At this point in the semester, my diet consists of pure junk food. I can feel the Spicy Tomato Munchos and Cookie Dough KitKats pushing their way through my bloodstream, blocking any thought paths that are helpful for my final essays. That’s how science works, right? Sadly, this diet extends past my decaying body, and seeps into my limited leisure time. Junk TV is another guilty pleasure of mine, probably doing just as much damage as my constant intake of salt and sugar.
I do enjoy some prestige television. I love shows that make me ponder the intricacies of gender roles, existence, history, the future, inequality, race, and human relationships. Episodic storytelling is so valuable, and I would never undercut quality television. But, sometimes after a long day at uni, I just want to switch my brain off. A day spent in the General Library has killed off too many of my brain cells, and shows like Barry or Atlanta become very daunting. In a plea for simplicity, I’ll secretly switch the channel over to E!. In this particularly challenging uni semester, I’ve found that reality TV is a warm embrace in the evening. It’s been my main cuddle buddy on those cold winter nights. It doesn’t challenge me, it doesn’t make me think, and it puts me to sleep faster than my first year history lectures. So, I had been convincing myself that this was normal, and that my short bursts of enjoyment weren’t indicative of who I was. However, in a horrifying escalation, I’ve actually found myself looking forward to episodes of Married At First Sight. I’ve also been stalking the cast on Instagram, and sending Mum articles of behind-the-scenes scandal. In a moment of true darkness, I may have browsed the ThreeNow website to see if applications for next season were open. Someone needs to take my laptop away.
Instances of reality television have existed since the late 1940s, but the real boom in the industry came in the late 90s and 2000s, thanks to iconic shows like Big Brother and Survivor. Luckily (unluckily) for me, I was born in 1999, when the genre was just hitting its stride. I grew up inspired by the likes of America’s Next Top Model and The Amazing Race. However, there seems to have been a decline in viewership and ratings throughout the late 2010s, with dating programs gaining the most significant buzz. Shows like Love Island, The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, and Bachelor in Paradise provide a never ending stream of booze-fuelled arguments, and become major talking points on social media. Hannah B’s season of The Bachelorette was,reportedly, the only show on American network television to increase on the previous season’s ratings over the summer. The majority of the audience is not exclusively, as often assumed, middle-aged mothers, but stretches from 18-49. It was the top rated summer show amongst 18-34 adults. The youthful audience proudly shines online, with YouTube ‘crack edits’ and Instagram fan pages. So, thankfully, I’m not alone in my junk TV indulgence.
Despite the enthused and loyal audience that reality TV still finds, there is a large cultural concern about its impact on society. During the boom of the noughties, serious moral panic arose about the effect on kids and teens, with worries that they would imitate the behaviour of raunchy reality TV stars. This criticism not only ignores the agency of viewers, but also assumes that the enjoyment of these shows is completely genuine. I would argue that, overwhelmingly, audiences engage with the content with some ironic distance. For many years, we have understood the fabricated nature of “reality” TV, and have come to appreciate the tropes and familiar formulas they thrive on. The most engaging programme allows you to sit around with your friends, drinking and eating, and make fun of the editing, sound effects, and contestants. Producers know this too, and lean into the melodramatic tone, to increase the way we already laugh at the show. Even the contestants have become aware of the ironic tone and tropes. Our own darling, Lily McManus from NZ’s The Bachelor shows us this, with her Instagram full of self-aware jokes about her presence on our screens. I’m campaigning for Lily as NZ’s next Bachelorette, please give it to us Three.
So, I’m officially excusing myself, since most of my Married At First Sight enjoyment is ironic. Except when Jordan shows up, because I am head over heels for that man. Do they ever repeat contestants, and is there an age requirement? I’m down to go to Fiji for a week.