People fascinate me. I love them for their frailty, their intricacies, their quirks, their passions. I love the brave ones and the scared ones, the dreamers and the pragmatists. And by watching reality TV, I get a constant stream to observe without having to lurk around at a coffeehouse or an airport.
Oh, sure, reality show producers don’t pick “average” people. They pick interesting people, the people most likely to make viewers cheer or boo. They pick people with strange pasts and colorful stories and agendas. People with goals. And you know what? Those are generally the same sorts of people I want in my books, too. The kind that you love to hate, or that you find yourself rooting for despite the odds. The players, the nerds, the goofballs, the earnest kids with big dreams.
But it’s not just the people on reality TV shows that interest me, it’s the way in which viewers react to them. I like to study my own reactions first. Why do I find that woman charming and quirky, and the other woman obnoxious and rude? Why do I find myself rooting for some and hoping others get cut?
The editors play a huge part in my reaction. They shape character and story with clever footage clipping and ordering. They give us obvious contestants to root for and against. But we don’t always follow their leads. Sometimes I find myself rooting for the “villain” in a season of Top Chef. Sometimes the sweet, funny guy bores me to tears. People are complicated! They are more than the sum of their idiosyncrasies. Reality TV gives me a chance to study colorful personalities — admittedly a specific subsection of humanity — and to study my own reaction to them.
There’s a reason that reality TV is so popular. Scripted TV rarely involves such interested, three-dimensional characters. I think we can learn from that. I think it’s a mistake to dismiss this TV craze with phrases like “lowest-common-denominator” and “low-brow.” Yeah, some of the shows suck. But there’s a reason why people watch them. These shows are giving people something they’re not getting from other shows.
In many ways, the disparagement of reality TV reminds me of the way writers in certain genres disparage others. Literary, fantasy, science fiction, horror, romance, media tie-in — there are good and bad examples in every category, just like there are good and bad scripted shows, and good and bad reality TV. When something is successful — be it Project Runway, Twilight, or the latest Dan Brown — there are usually reasons for its success. I think it’s useful to try and find and understand those reasons, whether or not you personally like the work in question.
That said, I’m rooting for Carla to win Top Chef this season. :)