Reality TV Saved Me

During the worst year of my life, I needed it more than ever. And I needed to understand why.
portrait of Jason Parham's face partially covered by textured glass
Photograph: Shawn Michael Jones

One Thing I was never told about reality TV—and I’m willing to bet you weren’t either—is that it can heal. Nobody tells you it’s a curative medium. What they do tell you about reality TV is everything else: how it’s reductive and superficial, how it’s cultural rot. It’s a circus, they shout. It microwaves the mind to mush.

It’s also the most dominant form of entertainment today. Reality TV has been called a “volume business”; many of us swallow whole seasons in a single sitting. The shows are operatic, polarizing, and unrepentant about what they are—all id and impulse. Name a setup, pastime, premise, gimmick, and it probably exists as a reality TV show.

This article appears in the June 2023 issue. Subscribe to WIRED.Photograph: Dan Winters

We refuse to look away. Or maybe it’s that we can't. Perhaps it’s because we’re addicted to spectacle. Or because we demand our pop culture in every color, shape, and size. Everything is primed for content-making. No, seriously—everything. Across Instagram and TikTok and YouTube, we optimize our lives for the screen. We enjoy letting other people into our curated worlds and being let into theirs in return. It’s OK to admit it: You are good and truly hooked.

So am I. In the best of times, I watch a fair amount of reality TV. But it was only during this past year—one shot through with heartache, a breakup, and what felt like piled-up grief—that I came to depend on it. In a genre built on stock phrases and digestible tropes, let me offer one more: Reality TV saved me.

Last Spring, I grieved for a lost friend. By August, I grieved for my grandmother who was here and then suddenly wasn't. Weeks after that, I grieved for my relationship with T, one that had cratered right in front of me, one that I'd felt—finally—might not end in what-ifs, or end exactly as it did: with a lingering unanswered voice note. I felt like a bodiless thing outside myself.

Depression rose like a tidal wave, and then pulled me under. I went from working out six days a week to one, if that. Writing, which had always sustained me, felt like a chore. My diet was all over the place. I moved through the day with hesitancy. Present time was bad enough, but what intensified anxiety was the time ahead and unplanned, the tyranny of the minutes that were to come.

In all of this, what emerged was a feeling of inauthenticity. It wasn't as though I felt like a fraud or an imposter, the cheeky buzzwords people of my generation like to fling around. I just wasn't sure how to make it through the sadness this time. I was stuck on replay. I spoke to a professional but kept it a secret from almost everyone I knew. I wasn't ashamed. I just didn't feel like talking about it.

And then I did what I always do: I turned to TV. TV was easy. TV was a constant, a plane with the “ability to transmit and receive and then to apply layers of affection and longing and doubt,” as the media critic George W. S. Trow wrote in 1981.

I make no qualms about my dependency on reality TV. I especially love dating shows. At 37 and chronically single, I would describe my reality as a jumble of failed situationships, mostly trivial one-night stands, and maybe what could have been two or three chances at the kind of real love Mary J. Blige sang about all those years ago.

So I wasn't surprised when my year of grief turned into all-night binges of Love Island. But I was surprised by the depth of my need for this distraction. I wanted to understand it. There was one place I had to go.

It's just shy of noon on a Saturday in October, inside the Javits Center, when I hear a woman make a confession. “I just spilled my wine!” All around me, women and gay men of all ages are drinking wine, waiting in line for wine, searching for wine. They flash big smiles and wear big hair, sporting T-shirts with taglines that snap, “Who gon' check me boo?” The halls are frothing, at times uncontrollably, with people from all corners of the country, and I am not so much here as lost in the crowd—which will peak at around 30,000 attendees by weekend's end. This, in all its Botoxed glow and kitschy maximalism, is BravoCon.

Launched in 1980 as a cable network, Bravo is best known for its Real Housewives franchise, the glammed-up lifestyle soaps that follow groups of women in different locales (Orange County, Miami, Atlanta) as they raise kids, fall in and out of love, establish careers, and snipe shade like trained assassins. Once a year, Bravo superfans—“Bravoholics”—convene for a three-day, rosé-tinted reality palooza. Part empowerment summit, part celeb meet-and-greet, BravoCon is a sharp distillation of how reality, as an entertainment genre and a business, gets manipulated beyond the frame of television. I thought it might give me some insight into my obsession.

How to describe the convention? The whole thing isn't real—it's too real. At one point, I witness fans boo Beverly Hills Housewife Lisa Rinna, looking every bit the Bond villain in a vibrant tangerine pantsuit, as she crosses the convention floor. At the brand bazaar, I sample a lasagna-flavored Lay's chip (inspired by New York City Housewife Dorinda Medley's lasagna) and spot Jake from State Farm (yes, that Jake from State Farm) surrounded by a circle of grinning women, posing for photos as they cheer “One more!” Many of the Housewives have booths set up, hawking their latest products: moisturizers, lip gloss, candles, lube, “camel-toe-proof” underwear, dildos. During one of the scheduled cast discussions, Potomac Housewife Karen Huger exclaims, “I am not produced!”

That Saturday morning, before my tour of the convention grounds, and before more than 140 “Bravolebrities” begin sweet-talking fans for the next nine hours, an NBCUniversal rep semi-jokingly tells me that Bravo fandom is “like a cult.” I get a taste of that devotion when I remark to a woman from California that the most recent season of The Real Housewives of Atlanta is a far cry from the show's pioneering early days. She pauses for a beat, sizes me up. “It's still everything,” she says. This is no place for nonbelievers.

Loyalty is a requirement in the Kingdom of Bravo—but not only that. As one development exec behind Love Is Blind puts it to me: Fans want to be involved themselves. Sure enough, during a panel with Potomac's Ashley Darby, a young man approaches the mic and confesses, though it comes off more like a brag, that he has had sex with her ex-husband. Darby's divorce was a major plot point last season. The audience lets out a collective gasp. My initial reaction—Oh shit!—dissolves in an instant because I can't escape the fact that I secretly love that this is happening.

Which is maybe the point. Which is maybe exactly the point.

This is what makes reality TV so mouthwatering. The pageantry of destruction—a failed marriage, a cringeworthy date, the betrayal of a friend—should perhaps not entice the eyes, yet it is often the sole reason for our looking. As I watch Darby squirm and then toss it off with a smile, I am struck by an odd feeling. All weekend, my memory on loop, I've been replaying the end of my relationship with T. Yet here I am, amused by the ruin of someone else's, knowing damn well I'd hate for my worst moments to be turned into a public punch line.

Our relationship to reality TV has never been bound by moral purity, or even good manners. “For all its carnivalesque aspects, the genre reflects how steadfastly we cling to simplistic, collective notions about who and what is legitimate and ‘real,’” the sociologist Danielle J. Lindermann writes in True Story: What Reality TV Says About Us. “But in doing so, it allows us to poke at these assumptions, revealing the socially constructed natures of what we consider to be ‘true,’ ‘normal,’ ‘healthy,’ ‘legitimate,’ and ‘good.’ The genre exposes our conservative reality, but it also exposes reality itself to be a social fiction.”

At BravoCon, this is especially evident, and it's what I take away. My deeper need for reality TV? It starts with the fact that it makes me feel good about feeling bad.

Photograph: Shawn Michael Jones

Back when I was 14—a piston of arousal—I was instantly horny for Blind Date. I loved how primal the show was. The premise was purposefully uncomplicated: Two people go on a date. The result was a zoo of human behavior. Contrast that with The Real Housewives of Dubai, Bravo's 11th iteration of the megafranchise. When it premiered last year, the women materialized as precooked avatars, lacking the originality and surprise of their forebears (minus Chanel Ayan; she's a hoot).

This air of performance is typical of the genre today. Every viewer knows it: Events are planned, tensions fluffled, storylines steered. There now exists—it's almost too obvious to point out—a whole industry, from gossip blogs and podcasts to full-on scripted dramas, that tracks behind-the-scenes manipulations on shows like The Bachelor. In some cases, cast members are pushed into uncomfortable situations, with minimal concern for their well-being.

A week after BravoCon, I call Michael Montgomery. He's a veteran producer of reality TV, and he tells me, though I don't believe him at first, that in the future the form will no longer hinge on the elaborately crafted drama we have come to expect. All the human error and tart moral knottiness that defines so much of the reality TV we watch will soon be a thing of the past. “I don't feel like there is much of an appetite for conflict anymore,” Montgomery says. “People are tired of it.”

Montgomery wants to take reality TV into (back to?) a more authentic place. I press him on this. I ask him to define it. Selfishly, I want to know for myself. But I don't say that. That fall day over the phone, I don't show my scars. What do you mean exactly? I say instead. Montgomery laughs, as if he's been waiting for someone to ask just these questions.

Montgomery has been involved in everything from morning talk shows and Celebrity Big Brother to Sacha Baron Cohen's Da Ali G Show and Russia's adaptation of The Apprentice. And who could forget the David Hasselhoff travel show? He also spent time at 3 Ball Productions, famous for developing Bar Rescue and Extreme Weight Loss, among other genre staples. Now, Montgomery wants to reinvent the genre.

This, he tells me, is how Seen came to be. Seen is “a reality show in a dating app's body.” I'd heard of it before our call. The app is all about radical transparency; it does away with any last vestige of anonymity. When sifting through potential daters, Montgomery says, Seen does more than “reduce people” to the usual cropped headshot and pared-down bio. It transforms one's profile into a buffet of personal detail. It's primed for the social media age, where “your content is your conversation.” Interested in a prospective dater? You can see who they've already matched with, previous text exchanges, even video chats. Nothing is off-limits. “When people first hear about this, they think it sounds crazy,” Montgomery says, punctuating the claim with more laughter. “But it's not nearly as scary as it sounds.”


Seen isn't just a dating app in the way Tinder and Bumble are, where the end goal, more often than not, is for two people to make a genuine connection, or at the very least hook up. Seen is a means to a more efficient reality TV landscape. The app works as an incubator for Montgomery's slew of potential reality shows—“dater-tainment,” he's tagged them. If you sign up to be featured on a prospective show and clear a casting process, you're a “verified dater.”

“There was a natural connection between dating apps and some sort of machine that would generate reality stories for us,” Montgomery says. Reality TV, to him, is a dinosaur stuck in the past. He wants the old ways to die. He wants to shepherd in what he calls the “reactive” format. The future “lies in plugging into a lot of the user-generated content that's out there. And plugging into it in a way that gives producers the ability to track multiple stories in real time.”

I express skepticism. Montgomery, who is 52, is quick to shoot back. “You're not the first.” Still, I want to hear more. Maybe what he is attempting to pull off is, in a way, the beginning of a turning point in how the genre is produced, in determining the stories told. He wants the genre to be more than a gimmick or a ploy for attention. “When you make reality shows,” he says, “quite often talent will turn to you behind the camera and go, ‘Hey, what do you want me to do next?’ The moment talent does that, you understand that in their head, they are being directed down a storyline by the producer and director. That was a symptom of the old format.”

At the moment, Seen averages 5,000 monthly active users, most of whom are based in San Diego, where Montgomery is testing the market. (Last year he launched a casting event there called 500 First Dates.) He says he hopes to raise $10 million in funding by the end of this year and shoot 150 to 200 episodes, which will live on an ad-funded streaming channel as proof of concept. He's in discussions with various big-name streamers. “Our mission,” Montgomery emphasizes, “is for it to be authentic and uplifting.”

I understand his vision, I think. Some version of Montgomery's scheme probably is the future of reality TV. But I also wonder whether Montgomery gets something about that word wrong. Authenticity doesn't mean what it used to. It's different for everybody now.

In the 1960S, the political historian Daniel J. Boorstin predicted the rise of influencers, suggesting that individuals would become famous simply for their “well-knownness.” In The Image, he theorized that people were finding less relevance in facts. What would soon matter was the “convenience” of a given fact to a person's own story, to their own life. Today, enjoying reality TV is a matter of your subjective view, the convenience of what you choose to buy into or not. If a nice woman from California still thinks Real Housewives is “everything,” so be it. It no longer matters how believable a storyline or character is, but instead who it is real to.

In season 3 of the American version of Love Island, a love triangle between housemates becomes a focal point of the show. Basically, Cashay liked Cinco and Cinco liked Cashay, so they “coupled” (show lingo for “they shared a bed”) until the next recoupling ceremony; remaining single contestants are booted from the villa. But Trina also liked Cinco. And hearing that Trina liked him, Cinco realized he liked her. So they became a couple. Attempting to move on, Cashay coupled with Charlie, which only made Cinco, who was coupled with Trina, miss Cashay even more.

During that recoupling ceremony, the camera freezes on Cinco, and what he cannot bring himself to utter in that moment—“I miss you, Cash, and I want you back”—is unnervingly clear. I recognized it. I knew it. It's in everything he doesn't say. I saw his mind do that familiar thing, rewinding back, back, back to that before place. It's the same place I go when I want to remember the best of what T and I shared. What I imagined Cinco asked himself that night was the same thing I'd ask myself the week following our split: What if I hadn't gotten afraid? What if I hadn't messed up?

In moments like these—the messiest moments—reality TV is realest to me. For all those hours and days and weeks on my couch, as my world fell apart, I wasn't just looking for those moments. I was reaching for them. For the recognition, the mess, the permission to let go. And the more I reached, the lighter I felt.

The thing about reality, on TV as in life, is that it's only predictable until it isn't. Maybe that's what Montgomery was getting at when he kept using the word authenticity. To truly capture it, you can't engineer control. You must accept the loss of it.

These days, my depression doesn't feel as stifling. I still encounter the occasional fog, but it isn't as dense. I see reality TV for what it is. In this space, one's drama and grief don't carry the baggage of shame but arc toward a kind of redemption. Not all fluff and sunshine, but something, yes, realer. In this ending, redemption is accepting things for what they are and moving forward in a way that acknowledges the weight of what happened without losing sight of who I can still be.

Some mornings, when I decide to work from home, I turn on Watch What Happens Live. It's Bravo's reality TV talk show, hosted by Andy Cohen, about reality TV. It plays in the background as I scroll Twitter, check emails, “make” coffee in my Keurig. Where is this new place I find myself in, this reality I'm both making up and giving in to all at once? It's not so bad. Maybe it's a total mess. I kinda like it.

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