For the first while, things proceeded as normal, at least on screen. While we were told to stay home, our entertainment was going out and living life as they normally would, every last misdeed carefully edited and presented up to us to live vicariously through. What would come later would be far worse: watching every show have to address the profound reality bursting through its doors, the simple fact that the rules of its own universe would be destabilized, and have to be adjusted.
This has happened on scripted shows, to various degrees of success, and one would assume it’d be worse with reality programming, what with the alleged basis of the format: real people, doing real things. In actuality, the genre just handled things differently, unintentionally revealing more than ever before how the cookie crumbles: exactly however its maker intends it to. As if the ghost of Bethenny Frankel was floating above them all, these shows would, whether they meant to or not, “Mention it all,” as what they left out became more obvious than ever.
Like their scripted sisters, each reality show has its own narrative of “real” for that universe, and when outside events get in the way, the fabric of that universe is upset, its puppeteers shifting things to account for them. Cracks start to show; the rules of each respective environment must be updated.
Things started to trickle into my viewing experience with the Real Housewives of Orange County, the first Housewives show to air that found itself filming smack dab in the middle of COVID. Since at least half the pleasure of watching reality television is judging people and forming often perverse opinions about them, one would think this period of time—in which judging has become the number one occupation—would be perfect for such a show.
Not so. Watching the women of RHOC make increasingly erratic and inconsistent decisions around COVID safety made my skin crawl. If much of the personal joy of watching reality television comes from parsing out what is produced and what is very much not, COVID made that an even fuller-time job.
The women of RHOC spent the entire season fighting about the pandemic (often, as Bryan Moylan pointed out at Vulture, not even in person or in groups), and I spent the season squirming over their fighting about it. Every scene provoked questions and conversations—boring, distracting questions and conversations, the kind I have spent the past year having and hating to have. Take the episodes in which they embark on the annual group trip together. Why are they all randomly wearing visors inside the house they are sharing? I asked myself. Why is Kelly Dodd acting as if she can just hitch a ride up to see her possible wedding venue at the end of said trip? (Though “why Kelly Dodd” does anything is likely a fruitless line of thinking.) The fourth wall had a sledgehammer taken to it when Dodd received a call from a nurse informing her someone near her had tested positive. One could—and I did—assume the nurse was connected to production, part of mandatory testing put in place as they were all [clears throat] filming a TV show, but that was never confirmed.
On Southern Charm, the shooting of which was also disrupted by the pandemic, our Charmers fought and broke up over a lack of care for COVID safety. “We masking or not?” they said entering parties with the casualness of a bro who does not entirely seem to get it. The season prompted executive producer and host Andy Cohen to mention that viewers were triggered watching them. “We got a lot of tweets about how difficult it was watching you guys navigate the early days of the pandemic,” he said at the start of the first part of the season’s reunion, before reading off tweets from viewers about the show: “‘Southern Charm could easily be used as a historical account of the beginning of COVID-19...The non-mask wearing in Charleston is making me a little crazy—okay, a lot crazy.’” (“It’s a bummer to relive,” Cohen told the New York Times of Bravo’s shows, “but it’s kind of sociologically fascinating to see how people that we are invested in dealt with it.”)
Meanwhile, in The Bachelor universe, COVID—and real life—existed as a set up and then, as is the show’s wont, disappeared in place of its usual preferred narratives, only to be overtaken by one production, as usual, ignored entirely until they couldn’t anymore. As was the case with The Bachelorette in the fall, there were a few mentions of 2020 being a crazy time, particularly to meet someone. Where normally the viewers would have seen footage—self-submitted or, if a contestant was particularly promising—of the women frolicking in their hometowns, instead, they were bouncing on beds in their larger-than-usual hotel rooms in a resort in western Pennsylvania of all places, talking about how they couldn’t wait to get out of quarantine to meet Matt. The more time passed, the less the rule of being stuck in an isolated bubble location for weeks seemed to make sense: families were flown in for “hometowns”; Chris Harrison did some extremely bad acting and pretended that a woman who showed up “unannounced” to meet Matt would have to quarantine before seeing him and had not, as an obvious producer plant, already done so.
Then there were the shows in which COVID made the need for them to end—and end now—almost violently apparent. Keeping Up with the Kardashians devoted episodes to a very ill Khloe Kardashian filming videos trapped in a bedroom the size of a regular-sized apartment, unable to even say hello to her daughter through the door for fear of upsetting her. These played in sharp contrast to the end of the season, a few months later, when the family began throwing parties with rapid testing required for entrance. As it always does for this particular rich family, life finds a way.
Summer House, which was filmed last year but recently began airing, has been a strange balm. Living and working from the same house all summer instead of driving back and forth between the city and the Hamptons each weekend has injected an intense energy into the house that has quite obviously resulted in fights about nothing—reality TV style oppression at it’s finest (or, just a trip down memory lane to living in the dorms in college). Though they had been seen greeting each other ecstatically in the premiere after months spent alone, the most recent episodes show Hannah and Kyle screaming at each other over whether Hannah takes the trash out enough.
The Challenge, which also began filming over the summer, though in Iceland, has been truly freeing, a format that has always been all about The Challenge and The Challenge alone, so why would now be any different? Though once upon a time the cast members would have done an occasional night out at a bar, the makeshift bar producers made for them in an igloo next to their living and working out quarters was more than sufficient. (It’s not as if the real bars ever looked like they were open to the public, and our Challengers making their own VIP section was worth the price of admission alone.)
It was, perhaps surprisingly, Season 2 of Netflix’s Dream Home Makeover that provoked the most whiplash, as the husband and wife pair who run the design firm Studio McGee are, often in the same episode, seen in footage obviously shot both pre and post-COVID. The nature of a show about building means that things that take months are edited as if they happened in a matter of days, and while Dream Home Makeover showed the McGee’s shutting down their office, and attempted to share a little of working from home into the plot lines, I found myself googling the construction guidelines in the state of Utah, confused over why a crew of workers would be in a small house together not wearing masks, if for no other reason other than you wouldn’t be able to see their faces on camera.
It took the Real Housewives of Dallas, however, for me to finally put a pin in what was really happening here. It was the current season’s premiere, entitled “Bursting the Quarantine Bubble,” and the women are coming out of an amorphous period of time where they’re not allowed to see each other (which was apparently spent Zooming, and discussing how much weight they’ve gained) and into a time when they are. Stephanie has come to visit her best friend Brandi, who she greets with a hug.
The camera cuts back to Stephanie’s confessional, where an off-screen producer asks her, “What is the rule on hugging people during the pandemic?” She responds: “This is a corona free zone, we’re filming a TV show, and we’ve been tested like a million times.” She laughs: “I mean… honestly! Sometimes our masks are on, sometimes they’re off, so keep your tweets to yourself, we are very safe—nobody’s getting the corona.”
Usually, confessionals are a time in which cast members can explain themselves and their feelings, egged on by producers spinning their storylines. But this moment seemed to be more focused on explaining the show’s existence, and its rules, on behalf of its makers, not its participants—to absolve all of the above to viewers. As is the nature of all these programs, production is always skirting the line, visibly interjecting themselves as little as possible. In a world in which every single thing we do must be thought through more than it ever was before, the regulations—whatever they might be, it’s never made clear unless absolutely necessary—now hang like a heavy cloud. Is this TV or is it real life? It’s both and neither, something Cohen himself seemed to admit to recently while promoting his new series on the history of reality TV For Real: “You want to create these escapist shows,” he told Variety, “but the truth is, the real world as it is will always seep in.”
“Keep your tweets to yourself—nobody’s getting corona.” Except for D’Andra, Stephanie’s cast mate on the show, who was hospitalized over Christmas after shooting wrapped, plus multiple women from at least two other shows from the franchise that have filmed in recent months. Reality TV is a spectrum of reality more than anything else, and that’s never more clear than when real life gets in the way.
Follow Kate Dries on Twitter.