Time to Face Reality

Cue the Sun! The Invention of Reality TV BY Emily Nussbaum. New York: Random House. 464 pages. $30.
The cover of Cue the Sun! The Invention of Reality TV

EMILY NUSSBAUM, THE PULITZER-WINNING television critic and New Yorker staff writer, ends her well-researched, somewhat grueling book on the history of reality television, Cue the Sun!, with a reminder that critics have historically dismissed reality TV as a fad. Yet reality TV has not gone away. It’s more than just a fad, she writes, because “in the end, all our faces got stuck that way.”

It’s a strange phrase to insert out of nowhere. Parents say it when their kids make funny faces—keep it up and your face will get stuck that way. The idea here, I guess, is that we-the-audience, all of us, including those critics who dismissed it, wear the childish face of reality TV because we participate in it as a matter of course, whether we want to or not. Reality TV is the air we breathe as well as the face we make. We and television are mutually stuck with the same idiotic expression, reflections of each other, in a metaphorical mirror like Groucho and Harpo in Duck Soup, unsure of who’s imitating who. Now we all stream old episodes of Survivor and make TikToks, trapped in a televisual loop of mutually assured self-regard. 

But in non-notional reality, most people aren’t like that at all. And reality shows, a product of the broadcast-TV era, don’t even make the top ten in the weekly Nielsen ratings anymore. 

Nussbaum begins and ends at this same point of confusion. Her book starts with a quote from the French philosopher of disaster Paul Virilio—“When you invent the ship you also invent the shipwreck”—but a few pages later she insults people who take seriously the ideas of the French media theorist Jean Baudrillard, and people who might use those ideas to analyze TV. If you’re a highbrow poser of that sort, you “clutch your pearls,” Nussbaum says, and “won’t stop yammering”; you are unable to “see the fun” at work in the study of reality TV. Like the critics in the book’s epilogue, the scolds in the introduction also get it wrong about this rancid genre that has given us countless hours of stupid garbage. Fun people don’t make that mistake. 

NUSSBAUM IS A CRITIC AND SO AM I, and I am here to tell you that my face did not get stuck that way, though it had every opportunity to freeze into a permanent rictus. For eight years I worked as a cultural analyst in an “omnicultural branding and insights” consultancy where the clients were television networks. During that period I estimate that I watched multiple episodes of nearly four hundred different reality series. I lost count early on, somewhere between the debut of Undercover Boss and season three of Bait Car

In addition to watching all those shows, I had to give PowerPoint presentations to network bigwigs, explaining which direction my company’s research found reality to be headed—both the genre of reality and actual reality itself, such as it was in the Obama years. Things heated up for us after we realized that the 2010 finale of MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore had received the same Nielsen rating as Hope for Haiti Now, the star-studded charity telethon that was broadcast on MTV the day after. 

Nussbaum does not include Jersey Shore in her book, but at the time its success signaled an apotheosis in reality-TV programming—true trash had reached a pinnacle and crossed over. A bunch of no-talent, spray-tanned mooks had equaled George Clooney, Wyclef Jean, and Anderson Cooper, the telethon’s hosts. The MTV audience came away celebrating Snooki, Pauly D, and The Situation, and forgot about the earthquake in Haiti and its victims. 

After that my colleagues and I visited almost every network that made reality TV. We knew we had seen the immediate future of the genre. A process called mimetic isomorphism dictates what happens in television. Success inevitably, and quickly, leads to imitation, in a cycle of diminishing returns television networks refused to acknowledge in their pre-streaming spiral down the drain. Soon there would be Jersey Shore knockoffs on other networks. The subcultural strip mining of America had begun. 

In one of the odder moments of my life, I sat in the offices of Mark Burnett Productions, the company behind Survivor and The Apprentice, discussing the future of television while clutching one of Burnett’s Emmys. I think he’d won nine by then. I gave PowerPoint presentations at industry conclaves, including the Promax Conference, an annual gathering of television marketing professionals, which in February changed its name to the Global Entertainment Marketing Academy of Arts & Sciences, which should give you some insight into what people in television think of themselves.

From top left, left to right: Stills from reality TV shows The Real Housewives of Dubai (2022); Cops, Black, White & Blue (2008); Duck Dynasty (2013); The Apprentice (2004); The Real Housewives of Dubai (2022); Jersey Shore (2009); Jersey Shore (2009); The Real World (1992); Cops, Morons on Parade 6: Special Edition (2013). Photo: © BPK Bildagentur / Digne Meller Marcovicz / Art Resource, NY.

At events like that and at the annual television upfronts, I ran into the stars of reality TV, finding myself in an elevator with feisty Jill Zarin from the original cast of The Real Housewives of New York City, or in a lobby with the hirsute family from Duck Dynasty, millionaire Christian fundamentalist bird-call manufacturers. Real Housewives were everywhere back then. One year, during a conference in Los Angeles, my company threw a happy-hour party for our clients on the terrace at Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurant SUR (“Sexy Unique Restaurant”), which my boss had booked for the occasion. For some reason Vanderpump icily refused to speak to us, glaring from the dining room while we had fun knocking back artisanal cocktails, unaware a new algorithm-based form of television was breathing down our necks.

I have a record of that evening, smartphone photos of two of my colleagues, young women flanked by alcohol-infused Martin Genis, who is seated between them. Genis is wearing gray distressed jeans, a dark blazer, and a white shirt with the top four buttons undone. Who is Martin Genis? True fans of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, the real Real Housewife heads, will remember him as a slicked-back salt-and-pepper-headed hanger-on from Britain, a luxury real estate agent of some sort, who Vanderpump had set up on a blind date with her fellow Housewife Kim Richards early in the show’s run. 

Genis was hangering-on that night at SUR, but I was working, and I approached none of this as a fan. Knowing who these people were was part of my job, and if all this is a self-own, so be it. My job was valuable to me not just because it paid my bills but because of what I learned from it as a critic. Seeing the sausage get made at the C-suite level of television production, and then analyzing the fandom of the sausage, made me realize that every negative thing ever written about TV was true, the concurrent rise of quality television notwithstanding. Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland” speech, Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Harlan Ellison’s The Glass Teat, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death—they were 100-percent correct. 

Cue the Sun! puts this in a new perspective. Despite Nussbaum’s gleeful fascination with the genre, she also exhaustively exposes how reality TV made producers wealthy while they exploited their casts and the people who worked on their shows, non-union labor all. The company I worked for was run the same way. What reality TV did was inscribe this system into a particular form of television, combining the way its workers were exploited with the way its cast members were taken advantage of on camera and off, and then after the shows were over. Reality TV has always been more about reunions than unions. 

Throughout the book, Nussbaum brings up the way people on these series got temporarily famous without making much money, and how it led to “trauma-bonding” between them the same way it did between the lower-level employees behind the scenes. In Nussbaum’s account, working on and being on The Bachelor in particular seemed pretty close to date rape. As with the traumatized, the lives of the people who appear on these shows tend not to go well later. The lower reaches of entertainment news are still filled every day with their early deaths and suicides, their jail sentences and broken marriages, and the failing businesses they start in order to capitalize on what they thought was fame. Two of the cast members of Vanderpump Rules have just opened a sandwich shop, which on the ladder of success is a few rungs down from a sexy unique restaurant.   

Mark Burnett, of course, got bigger and bigger until, along with Jeff Zucker and NBCUniversal, he got Donald Trump elected president. Cue the Sun! leaves the impression that had The Apprentice not happened, Nussbaum would have a sunnier view of reality TV, no matter how ethically challenged and morally suspect the rest of it was. 

Even in the case of Trump, she lets television off the hook. We all had a hand in Trump’s election, she concludes. “Everyone ignored the danger Trump posed to the country, because he was too good for business,” Nussbaum writes, conflating the TV industry with its viewers. She lets us know that Random House, the publisher of Cue the Sun!, her own book, publishes The Art of the Deal, Trump’s business memoir. If she and Random House are not innocent, who is? 

It’s absurd to conclude that everybody is and isn’t to blame when it’s Nussbaum’s assumed audience of media mavens who are at fault. Television and publishing were the only businesses Trump had been good for, prior to those he helped once he was elected president: multinational oil companies, for-profit prisons, overpaid CEOs who wanted tax breaks, and the royal family of Saudi Arabia, who could be a reality show themselves if they would just loosen up and let the cameras in. 

Bravo’s series The Real Housewives of Dubai is geographically close to the House of Saud. It has just returned to television for a second season. A disclaimer on each episode tells viewers that the opinions expressed in the series do not “represent those of Emirati society as a whole,” presumably because the series shows how much freedom its rich women stars have compared to other women in the Arab world. What the disclaimer is acknowledging is that, for the purposes of entertainment, the show is not sufficiently punitive. In Cue the Sun!, on the other hand, Nussbaum insists that in America it’s the other way around. In the US, reality TV represents all of us, and we know it and kind of love it. My advice if you read this book is don’t let your own face get stuck that way. 

THE ANTEDILUVIAN HISTORY of reality TV is found in 1940s radio, traced by Nussbaum to shows like Queen for a Day and Allen Funt’s pre–Candid Camera experiments with pranking the public on Candid Microphone. Both shows needed only minor adjustments to make the leap to television. 

Queen for a Day had a tragic, Miss Lonelyhearts quality. Nussbaum calls the program an inadvertent “exposé of poverty dripping with luxury ads.” One contestant, “a plain-faced waitress” named Viva, had a salesman husband who was bad at sales. Viva had lost her waitress gig after twenty-five years because she needed time off for leg surgery. Her greatest goal in life was to somehow obtain a wheelchair and a modified bicycle for her son with cerebral palsy. She won that episode, receiving the queen’s crown and the wheelchair and the bike, along with a suite of kitchen appliances, dinner at the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood, and tickets to the opening night of the movie Spartacus

Funt, for his part, was that rare thing, an actual visionary in his medium. Candid Camera innovated in early television as much as the comedian Ernie Kovacs had, but to different comic ends. It’s with Funt that a certain kind of mean “fun” comes into nascent reality TV. Funt was a misogynist and a bully, and the first to see how television could be used against the public. His pranks were designed for everyman appeal in a burgeoning age of behavioral science. They manipulated people into going along to get along, but were often designed to flatter male desire. An early prank, for instance, consisted of a fake office manager asking a real locksmith to chain a fake secretary to her desk.

Reality TV, despite the best efforts of RuPaul, Tim Gunn, and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, has from the beginning maintained a strict binary, as Queen for a Day and Candid Camera demonstrated. There are shows designed for men (Ice Road Truckers) and shows made for women (What Not to Wear) and they are shown on networks coded male and female—History (formerly the History Channel) is for the men’s men and TLC (formerly The Learning Channel) is for the ladies. Nussbaum does not point this out, and when she identifies Fox’s Cops and MTV’s The Real World as the two starting points of contemporary reality TV, she doesn’t acknowledge them as the daddy and mommy of the whole genre in its new but abidingly sexist form.

From the beginning Cops and The Real World combined the documentary with the staged. They were implanted with ringers in their casts, the action on screen was manipulated for entertainment value, and each episode was edited for dramatic impact, cut into acts that fit between ad breaks, then scored with pop music—the insistent, ubiquitous “Bad Boys” by the reggae group Inner Circle on Cops, a mixtape’s worth of ’80s and ’90s MTV hits on The Real World, including “Welcome to the Jungle,” played when a white girl from the South took a faked taxi ride through Harlem.

The phoniness and manipulation seem obvious now. At the time the differences between the real and the fake were not as apparent, though they were subjects of controversy, especially in their more racist forms. Today it is almost gauche to point out that things were not as real as they were meant to be seen. The fakeness of reality TV is a truism that supposedly only bothers the unsophisticated. Nussbaum’s book works hard to make distinctions between the naive viewers of yore and the wised-up reality-TV gluttons of today, enlightened superfans who know what’s what and revel in artifice. 

Cops has a bizarre history that combines the brutal policing of people of color with surveillance technology, embedding camera crews for ride-alongs in tours of poor neighborhoods as police officers/cast members make arrests. Unlike The Real World, which aired from 1992 to 2017 before MTV sold it to Facebook Watch, where it disappeared into the metaverse, probably with a “puff of smoke” sound effect, Cops is still on. It has moved from network to network for thirty-five years across close to 1,200 episodes, and is now back on Fox after a brief hiatus prompted by the murder of George Floyd and the ACAB “defund the police” period that looks like a blip on the screen as far as television is concerned. High-grade copaganda in its purest form, Cops has proved addicting to its public, its effects long-lasting in a society on the verge of re-electing a convicted felon. Note that there has never been a reality TV show called Cops Gone Wild

John Langley, Cops’s creator, considered himself countercultural and his show a comedy. He was crazy about avant-garde filmmaking and drugs. An early version of Cops, American Vice: The Doping of a Nation, which Langley made in 1986 with Geraldo Rivera, existed to broadcast live drug busts as police raided homes. When Langley shot it, however, he was not yet in control of the meta elements of surveillance television. During one of the first live drug busts on American Vice, the Fort Lauderdale police found that their suspect, a corrupt, drug-dealing Bahamian former cop, was watching the show as they burst in to arrest him. Langley learned that a non-live version, sans Rivera, would work better because it would give him more control in making things look out of control. 

Langley, like so many of the ex-hippie producers of the original wave of reality TV, came to question his achievement, ultimately deciding the problem with the series was that it was just too entertaining. By the time he told Nussbaum that in 2021, he was a very rich cigar aficionado, the owner of a vineyard in Argentina and several restaurants. He died soon after they spoke, suffering a heart attack at age seventy-eight during an off-road race in Mexico. It seems fitting that he died recklessly doing something he hadn’t thought through, though of course the boomer spin on it would be that he died doing something he loved, and what a way to go.

ONE OF THE ORIGINAL PRODUCERS of The Real World, Mary-Ellis Bunim, died of cancer in 2004. Her producing partner, Jonathan Murray, is, according to Nussbaum, proud of their legacy, has few regrets, and makes no apologies for his work, though he understands that “some people” will always see reality TV as “a dirty thing.” Nussbaum introduces Bunim and Murray, famous names in the genre, in their small office in 1987, where “they worked together like Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, on either side of a shared table”—a curious comparison since neither of them were writers, and neither says, does, or creates anything witty or sophisticated in the Real World chapter of Cue the Sun! or, as far as I can tell, at any time in their subsequent careers. 

In fact, they seem to have taken the concept for The Real World from a younger MTV producer named Lauren Corrao, a Brown semiotics major like several other reality-TV producers in the 1990s and 2000s. (I was asked almost daily in my former career if I had been a Brown semiotics major—the answer is no.) After Corrao’s nudge, Bunim and Murray refined her idea with one of their production coordinators, Danielle Faraldo, who’d been hired by Corrao at $300 a week. It was Faraldo, twenty-six at the time, who suggested that Bunim and Murray “put a few young artists together in a loft, then film them.” She also came up with the title. 

Faraldo is an interesting case study. Nussbaum tells us Faraldo was “a Gen X idealist who was deeply interested in the show’s success” and that the show was intended to be “cinema verité for Gen X.” But we have already learned by that point in the book that there is nothing Nussbaum has more disdain for than a Gen X idealist. 

Her Real World chapter begins with a dis. “The heated battle over authenticity” was a “Gen X obsession, as obsolete as the Shakers.” “The Gen X fetish for authenticity,” we learn, “was long gone” by reality TV’s twenty-first-century heyday, “as defunct as the desire for Zima,” as if anyone had ever had a desire for Zima. The clear, proto–White Claw malt beverage, introduced by Coors in 1993, was universally reviled and mocked. Like reality TV, its exact legacy is how much it sucked. 

Without ever copping to being a member of Gen X herself, just like she never admits to being a critic, Nussbaum takes every opportunity to bash her generational cohort. She’s especially hard on Helen Childress, the screenwriter of the 1994 movie Reality Bites, whom she portrays as looking back with naive chagrin on the unfortunate way her anti-MTV screenplay was watered down, an attitude now rendered trivial by the realpolitik of the Bunims and Murrays of this world, the real one we all acknowledge. “It’s almost endearing to think of what we were worried about,” says Childress in a footnote, that “almost” a sub-note of minor tragedy Nussbaum doesn’t seem to find particularly endearing at all. 

I was reading Cue the Sun! the week Steve Albini died, so these digs of Nussbaum’s at our shared generation stood out in high relief. Though he was exactly the type of purist who annoys Nussbaum the most, I suspect almost anyone would get more joy from the music he produced than from watching old episodes of Survivor, that activity Nussbaum believes so many people are engaged in. Or from anything Bunim and Murray produced. It’s as clear as Zima who left the more lasting legacy, so I guess the question remains: What kind of people does Nussbaum mean? The finale of season forty-six of Survivor aired while I was writing this. Does anyone care who won it? Are all forty-six Survivor seasons worth one Pod, In Utero, Surfer Rosa, or Rid of Me? In the annals of culture, I think those are secure, while every episode of Survivor could be wiped by CBS tomorrow and probably not even Jeff Probst would care. He’s made his money. His legacy is not what you would call artistic. Reality TV is by nature ephemeral; in that light, celebrating it is futile. 

To do so, Nussbaum has to put down people with higher ambitions, and to ignore the way reality TV started as an experiment in exploiting Gen X in a war of all against all. That’s what The Real World was, despite the warm fuzzies Nussbaum recalls around the death from AIDS of Pedro Zamora, the show’s second gay cast member. It set the template for all the competition reality shows to come, even though it wasn’t a competition show itself. The cast members, from their various backgrounds, were picked for prime conflict. It reminds me of a show I wanted to do called Vegans in Wichita, in which a group of diverse young people would have lived together in a house in the meat-eating-est city in the US, struggling to get enough protein while they pursued their dreams. Time and time again it is people’s dreams that are quashed in Cue the Sun!’s stories. Practically everyone who worked on a reality show, we learn, started out admiring documentarians like Frederick Wiseman, hoping to get a toehold in the industry. 

This relates to another proclivity of Nussbaum’s. Every time the process of editing a reality-TV show comes up, she reminds us how hard, how difficult and time-consuming, it was to edit any kind of documentary before Avid Technology developed nonlinear editing software in the 1990s. Truth be told, it wasn’t that hard. Documentaries were shot, film editors cut them, they came out, and the best ones are still valued, watched, and studied. What Avid did do was make this crap simpler for underpaid video editors to cut on short schedules, which made it sloppier and more disposable. Nussbaum is sensitive to how everyone has been exploited by reality-TV producers, except in this one area. 

By contemporary editing standards, it was harder to make An American Family for PBS in 1972. Since Nussbaum presents that series as a voyeuristic nightmare experience for everyone involved, it’s unclear why making things easier is an example of progress. The system of making reality TV reflected its content in that regard. Making a show became a beat-the-clock endeavor in which there wasn’t enough time or money to get things right. Instead, suffering and tension were added to what should have been mundane work duties, the same way those elements were added into dating or cooking shows to ratchet up the conflict in areas that are supposed to be pleasurable, loving, or fun, not terrifying, hurtful, and vindictive.  

To me, this in some indirect way relates to the title of Nussbaum’s book, because it has to do with the difference between television and film, which is harder to make but survives longer. Cue the Sun! is not a phrase from reality TV. It’s from the 1998 movie The Truman Show, a film about surveillance and how it stunts one man’s life when the true nature of reality is hidden from him. The true nature of reality, of course, is that he is on a reality-TV show and he is the only one who doesn’t know it. In an essay on Albert Brooks’s 1991 movie Defending Your Life, the film director Ari Aster brings up Brooks’s 1979 movie Real Life, an early, prescient satire of reality TV, and praises Brooks for predicting what an “ethical hell-swamp” it would become. The Truman Show was about that, too, not about inventing anything but about how malign the whole set-up was. 

I learned the hard way by watching so much reality TV that it was foolish to expect anything more from it. It was toxic, a Superfund site of collapsed morality. To slightly misread Nietzsche on the subject, “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.” It was by quitting my job that I ended that particular torment. My hope that it would lead to a better life was one of those cruel optimisms you read about, and it mirrors the regret that almost every person Nussbaum spoke with feels about their time working in reality TV. If people hated working on it so much, what was it worth? Only Mark Burnett’s and Jonathan Murray’s accountants can tell us. Langley’s and Bunim’s are off the job. 

I’m running out of space and I haven’t even gotten to Andy Cohen, Bravo’s oleaginous enabler of humanity’s worst impulses and character defects, an employee of NBCUniversal, like Donald Trump used to be. Oh well, there’s only room for so many visionaries in one piece. Instead, let’s look at the fans. Reality TV is a curious genre because it has wrenched the willing suspension of disbelief into new forms. In order to enjoy it, you also have to pretend to enjoy it, and you have to celebrate your enjoyment, which may or may not be real, just as you have to acknowledge that what you’re watching (“watch what happens live”) isn’t quite real. 

At the same time—here comes the tricky part—you have to give yourself over to its unreality, which you then accept as another form of reality that is not dissimilar from what the producers wanted you to believe in the first place. I call this the double twist, in which self-awareness is enough of a pardon for wasting time and bad taste. In the double twist, liking something you know is bad becomes smart if you think you know how it works. Here, the dated concept of the guilty pleasure is obviated by performative stanning, and we see once again how fandom pretends to elide all the market research, focus grouping, and brand analysis that goes into telling the superfans how smart they are for liking the latest iteration of whatever it is they already liked. 

I’ve always believed that the antidote to this poptimistic self-delusion can be found in the worst gunk of reality TV itself. It’s buried in the mud that I put my hands into every day for years in my old job. You will find it in the series not covered in Cue the Sun!, the ones too outré for a book like thisin Hoarders, for instance, and Intervention, in The Swan, Naked and Afraid, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Teen Mom, Abby & Brittany, Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, Dog the Bounty Hunter, in those shows with the Gosselins and the Duggars and their dozens and dozens of children, in My 600-lb Life and in I Want to Work for Diddy

There’s a reason Nussbaum ignores those series. They are the shows that make you turn your head away, that create the impression that you shouldn’t be seeing them and they shouldn’t be on TV. They are the shows in which people are literally soiling themselves and, by extension, the viewer. The better-known shows, the ones that make the covers of People and Us, might look different, but only because the networks that air them throw a few more dollars their way to make them shiny. Their slightly higher production values make them acceptable to decent human society, unlike the other ones, which make their appeal to the indecent. In the end, the glossier ones are not different than Hoarders. They are equally crass; both are about accumulation and sickness and how to flaunt them. It is in the lowest common denominator that we find the question Nussbaum’s book doesn’t answer: Would we be better off if The Bachelor, or Cops, or The Apprentice had never been made? The answer is yes.

A. S. Hamrah is the author of The Earth Dies Streaming: Film Writing, 2002–2018 (n+1 Books).