For eight single professional women gathered in Dallas, it is holy Wednesday--the night each week that they gather in one of their homes for the Traveling Bachelorette Party. Munching snacks and passing a bottle of wine, they cheer, cry and cackle as their spiritual leader, Trista Rehn, braves heartache, indecision and the occasional recitation of bad poetry to choose from among her 25 swains. Yet something is unsettling Leah Hudson's stomach, and it's not just the wine. "I hate that we've been sucked into the Hoover vac of reality TV," says Hudson, 30. "Do we not have anything better to do than to live vicariously through a bunch of 15-minute-fame seekers?"
There you have the essence of reality TV's success: it is the one mass-entertainment category that thrives because of its audience's contempt for it. It makes us feel tawdry, dirty, cheap--if it didn't, we probably wouldn't bother tuning in. And in this, for once, the audience and critics agree. Just listen to the raves for America's hottest TV genre:
"The country is gripped by misanthropy!"--New York Observer
"Ridiculous and pernicious! Many kinds of cruelty are passed off as entertainment!"--Washington Post
"So-called reality television just may be killing the medium!"--San Francisco Chronicle
O.K., we added the exclamation points, but you get the idea. Yes, viewers are tuning in to Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette and American Idol by the tens of millions. Yet, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many watched so much TV with so little good to say about it.
Well, that ends here. It may ruin reality producers' marketing plans for a TV critic to say it, but reality TV is, in fact, the best thing to happen to television in several years. It has given the networks water-cooler buzz again; it has reminded viewers jaded by sitcoms and dramas why TV can be exciting; and at its best, it is teaching TV a new way to tell involving human stories.
A few concessions up front. First, yes, we all know that there's little reality in reality TV: those "intimate" dates, for instance, are staged in front of banks of cameras and sweltering floodlights. But it's the only phrase we've got, and I'm sticking with it. Second, I don't pretend to defend the indefensible: Are You Hot? The Search for America's Sexiest People isn't getting any help from me. And finally, I realize that comparing even a well-made reality show with, say, The Simpsons is not merely comparing apples with oranges; it's comparing onions with washing machines--no reality show can match the intelligence and layers of well-constructed fiction.
On a sheer ratings level, the latest wave of reality hits has worked a sea change for the networks. And it has put them back on the pop-cultural map after losing the buzz war to cable for years. Reality shows don't just reach tens of millions of viewers but leave them feeling part of a communal experience--what network TV does best, but sitcoms and dramas haven't done since Seinfeld and Twin Peaks. (When was the last time CSI made you call your best friend or holler back at your TV?) "Reality has proven that network television is still relevant," says Mike Fleiss, creator of the Bachelor franchise.