A couple of months ago, I took an intro to communication studies course. It was an interesting overview of the history of the field and how different theories from different fields have impacted the development of journalism. The lectures commenting on reality television really spoke to me because they resonated with my own (rather negative) perception of the genre.
What’s funny is the class itself isn’t what led to my writing this post; it was becoming more aware of just how much of my free time time I spend watching streamed role-playing games, and reading or listening to associated materials created by the cast and fans. Watching these shows is fun for me because the storytelling is imaginative and compelling…and the collaboration is delightfully unpredictable and engaging as the players improv off each other. And we often get to see glimmers of the players’ personal lives and friendships beyond the game, which adds a layer all its own.
Perhaps more importantly, they’re more in-depth, more thoughtful, less manipulative. I suspect if someone took the Critical Role transcripts and ran them through a readbility test, they would score well above any episode transcript for a “reality” show. And no one complains. Some viewers don’t follow so well, but they don’t complain about the level of the storytelling.
Compare this with reality television, where the cast are playing out scenarios with characters who have about as much depth as a perfectly flat piece of paper. I can’t understand why other people find these shows compelling any more than I understand why people find America’s Funniest Home Videos funny. I know there are people who watch these shows because it gives them an artificial sense of superiority. But then some people try to live like reality stars because that’s how people do it on television, or they at the very least expect life to be like reality television…and again, I don’t understand how the lives presented through reality television are something to aspire to.
Competition shows are also reality television, in that there are overly dramatic, completely artificial realities taking place…but somehow watching someone doing their craft seems less slimy than watching people play out completely fictionalized lives no real person would (hopefully) want to live. I can handle competition shows more often than not, if my tendency to fall asleep in front of Food Network has become any sort of indicator. (For clarification, I personally designate shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race in the first group of reality television, and shows like Dancing With the Stars, Project Runway, and even American Ninja Warrior in the second group of competition shows.)
I guess it comes as little surprise that I prefer to watch people practicing their craft, and in the case of competition shows push themselves, in improv-adjacent situations.