Candiace Dillard​, The Kardashians and Adam Collard
Candiace Dillard, The Kardashians and Adam Collard. Collage: Cathryn Virginia | Photos courtesy of Aaron Davidson via Bravo, and  Ricky Vigil M and Sean Zanni via Getty Images

How Reality TV Got Meta

Breaking the fourth wall is reality television's new normal. But is it as authentic as it seems?

For more end of year essays and analysis on VICE, check out 2022 in Review.

In late 2019, the cast of Bravo’s Real Housewives of Beverly Hills were gathered around the immaculately set table of a fancy 90210 eatery. The women were doing what they do best: arguing, in full glam, wearing outfits that cost more than the entire wait staff’s salary. This time, actress-turned-reality star Denise Richards was in the hot seat. As the questioning intensified, she reached her breaking point. “Bravo, Bravo, fucking Bravo!” she screamed, in an apparent attempt to get Bravo, the network, to cut the scene. Her co-stars, like the audience watching at home, were aghast that Richards had broken the number one rule: Never acknowledge the cameras. 


 In the three years since this outburst became a fan favourite meme, reality TV’s approach to the “fourth wall” – the invisible barrier that separates reality stars from their audience – has shifted dramatically. 2022 was the year reality TV became more meta and self-analytical than ever before – in fact, some of the most influential shows are now best-described as reality shows about reality shows.

During the pandemic, fans were given more information than ever about how the reality TV sausage is made. COVID restrictions forced some shows to use self-filmed footage, including “confessional” interviews and “reunion” specials filmed over Zoom. Right at the moment where some reality shows had begun to feel overly polished and slick, this upheaval gave viewers a glimpse behind the curtain, creating a newfound sense of intimacy. 

Over the years, it’s become increasingly difficult to portray reality stars as “normal” people – particularly on longer-running franchises. With reality TV turning its subjects into celebrities with millions of social media followers and press attention, inauthenticity had crept into the shows that shied away from reflecting that reality. The fourth wall had been slowly crumbling on a lot of reality shows for years, but 2022 was the moment producers decided to bulldoze through it.  


This year, ITV threw former contestant Adam Collard back into the Love Island mix, four years after he left after facing accusations of gaslighting and emotional abuse. Collard was the first former contestant ever to return to the villa for another series and, upon his arrival, the contestants who greeted him looked visibly unsure over whether they were allowed to say they recognised him. 

Collard’s return instantly changed the dynamics inside the villa. He wasted no time flaunting that he has already experienced the fame (and boohooMAN discount code) that reality TV can bring. “Coming off the back of this, everyone’s going to get loads of attention. I’ve been there and done it,” he told Paige Thorne as they sat by the pool. This was new territory for Love Island. In the past, contestants have been “strictly” forbidden from talking about the cameras, or what might await them beyond the villa. They often talk about “the game” and “being here for the right reasons”, but never explicitly refer to the other motivators – fame, money, Instagram followers – for doing the show. 


The Kardashians also took breaking the fourth wall to new levels when the family returned to reality TV in 2022. From the start, they’ve acknowledged the cameras, often casually mentioning them in conversations. It’s now common to hear the voices of producers trying to tease extra details out of them during confessional interviews. But season two went even further: We watched the family shooting promo shots for season one and, in the sixth episode, they even attended the glitzy red carpet premiere of the series itself, while Hulu’s cameras captured the whole thing. (A moment this meta would have seemed unthinkable on their origin show, E!’s Keeping Up With The Kardashians).

MJ Corey, also known as Kardashian Kolloquium on Instagram and TikTok, is a writer who applies media theory and postmodern philosophy to the Kardashian family. She thinks reality TV becoming more meta is a natural next step: “The Kardashians, I think, are like the ultimate exemplar of where reality TV can go,” she tells VICE. “So the fact that they are leaders in  terms of making this more self-consciously meta content makes sense.”

Corey subscribes to the idea that The Kardashians is a reality show about a reality show, which “gives them new capacities to show themselves doing their promotional shoots for the show or even attending their own premieres”. But after watching the second season, she made a slight adjustment to her theory. “It’s a reality show about what reality TV can do,” she explains, “at least in terms of the American myth of reality TV as a dream-maker.” 


The Real Housewives franchise has become an emblem for how this new American Dream can unravel. In July, Real Housewives of Salt Lake City star Jen Shah, who was filmed narrowly escaping the FBI before being arrested in March 2021, pleaded guilty to running a multi-million dollar nationwide fraud scheme. Her luxurious lifestyle – one that helped her get cast on the show – turned out to be built on scamming elderly and vulnerable victims. Similarly, Tom Girardi, the now-estranged husband of RHOBH star Erika Girardi, stands accused of using his law firm as a multi-million dollar “Ponzi scheme” for decades. Girardi, whose legal work inspired the film Erin Brockovich, allegedly stole millions of dollars he won on behalf of orphans and plane crash victims to fund the couple’s 90210 lifestyle. His estranged wife denies any knowledge of his alleged wrongdoing.

In 2022 , Bravo’s “true crime” era has sparked discussions about the gulf between reality TV and reality. The most compelling of these have featured reality stars themselves: Girdardi, for example, has attempted to explain to fans why she presented a happy marriage that allegedly never existed. These types of conversations have also unfolded on Real Housewives Ultimate Girls Trip, a new format that brings together cast members from different shows for the first time. Here, the fourth wall is completely down, with most of the scenes revolving around the experience of being a reality star. The second season, titled Ex-Wives Club, featured women who had been previously fired from the franchise and talked openly about their ambitions to get back on TV.


When Denise Richards lost her temper at that dinner in 2019, it was a spontaneous moment that infuriated the production team. (In unaired footage, one of the producers was seen storming into the scene and giving Richards a stern talking to, telling her to “get back to reality!”). But now producers are among those taking a hammer to the fourth wall. They’re helping to engineer – and sometimes even participate in – these moments, practically becoming guest stars in their own right. In the latest season of Real Housewives of Potomac, Candiace Dillard filmed an entire scene ranting to a producer, which she ended with her warning him: “Don't cut out none of my fourth wall!”

So what’s in it for them? “Breaking the fourth wall can make us feel closer to the people we're watching, because it seems like we're let in on a secret,” journalist Andy Dehnart, who has written about reality TV for the Los Angeles Times, Vulture and edits the website Reality Blurred, tells VICE. “But it can simultaneously be manipulative. That's because breaking the fourth wall is always the result of someone making a choice, whether during filming or in editing.”

As producers of their own shows, the Kardashians reign supreme when it comes to manipulating public perception. In September, the first two episodes of season two focussed on Khloe Kardashian’s ongoing saga with Tristan Thompson. Khloe revealed what we all knew: that she was expecting another baby with Thompson via surrogate, which came to light weeks after he was discovered to have fathered a child with someone else while they were together. In the first episode, Khloe tearfully confessed to keeping the baby a secret from Hulu’s cameras for the entirety of season two, before the show dramatically rewound to several months prior when filming began.


On the face of things, this moment felt authentic and intimate. But it was also manipulative: Khloe was literally confessing to have kept a huge revelation in her life a secret while filming the entire season of their “reality” show. Here, breaking the fourth wall was used to simulate a feeling of closeness – even when the audience were being told straight-up that they had been kept in the dark about what was really going on in Khloe’s life. 

Are fans aware of this? “It’s almost like there is a mutuality between the Kardashians and the public,” Corey explains. “The Khloe thing was like a ‘wink’. It was The Kardashians saying: ‘You know that we can do this and you probably figured that we were hiding things, so now you’ve earned this special morsel from us.’”

Even putting aside the practical filming realities exposed by the pandemic, it still doesn't feel like a coincidence that reality TV started to get much more meta after COVID. It’s been said many times that 2020 spelled the end of the era of celebrity relatability. Now, we seem to prefer authenticity – even if that requires wealthy people like the Kardashians or the Real Housewives to be more open about how much their lives differ from ours. Among non-celebrities like you or I, apps like BeReal have become popular in an attempt to push back against the perceived inauthenticity of Instagram.

BeReal trades on taking us behind Instagram’s filtered “fourth wall”. But it’s still a platform where we can easily curate a version of our lives that we want people to see. Similarly, if producers have twigged that breaking reality TV’s fourth wall and exploring the experience of fame feels more authentic to viewers, then reality TV getting “meta” can also be used to distract from the fact that it is still an edited and artificial art form. As Dehnart advises: “When the fourth wall is broken, I think it's useful for us to ask: Why are we seeing this, and how does it affect our perception of what we're seeing?” 

In 2022, being self-consciously meta has been one of reality TV’s most prominent tools. “I predict that this will become so relied upon, that so many more reality shows are going to become reality shows about reality shows,” Corey says. Clearly, it’s no longer a rule that reality stars can’t acknowledge the cameras, or talk about what it’s like to be on TV.

If the Kardashians really are the “ultimate exemplar” of where the medium can go, or what it can do, then 2022 has shown us that reality TV’s future lies in examining itself. Sometimes, this makes us feel closer to reality stars, but producer-engineered closeness can also be used to obscure reality – and keep us at a careful distance.