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Why are we still watching reality TV?

| Tuesday, March 22, 2022

After sitting through yet another painful episode of “The Bachelor” a few weeks ago, I experienced what may be the most trivial crisis of my entire life. I simply could not figure out why I would continue to watch a show that takes years off my lifespan.

Week after week, it’s another episode of the same two people fighting over things as ridiculous as shrimp, while the bachelor acts toxic and makes bad decisions. There is no way anyone goes on that show to find love, and even less probable is the claim that it is a conducive environment to do so. I can only handle about half of an episode before my mind is completely numb — so why do I keep returning to it? What is it about “The Bachelor,” and reality TV more generally, that makes it so interesting?

The highly rewarding emotional investment

Because reality shows offer a closer look into the lives of strangers, viewers become familiar with the contestants’ authentic personalities (which totally aren’t affected by the show’s editing or the fact that people act differently on TV than they would in real life). We can identify with certain contestants and absolutely despise others as a result.

Viewers can form a connection bordering on a parasocial relationship with the contestants. It’s easy to empathize with someone when their raw emotions are presented to us. In the age of social media, it’s even easier to feel like we know exactly who someone is when so much information about them is available to the public — even if most of this is an identity they’ve carefully crafted, rather than who they really are.

For me, it feels as if everything is at stake when I start rooting for a contestant on one of these shows. It’s similar to betting on a sports game, except there’s no risk of losing money. On the more competitive reality shows, seeing one of my favorite contestants win makes me nearly as happy as when I miraculously passed my last orgo exam. On the flip side, if they’re eliminated, I immediately have to break out the ice cream and rant to a friend about it.

The drama

“Survivor” is a show in which contestants are divided into tribes and must work together on an island for a little over a month with very little food and shelter. To be immune from being eliminated from the show, contestants must compete in physical and mental challenges, which the host, Jeff Probst, narrates. It’s one of the few reality shows that I would argue is actually amazing.

However, I recently haven’t enjoyed viewing these challenges as much as in previous years. I pondered over the reason behind my sudden lack of interest — the challenges now are very similar to the ones in years past, so what changed?

Then it hit me — Jeff is no longer making witty comments about contestants’ performances. He’s encouraging people to do well and treating the contestants with empathy rather than the biting remarks he would toss at whoever was badly failing in the past.

The loss of Jeff’s striking narration is absolutely tragic. Obviously, there are some situations in reality TV that should be handled with empathy, but most “Survivor” challenges do not fall into this category. Jeff’s snarky narration would usually motivate contestants to try harder, to the point where some would yell colorful commentary right back at him. The drama made some of the less interesting challenges bearable.

Drama — on the scale of what is presented on a reality show — is something that would be stressful to observe or be a part of in real life. However, when we’re removed from the situation, that’s completely different — seeing contestants argue with each other over frankly ridiculous things engages the viewer, drawing them further into the show. The chaotic nature of this type of television is different from what we might see in our normally predictable lives. The occasional crazy disruptions to our daily routines occur in every episode of these shows. Viewers feel as if they’re sharing in the experience of reality stars, in a sense living vicariously through the contestants.

Great material to make fun of

Watching these kinds of shows with friends is a unique experience as a result of the amount of terrible decisions made by reality stars. It’s also the most tolerable way to make it through an episode. I would not be able to sit through over an hour of “90 Day Fiancé” without making fun of the couples for the newest disaster they’ve caused.

It’s essentially the same principle as watching a terrible movie with friends. There’s no possible way to enjoy that kind of a movie for its content, but it’s remarkably entertaining to poke fun at. Despite the fact that there’s very little substance to reality TV, there’s plenty of ridiculous situations and terrible decisions for our comedic enjoyment.

In conclusion, reality TV is objectively bad. It’s popular with a wide range of people — to the point where my mom blamed my friend’s immense dislike of the entire state of New Jersey on the MTV series “Jersey Shore” — but most of it is still not entertaining for prolonged periods of time under most circumstances. However, it has its unique charms that would be difficult to find elsewhere. It should be appreciated as an art form for providing these unusual benefits to its viewers, despite its lack of significant substance.

Caitlin Brannigan is a first-year from New Jersey studying psychology and pre-health studies. She will forever defend her favorite young adult novels and is overjoyed to have a platform to rant. She can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @CaitlinBrannig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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