opinion / regular

How to watch reality TV

Words by Brodie Lancaster, illustration by Emma Do

When I’m not spending my life pulling apart every episode of Homeland (do I trust Brody? Will Carrie remember Asa when season 2 starts? WHAT HAPPENED TO THE TAPE!?) or waxing lyrical on the reasons why the comedy in How I Met Your Mother, Big Bang Theory and Modern Family aren’t clever enough for my taste, more often than not I’m watching other people live their lives. Here is a not-at-all-comprehensive list of the reality TV shows I have begun watching, judged harshly, and eventually become unhealthily obsessed with:
America’s Next Top Model, The Jersey Shore, Snooki and JWoww: BFFs, The Bachelor, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Kourtney and Kim Take New York, Kourtney and Khloe Take Miami, Khloe and Lamar, Jamie’s Kitchen, The Hills, The Real L Word: Los Angeles, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy, Masterchef, My Strange Obsession, The Amazing Race.

While that’s nowhere near being an exhaustive list of reality TV shows in general, it’s probably important to note that I’ve consumed all of those in less than two years. And it’s taught me a lot. If you want to be as well versed on the lives of the Kardashians and Jenners as I am, and come away from a season of reality TV satisfied, here are a few simple rules to ensure you’re getting the most from the experience.

Firstly, you need to pick a favourite. Not only will this give you someone to barrack for in competition-style reality shows, but it also says a lot about who you are deep down in your soul. For example, while watching the early selection episodes of Masterchef series 4, I immediately got behind Amina. As a Seasoned Reality TV Professional™, I could recognize her schtick (as a Muslim she doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol. HOW WILL SHE EVER WIN A COMPETITION WHEN HER SUCCESS HINGES ON WHETHER OR NOT SHE CAN INCORPORATE PORK CRACKLING INTO EVERY SINGLE DISH TO SATIATE THOSE JUDGES!? you scream. Chill out, I reply, she’s got about 17 different Asian and Middle Eastern cultures in her family tree which means she can excel at literally everything!*) from a mile away, and was immediately aware of how appealing that would be to the producers of the show.

If you’re watching a fly-on-the-wall, Big Brother-type show, the favourite character (you need to understand and accept that they are characters and not human beings with real lives and feelings) you choose at the start may not still hold up in your eyes as the series progresses. It’s perfectly okay to change your mind. In the first episode of Jersey Shore I wasn’t a fan of Jenny’s sass when it came to her dealings with other girls, but within a few episodes her wolf mama instincts kicked in and I grew to love her more and more. (Sidenote: if there’s a character who acts protective and responsible, and often comes off as kind of a square, they will instantly be my favourite. See: Vinny.)

As important as it is to have a favourite, it’s just as important to find your villain. In a show like The Bachelor, this will most often be the girl getting the most screentime and/or the one on the receiving end of chagrin from the other girls (Courtney, from the most recent season, is a prime example). In a competition show like this, especially the ones that pit women against women to win a modeling contract/a husband/a cookbook deal, the villain of the show is more often the one who is the first to declare she “didn’t come here to make friends”. When you hear that line, BAM!, you’ve got yourself a villain. Of course these characters can assume many forms; Jersey Shore has Mike, the 30-something greaseball who slinks around like that snake or whatever from Monsters Inc. causing “drama”, all the while declaring how much he “hates drama”, while Masterchef has Deb, who single-handedly was responsible for Amina being up for elimination before blaming her ineptitude on menopause.

The third and final rule of reality TV obsession is to know when to come back to actual reality. You can only suspend your disbelief for so long— something The Hills finally admitted in the very last scene of the very last episode of a show that was all about people making statements like, “I wonder if he’s going to call,” and then staring into space for 20 minutes while their brunch companion squints into the horrible LA sun. Despite my deep and pervasive love for every member of the Kardashian family (and by “love for” I mean “repulsion of”), while watching season 6 of Keeping Up with the Kardashians recently I was forced to admit to myself that the entire series was being funded by the US Department of Health. How else could you explain three successive episodes dealing with Bruce’s hearing (it’s okay! It’s normal for 61 year old men to not hear some things, his doctor told him), Kim’s psoriasis (it’s okay! You can just cover it with make-up, her make-up artist who is probably also a doctor, told her) and Kris’ weak bladder (it’s okay! Your whole family are pawns on an advertising chess set and you can sell your “condition” to a company that specializes in incontinence pads, Kris, who is probably a doctor, announced while staring into the lens of the camera, hypnotizing us all into thinking chandeliers and marble are classy)?

*She was eliminated last week and no I don’t want to talk about it #amina2012

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