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Unreality TV

How the ubiquitous genre actually misrepresents life.
2006This article is part of CT's digital archives. Subscribers have access to all current and past issues, dating back to 1956.

It's Thanksgiving night 2005, and millions of American eyes strain toward the TV to watch … a football game? A Waltons reunion show? Some Capraesque tale trying valiantly to return us to our moral roots?

Try Survivor: Guatemala, first in its time slot and number ten for the week

in the Nielsen ratings, with an estimated 19 million viewers. From its opening footage of barely clad women crawling through mud to its ritualized closing line, "Gary, the tribe has spoken," it underscores with oomph the nature of our national moment, when cathedrals have morphed into malls and sanctuaries into screens.

We've lived with the current burst of reality TV for five years now. With approximately half of all American television shows falling into the genre, according to Nielsen Media Research, how much more reality can we take?

It's the law of the jungle that has grabbed us, curiously, here at the end of history. We thrill to shows like Survivor and The Apprentice as they, frothing with animosity, sex, and intrigue, dare virtue to intrude in any meaningful way. Call this the anti-community wing of reality TV. Here there are no adults, only overgrown kids doing whatever it takes to "have it all" (the supposed reward for The Apprentice's champion) or to win "immunity" (the weekly hope of Survivor contestants). Their conversations, taped for all the world to hear, reveal a remarkably banal form of moral poverty. "It's the Weaver-butts. They suck at driving," we hear one of the Amazing Racers declare, as families cavort around Utah competing in an elaborate scavenger hunt. "Marcus—he's useless! He's a nuisance," an Apprentice contestant complains about one of his teammates.

This is immaturity by design. Reality TV's stock technique, ...

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