A few weeks ago, as I was assembling my predictions for the 2013 Emmy winners, I noted my disgust over the shows nominated for best reality (non-competition) program. Shows like Shark Tank and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives, which are perfectly fine shows, but they are not non-competition or reality (as we have come to define it). In midst of venting about the elitist Emmy Board I noted … “I’m not suggesting that The Real Housewives should be nominated…”, but the more I thought about it I thought, why not?
The idea that reality TV as a genre is “bad” has become so prevalent that it’s stated almost as fact at this point. Even I, an avid and proud fan, easily cast off the idea that The Real Housewives of anywhere get the recognition and praise reserved for so called “quality” television. But what determines bad from good? What are the definable differences between quality TV and trashy TV?
The one genre clearly represented in The Real Housewives is soap operas. So now you’re probably rolling your eyes and saying, see, you just proved that The Real Housewives are bad TV. Well hold up there, you know what else is a soap opera? Mad Men. Yes, the critical darling is nothing more than night time soap. A beautifully written, produced, performed, and designed soap opera, but a soap nonetheless. In what other genre would you find so many illicit affairs, secret babies and stolen identities? Certainly not in reality because it’s too farfetched to even seem real.
Furthermore, what is the difference between the dangerous social game being waged on Game of Thrones and the treacherous minefield of a charity event littered with former friends and potential enemies? Why is the strained relationship between Walter White and Jesse Pinkman so fascinating, but the dissolution of Jill and Bethany’s friendship is a joke? How is Francis Underwood’s endless scheming to take down his enemies any different than Teresa’s endless attempts to bring down her sister-in-law? And can anyone really dispute that Downton Abby is anything more than The Real Housewives of Pre-War England?
And these are just the similarities between The Real Housewives and the shows the Emmy board found worthy enough for nomination this year. Taken on its own ,the franchise has dealt with issues of familial bonds, addiction, financial hardships, autism, domestic abuse, suicide and of course the ins and outs of female relationships.
So perhaps the difference comes from the presentation? And this ultimately leads to the argument, “reality TV is so fake”. Umm, yeah. People put far too much importance on the “reality” part of the genre and not enough on the “TV” part.
Go back and watch the first season of The Real World (the granddaddy of all contemporary reality TV), back before there were “types” and people playing to the camera. You probably won’t make it past the first episode. It’s that dull. The Real World didn’t really take off (to inspire a generation of TV makers) until the third season when they had Pedro (and his AIDS) and Puck (a villain) and together they created a storyline. And people loved it.
Granted, having a generation grow up watching reality TV means that current reality stars know what is expected of them and, to a certain extent, perform to meet those expectations. I’ll be the first to admit that watching current season of OC is difficult because those women have been at it so long they barely register as actual women.
But that’s also what makes it riveting.
These women go onto the show with an agenda and a persona they want to sell to the public. But reality television has the uncanny ability to lay bare a person’s flaws whether they mean to show them or not. So we have women actively trying to portray a character which subsequently bares her actual personality (warts and all) to the audience. That’s deeper than Homeland could ever hope to be.
So then, perhaps the difference is the intent behind the product. After all, Mad Men and Breaking Bad are as much art as they are entertainment. Well, so are The Real Housewives.
Now you may be thinking, “wait one second, missy, did you just call The Real Housewives art?” Why yes, hypothetical, condescending reader, I did.
Andy Cohen (producer of The Real Housewives franchise and head of programming at Bravo) has been called the Andy Warhol of the 21st century and it’s a fitting description. Warhol elevated everyday objects by letting them speak to the commercialism of the times much like Cohen uses the housewives to hold up a mirror on society’s current celebrity worship.
By watching these women go from “average” (though un-averagely wealthy) to “superstar” we get a taste of what instant stardom looks like. We watch as they deal with unrealistic (to us) problems like “tabloids are printing fake stories about me” or struggling to maintain their foothold in the celebrity infrastructure by any desperate means necessary. Like it or not we are obsessed with celebrity and these women (and other reality stars) are the closest we will come to seeing what that life is like. No, it isn’t pretty and we may not like what that mirror reveals, but that doesn’t make it devoid of meaning or thought.
Now, in no way am I trying to say that because of these arguments The Real Housewives deserve to be put alongside the likes of Mad Men, or Breaking Bad or House of Cards, but I do think it makes them a hell of a lot more deserving of some Emmy love than Antiques Roadshow.
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