2020 Is the Year Reality TV Won

During an extremely dark year, even the harshest skeptics were converted to the real-life simulacrum of our normal problems.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
RHOBH cast members Sutton Stracke, Kyle Richards, and Lisa Rinna have an animated conversation.
Photo by Kathy Boos/Bravo

As cities began locking down in late February through early April, reality TV, filmed almost exclusively pre-pandemic, became less a crystal ball and more a window into the carefree world we used to inhabit. Nostalgia dominated, and reality TV delivered—remember partying, like they do on Vanderpump Rules? Falling in “love,” like they do on The Bachelor[ette]? (Dating shows in particular saw a spike in popularity this spring, per Parade.) Navigating workplace and bachelorette party drama, like they have on Selling Sunset? Competing for a $100,000 prize and the title of Ink Master, like they do on Ink Master


Not a lot of entities can be said to have “come out on top” at the end of 2020. Jeff Bezos and his little billionaire friends, the Home Office Industrial Complex, Pete Buttigieg, and Zoom’s C-suite all stand out as this year’s big winners—but that shortlist doesn’t exactly feel… inspiring. There is, however, one thing worth rooting for that flourished in 2020: reality TV, in all its schlocky, larger-than-life, trash fire glory. Through the strictest stages of lockdown until  now—when a new wave of shutdowns seems advisable if not inevitable—reality TV’s simulacrum of life before COVID has buoyed us through all the cartoonish horror of 2020. 

Many skeptics derided late-aughts reality show hits and cast them as synonymous with low culture, especially the shows divorced from any notion of competition like The Jersey Shore, The Hills, and Keeping Up with the Kardashians, as trashy, stupid, and unrealistic (while dismissing reality TV stars as “famous for being famous”). But this year, the polarity reversed: Life itself was trashier and stupider than ever—politicians, influencers, celebrities behaved selfishly and irresponsibly as regular people struggled. 

Even reality TV’s harshest critics came around to see the value its longtime fans arguably always have: Where prestige TV is jam-packed with plot and Performances from Hollywood’s finest, reality TV is a (mostly) harmless venue for distracting ourselves with low-stakes drama. One franchise that’s reaped the rewards of interpersonal-conflict-as-entertainment this year: 90 Day Fiancé and its deluge of spinoffs which, Vulture noted in August, “built an audience and expanded its footprint over a six-year time frame during which linear TV ratings have been cratering,” with two offshoots pulling in “monster Nielsen numbers” this summer in particular. 


We started the year like any other; watching our little shows, sure, but also going outside; spending time indoors with people who we didn’t live with; bumming cigarettes; and not washing our hands after using public transit or running to the grocery store. Eerily enough, two of the first hit reality shows this year, Netflix’s The Circle and Love Is Blind, both revolved around even stricter quarantines than were typical of bubble reality shows, with contestants individually locked in their rooms. On The Circle, contestants lived alone in an apartment and attempted to become as popular as possible by projecting a certain image of themselves on an insular social media platform—sound familiar? On Love Is Blind, contestants were physically separated from their potential objects of affection and had to “fall in love” without any physical context—huh, wouldn’t that be weird? 

Tanya Horeck, associate professor in film, media and culture at Anglia Ruskin University, told in April that reality TV is particularly enticing in a pandemic because it helps us cope with the now, and remember better times gone-by. “People are using reality TV as a way of trying to process how we’re feeling during lockdown. I’ve seen countless posts on social media of people saying things like ‘It’s Day 35 in the Big Brother House’,” Horeck said. “Reality TV has an intimacy that’s quite powerful at this time… It’s also quite fascinating to watch shows about human interaction at a time when that’s the one thing we’re not really able to do.”


In these truly absurd times, reality TV became a welcome source of entertainment (or relief), even for people who’d never touched the stuff before, like BuzzFeed News reporter Shannon Keating, who admitted she’d “never been much of a reality TV person” before tumbling headlong into the Real Housewives extended universe during the pandemic. 

In her full-throated praise of the franchise, particularly Real Housewives of Potomac, Keating pointed out the appeal lies way the various “traumas” and “delusions” its subjects perform. “For me—and for my friends and fellow critics who take Housewives deadly seriously—taking comfort in our distance from these women isn’t a factor at all,” Keating wrote. “Rather, what’s so much fun... is finding the ways in which their ridiculous, petty, hilarious, and even harmful behavior relates to our own lives and relationships.” These pre-packaged dramatics feel as though they were engineered to serve as a way to slake the collective thirst for gossip that’s raged all year long.

Reality TV also slots well into the rise of “ambient television,” ID’ed in the New Yorker by writer Kyle Chayka as programming that provides “a numbing backdrop to the rest of our digital consumption: feeds of fragmented text, imagery, and video algorithmically sorted to be as provocative as possible.” While older reality TV shows like Flavor of Love or Parental Control are anything but placid, it is similarly geared toward the inattentive, with near-endless recaps padding every episode to catch viewers up wherever they happen to stumble in. 

 As a very indoors winter yawns before us, the sheer volume of reality TV also makes it a particularly apt companion for the now, when our free time can feel just as bottomless. In a world in which people expect to be able to binge-watch everything, the huge back catalogue of shows like Survivor or The Challenge means fans are never left waiting to find out what happens next: There's always more drama ready. With competition shows easily entering double-digits worth of seasons and franchises with so many spin-offs it’s disorienting, it’s possible to burn hours gazing directly into the funhouse mirror reality TV holds up to reality—maybe even preferable. When current events are this vulgar, and time this unlimited, it only makes sense to tune in to an augmented version of “real life.”

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