Reality TV and Our Kingdom of Spectacle

Christ and Pop Culture | 5/30/2019 | K. B. Hoyle
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I used to love to watch shows like Project Runway, Work of Art, and Top Chef. The fast-paced, creative innovation demanded of the contestants in shows like these appealed to my otherwise natural aversion to the manufactured drama of reality TV. But in watching such shows, I also grew increasingly discontented. I wanted a show to exist for my talents; where was the reality show for the next great American novelist? Where was my shot to rocket to fame and glory—to demonstrate my creative writing abilities to the world? I talked about it so much that my husband and I made a joke of it, because we both knew such a show wouldn’t be very interesting to watch. Writing is a “quiet” talent that requires time and deliberation to perform, and writers tend to be reclusive people with strange, twilight habits. Many aspects of the publishing industry are similarly unsuited to reality TV, as literary agent Eric Smith recently pointed out in a tweet about the show Shark Tank:Following a group of writers (or agents or editors, for that matter) would not make for riveting television, even with an injection of producer-invented scenarios.

Busy (foolishly) lamenting that my only talents were non-TV-worthy ones, I failed to take note that these shows are not really about the talents the contestants have, but rather the sheer spectacle generated by mashing such people together and forcing them to perform on cue. What’s demanded of the contestants is a performance for the entertainment of spectators—a performance that must be spectacular enough to rivet an audience, no matter how incredible their actual talents are. Watching the creatives struggle to create in the crucible of the reality show is itself a form of performance art. Although it doesn’t diminish the value of the very real talents the...
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