager is written as an inversion (the quiet girl’s slutty! The popular girl’s nice! The tough guy’s gay!), but these inversions don’t deliver anything about these characters beyond, “didn’t expect that, did you?”

They build serialized plots that rely entirely on a last-episode payoff. Gen 1’s Breaking Bad is famous for its slow plotting. But that’s because it unlocks time to sit with our characters. In their famous bottle episode, “Fly”, Walt and Jesse spend the whole episode trying to kill a fly in their lab. No plot movement. But it helps us understand how badly Walt needs control, and how Jesse instinctively rejects the idea of being controlled, which pays off throughout the show.

By contrast, a Gen 3 show like True Detective: Night Country will spend full episodes on side quests tracking down a drug addict, and they’ll give us a big-budget jumpscare and plot breadcrumbs for our time, but no deeper understanding of the detectives. It creates a buildup that the last episode could never earn because it forgot to make us invested in the characters along the way.

Addressing IP

Gen 3 also proliferated one of the most clear harbingers of creative death: reused IP. 

There simply aren’t enough quality original ideas to keep up with the demand for this kind of television. So producers shortcut it by remaking shows and adapting books/movies. I could rattle off these popular, middling shows pretty quickly: Shogun, Winning Time, House of Dragons, Watchmen, Better Call Saul, Queen’s Gambit, 3 Body Problem, and Mindhunter.

I’ve particularly enjoyed seeing networks dig deeper into video game lore as they run out of popular books and movies, such as The Witcher, Halo, Twisted Metal, and The Last of Us.

(There are a few notable Gen 3 exceptions that are original, character-driven works: Succession, The Bear, and Euphoria come to mind. But they are rarer than in the early 2010s and much rarer relative to the volume of shows produced today.)

Using existing IP isn’t inherently bad. Lord of the Rings did an amazing job of it. But it signals a creative incuriousity that often leads to more shallow characters.

Prestige TV’s proliferation and self-awareness forced it to collapse under its own weight. It went from an artful medium to trash TV. Trash TV is fine to watch. But let’s admit that it’s engaging the same smooth parts of our brains and hearts that trash reality TV did in the early 2000s.

The rise of Reality TV 

Prestige TV is not the first genre to have a proliferation problem. Reality TV exploded in the early 2000s and just kept exploding up to today. It is cheap to produce, reliably compelling, and easy to knock off. This made it the perfect fit for late cable. And the social media/creator era. And the streaming era. And the COVID era. Reality TV’s cost base, connection to real people, and replicability mean it’s an easy fit for pretty much every type of TV, so it’s been proliferating for 25 years.

A lot of reality TV is genuinely bad. Like modern Prestige TV, it is often formulaic and self-aware. But unlike Prestige TV, for a subcategory of reality shows, this formulaic-ness and self-awareness has given rise to an entirely new, elevated, richly rewarding viewing experience.

Tenure as lore

Many of the reality shows I like have been running for 15+ seasons, with 5+ knockoff versions, using the same formula. This level of tenure can make season 5 a drag, but by season 10, actually helps it. These shows now have a weighty sense of history that other TV can’t compare to. Contestants are familiar with this lore–they leverage it for advantages, treat it with reverence, and contextualize events with it. 

For example, it’s not uncommon on RuPaul’s Drag Race to hear a ponderous, “This has never happened before!” when a drag queen achieves something special. Or for other queens to compare a current competitor to a previous season’s: “She does makeup like Trixie Mattel”. Drag queens often come from the same drag family, with new entrants hoping their performance lives up to the expectations of their house name: “I want to be the second winner from the House of Colby”. When contestants don’t respect that history, like Sugar & Spice, they get throttled.

The feeling this evokes is like a combination of the weightiness of March Madness and the depth of Game of Thrones. “A 16 seed has never beaten a 1 seed until now!”, “I wonder what happened to make the Targaryeans so mad”, “He’s like a more athletic version of Duke’s Christian Laettner”, “The Dothraki culture has such unusual customs.”

It’s a sense of a present that’s necessarily fleeting but in commune with a distant and permanent past. New seasons are additions to a cultural tapestry instead of a redux of a familiar concept. It encourages curiosity. The more you watch, the more of the tapestry you’re able to see.

Drag Race isn’t the only show to accomplish this. Survivor contestants now often refer to their studies of old seasons in preparation. They’ll refer to characters when describing their gameplay moves: “I think I could pull off a Boston Rob” or discuss the importance of building cross-tribe alliances pre-merge. The show’s tenure allows inversions of expectations to arise organically from the contestants instead of being forced by the plot. A contestant in season 45 knows there’s no way they can get away with building the kind of alliance that the Tika tribe built in season 44.

All of this lore turns a show’s formula into a vessel for characterization and intrigue instead of a creative limitation–just like Gen 1 Prestige TV.

Fame as narrative arc

One character is present on every reality show: fame. This ghoul casts a spectre of self-awareness over everyone, creating a compelling meta-character study of Man On Film. 

One of my favourite examples is the Bachelor/Bachelorette. The show’s original attraction was seeing one person whittle down a bunch of potential partners. Today, that’s only half the story–the Bachelor also needs to infer who is even interested in them as a person, and who’s there “for the wrong reasons” (they say that constantly). The wrong reason is fame. 

If a contestant on the show is likeable enough, they get much more than a fianceé: they get a million IG followers, follow-up TV bookings, and a career as a podcaster/beauty influencer in LA. If they don’t succeed, they go back to Omaha to life as a junior project manager or whatever.

In search of likability and fame, contestants contort themselves to respond gracefully to terrible news, work tirelessly to craft their narrative to the audience, and say yes to things they have no business saying yes to (no one likes narrative slowdown, just ask Skylar). Watching people internalize this, and then react to their own internalization in real time, is fascinating character work. 

If you want a great modern example of a weirdly sympathetic anti-hero, who challenges what you expect of yourself and others, look no further than Bachelor Season 28’s Maria. An LA girl from small-town Ontario who had never brought a boyfriend home. She started shit with every contestant she could and defended to the death her right to do it. She didn’t win, but she lead the cast in in-season follower growth and was offered the role of Bachelorette next season.

No one understands Man On Film more than Nathan Fielder, one of the greats of modern reality TV. People often describe the premise of Nathan For You as: “Guy who pitches dumb business ideas that are actually kind of smart.” The real premise is: “How will people react to being TV? How can we push this to its logical extreme?”.

Nathan For You and its follow-up, The Rehearsal, are meditations on the draw of the camera, people’s willingness to suspend disbelief, and how fame and money blur the line between good and bad ideas. They’re also insanely funny. I’ve learned much more about the nature of people from watching these shows than watching Gen 3 Prestige TV.

Concept as characterization

Many of the great Gen 1 show characters have a deep, relatable anxiety at their core. Don feared being seen, so he put up walls. Walt worried his life wasn’t going to mean anything. McNulty felt powerless to change a cruel society. This isn’t easy. It takes incredible writing to bring these anxieties believably to life and pull us into relation with them.

Reality TV has a shortcut. Every great reality TV show’s formula has a deep relatable anxiety at its heart. Instead of gradually surfacing the concept through story, they put a magnifying glass to it and let their contestants do the rest. 

On regular TV, shortcuts don’t make for great characters. But on reality TV, these are real people. As Don Draper says, “When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him.” People will have authentic moments of anxiety on these shows in a way that often leaves me gobsmacked. They’ll express fears, uncertainties, goals, or just raw emotions with a verity that takes actors or writers a lifetime of training to accomplish.

Here are my favourite examples of shows’ universally relatable, anxiety-driven premises:

  • Survivor:
    • Not being able to fit in
    • Fear of letting people down
    • Your friends secretly not liking you that much
    • Your friends cutting you down or out if you’re more successful than them
  • Bachelor(ette):
    • Expressing love and not having it reciprocated
    • Wasting time with someone you shouldn’t be with
    • Finding a partner in time to have kids
  • Love is Blind:
    • People liking you only for your looks
    • Being unlovable due to your looks
  • Love Island:
    • Ending up single while all your friends are in relationships
  • The Ultimatum:
    • Whether your partner would cheat if they were given a clear chance
  • Playing It Straight
    • That your boyfriend is secretly gay (just kidding on this one…mostly)

Plus my all-time favourite example: Love on the Spectrum. The joy in the show isn’t in watching autistic people stumble to date, it’s watching them stumble to date in all the same ways everyone else does: wrong expectations, awkward overtures, let-downs, and occasionally, triumph. Their feelings are our own, represented in another world.

It’s not a coincidence that so many of the best ones are about relationships. Relationships bring out some of our most genuine anxieties and fears. Some would say reality TV preys on that; I say the best ones reflect it back to us.

I now watch equal amounts of Prestige TV and reality TV. I like to engage intellectually and emotionally with both. More often than not though, Prestige TV is where I smooth-brain and reality TV is where I switch on. I think if more people were willing to switch on to watch the self-aware, long-running reality TV shows that have earned their moments, they’d experience the same.

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