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O Magazine

In Praise
of Reality Shows

In Praise of Reality Shows – O Production Company

Función de noche poster

“I’m a woman who’s never had an orgasm and I’ve been faking”. “That is the story of my life”. “I thought I was shit as a woman and I’m still dealing with that today. I don’t accept myself, I don’t accept myself”… Actress Lola Herrera spat such heart breaking statements about sexual repression and low self esteem to the face of his real life ex-husband, an alcoholic Daniel Dicenta, on the Josefina Molina’s mockumentary Función de noche (Night Performance). It was 1981, sixteen years before John de Mol invented the Big Brother format. The strangest thing about the movie, often underrated by our cinema critics, is that it was shot in a fake dressing room built within a studio where eight cameras were placed behind mirrors. The idea was to shoot this face-to-face between the two members of a broken marriage non-stop, until they almost forgot they were being filmed. Does that ring a bell? Yes, it’s a small version of a reality show. The result is clumsy and irregular, but it contains some cathartic and emotional striptease moments otherwise difficult to witness in most fiction movies. Which is exactly what one can say about reality shows.

To begin with, I think it’s important for me to say that I’ve been working on reality shows for seven years, and I want to keep on doing it. I’m neither a spy nor a deserter. For that reason, my perspective on the subject is not a very objective one at all. But, still, I think it is objectively true to say that the format has been shaking up the way in which television shows are made for the last fifteen years; that it has influenced other types of shows, and even fiction (The Hunger Games saga, for example); that it will be part of the sentimental education of several generations of audiences; that it has contributed (with social networks) to the deconstruction of the concept of intimacy, etc. Despite all of this, it’s also true that the format has always been subjected to an extremely poor analysis on behalf of journalists and communication experts: “Programmes that make people believe that you can make money without working or studying”; “contributions to the already low cultural level of the average Spaniard”; “trash TV”… You name it. The vast majority of our commentators have talked about them, and still do so today, with highbrow disdain, a little irony and a lot of scorn, as if any show appealing to millions of people couldn’t be the object of such scholarly and rigorous analysis as Lisandro Alonso’s films. Has anyone tried to understand at all why these shows are not a fad, but more popular today than when they first appeared? What is it that reality shows have in order to connect with so many people? Why are they the greatest entertainment form of our time?

by Óscar del Pozo

In Praise of Reality Shows – O Production Company

Life is like reality tv?

Belén Esteban’s circus

Before I continue, let me state something obvious: not all reality shows are the same. For example, reality-docs don’t shoot their main characters 24/7, only during given situations and then they take them back to their everyday life. Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Mujeres ricas belong to this category, to name but a couple. Some of them, like Alaska y Mario, Quién quiere casarse con mi hijo or Un príncipe para Corina have even received good reviews in the press. The two last ones mentioned are shot quite cleverly and their soundtrack is proof of an amazing talent to portray characters and situations through songs from all times. But above all, they allow for ironic distance, something essential to seduce the type of audiences who consider themselves too special to wholeheartedly enjoy mass entertainment products. And then, we have the enclosed reality shows, those that ask their protagonists to get away from their everyday life for a while in order to be shot 24 hours a day. In those there’s no space for irony, that’s why they provoke general rejection: none deserves any respect.

I’ve often heard people mention the word “circus” when referring to Gran Hermano (Big Brother) or Supervivientes (Survivor) and I think it’s quite an accurate description if we have in mind a Roman circus and not a freak show, which is what usually people refer to. Let’s say that on the base of these shows portraying communal living in an enclosed space is the survival of the fittest, which after all is the same that gladiators did in Ancient Rome. Am I trying to say that Belén Esteban, Rosa Benito or Hawaiian Paula, three recent winners of three reality programmes, are like Roman gladiators? Well… Yes, that’s what I’m trying to say. The slight difference being that, at the time, bravery and brute force were much more important values than they are today. In our society, it is more important to have good social skills than to be brave. But although values change, the essence of the show is the same. What we see in Gran Hermano or Supervivientes is a hand to hand combat in which the final survivor is the one with better social skills, capable of forging the strongest alliances, showing the greatest mental fortitude or most resilient before emotional obstacles.

In Praise of Reality Shows – O Production Company

Pollice Verso, painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1872

That combat has a strong Darwinist component: only the fittest survive. This is a reflection of our society’s individualism since the triumph of eighties neoliberalism. The values that we see on reality shows are a mirror of what happens in our society, and not the other way around. People get up every day and have to fight in a jungle and feel as lonely and questioned as Big Brother‘s contestants. We only need to think about the bad press of trade unions and political parties, work flexibility, sex as a disloyal narcissistic competition field… It’s quite understandable for the audience to feel fascinated by a type of show that presents life as an individual –not common– struggle.

In Praise of Reality Shows – O Production Company

Belén Esteban classic animal print pajamas

Molière and the reality shows

Beyond the analysis of the genre, it’s also important to mention the SUBJECT usually derived from the different contestants’ plots and storylines. And when I say subject I mean what writers would call the premise that inspired them the desire to create a story. I see in reality shows the same subject that Molière already touched in his Misanthrope: how complicated it is to always tell the truth. Belén Esteban in Gran Hermano VIP or Suhaila in Supervivientes have the same dilemma as Alceste, the main character of Molière’s play: can we live with people and not be hypocrites? Do we need to be sincere all the time? Do we have to tell people things to their face? Unsociable Alceste always tells the truth, even if it’s unwelcome, and gets into a lot of trouble he wouldn’t get into should he follow the advice on education and the rules of coexistence defended by his friend Philinte. And the truth is that we always think that what we want is for others to be sincere with us, when in fact we only expect them to tell us what we want to hear. We champion sincerity, but only apply it when the other turns his back. Well, this is the central topic of this type of reality show.

Alceste’s inability to find a balance in his obsession with the truth will bring about social failure and ostracism. We are in 1666. In 2015 that isn’t always the case. The contestants’ strategies and emotional intelligence define their success or failure. Along the way there is gossip, intrigue, envy, true friendship, selfish alliances, vanity, betrayal, wrath, flirting… A wide range of emotions seduces millions of people. Including the author of this article. It is clear that watching reality shows isn’t exactly proof of our refined taste, but it shouldn’t surprise us so much why it keeps our eyes fixed on the screen.

And, well, those that see in reality shows the cause of all society’s defects should maybe take a look at more structural (failure of the education system, current economic situation) and deeper (lack of culture, Spanish rejection to anything intellectual) aspects that private companies such as Mediaset are not responsible of finding solutions to.

In Praise of Reality Shows – O Production Company

The Misanthrope by Molière: Alcestes and Filinto

In Praise of Reality Shows – O Production Company

David Hayward cartoon: reality tv as a mirror