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Looks Like a Duck, Quacks Like Reality TV

It’s one of the more curious features of our age of culture-war spectacle that, just as Americans are all set to retreat into the comforting, formulaic pleasures of our mass entertainments, we’re suddenly riven by the news that we’re also employing them as platforms for some ideological agenda or another. The most recent case in point was last winter’s uproar over the ignorant, homophobic tirade that Phil Robertson, star of the hit A&E reality TV franchise Duck Dynasty, unleashed to a reporter from GQ. Robertson’s outburst was little more than a rehash of talking points well trod by the evangelical right, from the claim that sodomy segues directly to bestiality to the prophecy that gays will not come into possession of the Kingdom of God. But to hear them come from a gruff-talking and otherwise beloved televisual symbol of Louisiana’s backwoods working class, as opposed to the likes of Rick Santorum or Ralph Reed, was enough to summon the pseudopopulist rhetoric of cultural confrontation in amped-up form. After A&E executives suspended Robertson over his comments, conservative political leaders from Sarah Palin to Bobby Jindal rallied to the defense of his free-speech rights in the workplace—protections that, by the way, our courts have routinely denied to Americans and that, in any event, are almost laughably inapt for someone tasked with adopting a largely scripted identity for the sake of lifestyle titillation.

The great Duck Dynasty culture war skirmish ran its course soon enough. Robertson was grudgingly reinstated to the show’s cast, and he seems to have agreed, just as grudgingly, to keep his bigoted views out of range of reporters’ voice recorders. The blowback from the whole contretemps was likewise predictable, and served to confirm what no end of opinion polls and failed gay-marriage bans have already demonstrated: gay bashing is no longer a very popular or respectable American pastime. In January 2014, the month after the Robertson fracas began, Duck Dynasty ratings plummeted 28 percent.

While the culture-war maneuvers of the Robertson scandal weren’t especially edifying, they did help to lay bare the distempers that make Duck Dynasty essential viewing in the first place. And they get at the great taboo subject that reality TV flirts with continually without ever airing in the light of day: the complicated tensions surrounding class privilege in America.

You Hand in Your Ticket to Go Watch the Geeks

It’s easy, of course, to make sport of the boom in reality television. The cynical premise lurking behind many reality franchises—We’ll make you famous, so long as you are prepared to gratuitously humiliate yourself before an audience of millions—confirms all the gruesome stereotypes about the Hollywood power elite that you’d find in a novel by Nathanael West or Bruce Wagner. And the content of most reality shows caroms between overt class voyeurism (on either the upper or lower reaches of the social ladder) and the sort of tabloid-style indignation summed up by the familiar tagline that daytime talk shows have bequeathed to our common tongue: Oh no she didn’t!

Why doesn’t the reality genre traffic more directly in the economic reality of its subjects’ lives?

Yet the appeal of reality television is, well, real. No matter how scripted and contrived the situations may be, and no matter how edited within an inch of its life the final product is, there’s always that core sense of watching real people trying to deal with something like real life. Most reality shows are very carefully constructed by their producers, who come up with storylines and even feed participants dialogue. But decrying this practice as somehow an abuse of the term “reality” (which it is, to be sure) misses much of the point. These are still real people, and their emotional reactions to whatever happens aren’t always easy to predict, even if they are easy enough for producers to shape and contain. Or, put another way, the Robertsons of Duck Dynasty fame—an extended family of duck-call manufacturers in the Louisiana wilds—might be obviously led around by the nose by producers eager to introduce unlikely sitcom scenarios into their lives, but the connections among them, formed over years and years of togetherness, are impossible to fake. Most scripted sitcoms would need several seasons to build those kinds of ties among their cast members. Duck Dynasty can coast along on something its producers simply found in the backwoods (or, you know, close enough to the backwoods, given that several Robertson family members were well-scrubbed southern suburbanites before signing on with A&E). Sure, it’s a form of cultural exploitation, but the fowl-trackers of Louisiana aren’t the first to swap some of their self-respect for a portion of fame.

The wild success of Duck Dynasty—which, even after its January ratings debacle, is so popular that only a handful of shows in the entirety of cable television outrate it in any given week—points to another reason for the reality genre’s appeal: unlike most scripted television, which is comfortable within its upper-middle-class, coastal point of view, reality TV is far more likely to seek out people between the coasts, to wander into red-state America in search of wacky families and unusual situations. The simple fact of its orientation toward the Middle American interior makes reality programming the one genre of contemporary television that has consistently come up against the fallout from the middle class’s slow economic erosion over the past forty years.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control

So why doesn’t the reality genre traffic more directly in the economic reality of its subjects’ lives? And why does it set up a weirdly artificial distance between its middle-class viewers and its middle-class protagonists? To be sure, some reality shows sidestep Middle America altogether in favor of the workaday travails of the wealthy: the Kardashians, the Real Housewives, the Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. But at least as many entries in the genre—especially those on the numerous cable networks that rely on reality fare to round out their broadcast schedules—feature Americans who are either clinging desperately to whatever remains of the middle class or sinking toward its forgotten lower reaches. And somehow these figures almost always come across as terminally marginal misfits. Never mind that they’re struggling just like viewers at home. Wouldn’t it be fun to laugh at them?

Whether it’s the Here Comes Honey Boo Boo family (generically wacky proles of the heartland), the American Hoggers (a clan of Texans running down wild boars), or the unlikely entrepreneurs stepping forward to ask the 1 percent for their table scraps on Shark Tank, reality shows seem determined to keep the viewer at home distanced from the characters on screen. Getting viewers to laugh at the follies of the rich, as Real Housewives often does, is no real trick; American storytelling has a long tradition of turning the foibles and oddities of the upper class into satire and sitcoms. But keeping the reassuring appearance of an impassible socioeconomic distance between viewers at home and people onscreen who might be just like them is another trick altogether, and increasingly it’s wearing thin.

In reality television’s reverse social (antisocial?) contract, we can see some of the founding principles of the genre at work. The first reality show is generally agreed to be PBS’s seventies opus An American Family, but the genre as we now know it is rooted far more directly in MTV’s landmark nineties show The Real World and in CBS’s early aughts wilderness contest Survivor. Both were giant hits. Both defined generations of TV viewers and made their influence felt far and wide. And both, more importantly, were incredibly cheap to produce compared to just about anything else TV had to offer.

The appeal of such programming for fledgling cable channels was soon plain enough: no matter what any network has to pay to keep a reality show going, it’s far less than the cost of any equivalently scripted half hour of dramatic or sitcom programming. Scripted comedies and dramas require actors and writers—and the hefty, union-mandated fees that guild members in Hollywood command. But reality shows don’t run up such costs, and occasionally can be made without any union-represented personnel whatsoever. The savings over a scripted show are substantial, and the ratings breakout potential remains huge.

Any time you send cameras out into the middle of America, you’re going to find somebody who’s struggling to make ends meet while still poking at the embers of the American dream.

Yet this trend is also, in some ways, the ultimate expression of Hollywood class warfare. It might seem silly to single out Hollywood writers and actors, many of whom are handsomely compensated, as “working-class,” but that is clearly where they stand in relation to the entertainment executives who give them work. Entertainment corporations’ relationships with the most powerful Hollywood unions—namely the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America, and the Directors Guild of America—are cordial on the surface but driven by constant attempts to make sure as much money as possible ends up in corporate coffers, as opposed to with the people who do the actual production work.

So while one doesn’t feel instantaneous, organic solidarity with, say, Will Smith, who commands a per-film fee of around $20 million, he’s technically worth far more than that to the studios that employ him. And in today’s Hollywood, stars and directors alike have called out studio heads for cooking up misleading contracts and accounting tricks to keep money out of their hands.

On television, at least, this stubbornly antagonistic relationship has finally found its escape valve in the reality show. The stars of Duck Dynasty are not SAG members. They’re not going to go looking for back-end points or a cut of syndication revenue or anything from the series’ DVD and streaming contracts. (Though in a telling indication of the show’s—and the reality genre’s—growing market share, the Duck Dynasty clan did delay work on the show’s fourth season by demanding a $200,000 per-episode participation fee.) There’s no union for reality TV stars, nor does it seem likely that one will take off anytime soon; an effort by the WGA to cover reality TV’s writers—called story editors, because they craft storylines from the raw footage from the shoot—ran aground in 2008.

More recently, the East Coast headquarters of the WGA issued a report on rampant wage theft against reality production crews; the research sample was a small group of online poll respondents, but the results are eye-opening even so. Of the poll’s 315 respondents, 60 percent said they routinely worked more than eight hours a day, and 85 percent said they had never received any overtime pay. The WGA collected information on the labor practices of at least seventeen different production companies and found that they were liable for as much as $40 million in unpaid back wages. As the report noted, the per-segment production costs for a typical cable reality program are dramatically lower than the costs for union-staffed scripted shows: $225,000 to $425,000 for a reality hit like Pawn Stars, for example, and between $2 and $2.5 million for a drama on the USA cable network. Even the big, glitzy network reality shows, which rely on standard reserves of behind-the-scenes union labor, still fall significantly below the costs of the average scripted program.

There’s no direct sense in which the ascendance of reality TV represents a network campaign of union-busting. Scripted programming remains popular, and most healthy networks need a mix of the two types of programs to stay alive. But the divide between the runaway popularity of some reality programs and their bargain-level production costs now appears to be creeping into the production and visual language of standard network drama and entertainment fare as well.

Nor is it hard to see how this could be the case. Reality shows are designed to promote division and rancor, to encourage audiences to hold unwashed subjects at arm’s length, and to suggest to the viewer that it’s worth living in terror. (Scores of true-crime programs still litter the cable schedule, most famously at the news-talk empire MSNBC, where lurid crime-and-prison fare sits uneasily alongside a solidly liberal roster of prime-time politics shows.) In this sense, the content of reality shows serves as a surrogate right-to-work propaganda campaign, echoing the studio executives’ broadside against Hollywood unions. The official voice of the programs remains condescending toward working-class and middle-class people—precisely because the shows arose out of an attempt to cut the working-class contingent of Hollywood labor out of the picture as much as possible.

Who’s Afraid of Honey Boo Boo?

When reality TV manages to directly address the financial plight of Middle Americans, it does so in fugitive, fragmentary glimpses. In most cases, these glimpses occur entirely by accident and are swiftly shunted aside. But they turn up nonetheless; any time you send cameras out into the middle of the United States in search of something that smacks of documentary realism, you’re all but certain to find someone struggling to make ends meet while poking at the embers of the American dream.

Consider one lurch into dire economic reality, from “Tiny Miss USA,” the tenth episode of the second season of Toddlers & Tiaras. The episode pivots around the efforts of an earnest Southern woman named Kim Jones to ensure that her seven-year-old daughter, Mckenzie, has every shot she can to claim first place at the Tiny Miss USA regional beauty pageant. But midway through the show, Jones learns from her husband, William, that he entered Mckenzie in something called the “optionals”—a lesser competition that doles out additional titles and trophies to girls who might not win anything at the main event.

In that moment, the veneer of goofy camp that propels the class voyeurism of Toddlers & Tiaras drops away, and something more akin to docudrama realism emerges. The family doesn’t have the money necessary to enter the optionals, and Kim’s husband might have just shot the family budget to hell without consulting his wife. There is, inevitably, a heartwarming resolution—Mckenzie wins several of these lesser pageant laurels—but the threat of economic meltdown hangs over the episode, and leaves a sense of desperation that can’t be programmed away by a dubiously authentic happy ending. Here is a woman who would sacrifice everything for her daughter, and she’s forced to choose between two potentially crippling such sacrifices: going for broke in the central competition or sinking the family deeper in debt for the sake of shoring up her daughter’s self-esteem. (The question of just how and why toddler beauty pageants have come to serve as arbiters of young children’s ever-frail grasp of their value in the world is, alas, the subject for another essay entirely.)

Such high-stakes moments of economic reckoning are departures from the storytelling arcs of your basic reality offerings; more often, you see bland rehearsals of the pernicious American fantasy that happy-go-lucky poor people are perfectly content to wait around for their big break—perhaps on a reality show!

To add insult to injury, reality programs have been successful in part because they’ve taken the place in the TV ecosystem of what once were known as rural or working-class sitcoms. Programs both terrible (Petticoat Junction) and pretty damn great (Roseanne) prospered in this genre throughout the history of television, but they receded in the wake of NBC’s success with series about carefree big-city white people, a formula the network perfected in the nineties. Seinfeld and Friends may have been great television, but they left precious little room for shows about people who had to scramble to make ends meet.

Reality shows serve as a surrogate right-to-work propaganda campaign, echoing the studio executives’ broadside against Hollywood unions.

In a partial bow to present economic woes, the broadcast networks have programmed a handful of shows in the working-class tradition, most notably the much-buzzed-about The Middle, which carries what remains of Roseanne’s torch. Another noteworthy example is the sharp, if at times overly farcical, Fox sitcom Raising Hope. Yet both of these programs lack the harder edge Roseanne brought to the genre; that extended study in socioeconomic stagnation was clearly inspired by the working-class sitcoms of Norman Lear, who never met a social issue he couldn’t turn into an episode of television. The Middle occasionally saunters up to the brink of abject financial despair—particularly in its fourth season, when the show’s protagonist, Frankie Heck, loses her job—but its creators carefully modulate the economic menace to make sure nothing gets too dark.

During its most compelling moments, reality TV careens right over such guardrails. One of the most remarkable reality programs of the past decade was the Sundance Channel’s Nimrod Nation, a depiction of a high school basketball team living in an extremely rural corner of Michigan’s already extremely rural Upper Peninsula. The program operated as a kind of unscripted Friday Night Lights, digging deep into the cycles of poverty and hopelessness that gripped its central town, while still depicting the hope and excitement of fledgling teenage romances and the town’s fervid support for the basketball team as it made a run at a big win. These kinds of stories crop up elsewhere too—even in the lucky-bootstraps fare of American Idol or in the umpteenth cable reality show with the word Swamp in its title. It’s just that the conventions of the reality genre don’t permit class solidarity to be encountered in any sustained fashion, or hard-up characters to be more than caricatures.

The question, then, is why contemporary television bothers to depict these sorts of moments and places in the first place, if they’re always shoved into the same pat, feel-good narratives about the smiling poor. American art has always been lousy at depicting poverty and economic struggle, but American television has been especially bad at it. Even a series like Breaking Bad—uniquely attuned to the economic moment in which it was born—eventually turned into a low-level fantasia on the American dream coasting along on pure adrenaline; its genius, and a good deal of its appeal, stemmed from its erratic, piecemeal depiction of the economic pressures stoking the disintegration of its meth-dealing protagonist, Walter White.

Just pause a second to let that sink in: the Great Recession’s most compelling economic narratives on television come from the imaginary exploits of a crystal meth kingpin who toiled most of his life earnestly, and to no avail, as a hard-working, and doubtless unionized, high school science teacher. (It’s an additional layer of irony that this cynical gloss on the American Dream comes from the pen of Vince Gilligan, who broke out as a writer on the dark and quasi-paranoid nineties sci-fi franchise The X-Files; TV’s most thoughtful encounter with widespread economic misfortune owes its origins to the grimmest reaches of deepest outer space.)

By contrast, the hidden suggestion cutting against all the scattered moments of class realism within the reality genre is that if you, too, live in the middle of nowhere and don’t see people like yourself reflected on scripted TV, you just might be worthy of your very own reality show. It’s the modern version of the kid who gets discovered at Schwab’s drugstore and gets a job in the pictures.

If reality TV is ever going to approach its artistic potential—or even render the “reality” part of the genre name something more than a punch line—it’s going to have to confront how the form’s very existence skews the narratives it presents. Much like lottery winners, the people at the center of these shows often come into sudden fame and riches in their real lives. On a show like Survivor or American Idol, this doesn’t entail a great deal of cognitive dissonance; the point of the whole thing is, indeed, to become rich, or at least famous. But what about Here Comes Honey Boo Boo—itself a Toddlers & Tiaras spinoff and a big enough success for TLC to ensure handsome paydays ahead for most of the show’s principals? TLC surely learned its lesson with Jon & Kate Plus Eight; that franchise wound up inadvertently spotlighting the economic trials of its subjects, since Jon and Kate needed to gin up more notoriety—cable, tabloid, and otherwise—to keep their kids fed. (Surely the not-at-all upbeat saga of the famous “octomom” Nadya Suleman, who turned to porn, stripping, and online “date” auctioning to support her own army of children after her dreams of reality stardom had fizzled out, also preyed on the harried moral imaginations of the TLC brass.)

These cautions all but guarantee that the plotlines of Honey Boo Boo will remain ironclad: a homespun lower-middle-class family in the South makes its pleasures out of unexpected, low-budget fun. After its first season, which was produced in a comparative vacuum of public attention, it has become a series about a family of reality TV stars, going through the paces, circus-animal style.

Yet Honey Boo Boo is unquestionably charming. It’s the most obvious example of the reality genre’s split between presentation and content. It’s clear that the producers expect audiences to laugh at the central family—but the family itself is so sweet and unassuming that the occasional over-the-top insistence on outlandish behavior from the producers feels unusually mean and churlish. More than any other reality show in history, Honey Boo Boo has prompted think pieces and concern over what might happen to the little girl at its center once she’s conducted away from the cable klieg lights to resume growing up. Now, however, to watch the show is to see people who seem to treat the cameras as just another weird fact of life.

It’s possible, of course, to imagine a different path forward. The thing that would take Honey Boo Boo from an inessential if agreeable time-waster to something truly interesting would be to chart this family’s rise from their status at the beginning of the series to their newfound wealth—all documented via the medium that made it possible. By embracing this fresh approach, reality TV could throw over many of its fast-obsolescing conventions and creaky plot devices. It could get past the feel-good narratives and casual condescension and risk acknowledging the real stakes of life as it’s now lived among our downwardly mobile middle class—up to and including the role that our pseudo-documentary media plays in distorting that life.

Yet to do such a thing might scare away the audience, so Honey Boo Boo, like the many now-forgotten and eminently disposable reality sagas that preceded it, must keep tending the divide between the real lives of its players and the TV personas it offers up for indignant reproach or bemused mass consumption.

That divide hasn’t yet devoured Honey Boo Boo, but it inevitably will, in just the same way that it effaced the uncomfortable economic truths that demolished the Jon & Kate franchise. The faithful viewers of reality TV are by now too attuned to the format the way it is—and presumably too comfortably settled into the conceit of their own superior standing—to put up with any abrupt redefinitions of the nightly fare they accept as reality.