In the last seven months or so, I have consumed an unprecedented amount of streaming content, like most people with an internet connection have in 2020. This year presents a unique challenge in that sometimes we are so desperate for stimulation that we need content to break us out of our boredom, and sometimes, the world is all too real and we need an escape from the latest flood of anxiety-producing news stories. For me, the content that I find myself turning to most often in this time is reality tv. Without the ability to go out and see friends, I spent a good portion of this summer curled up on my couch, watching years-old seasons of Bachelor in Paradise. It might seem frivolous, but reality tv has actually provided me with some solace and even some joy during a time when those things have been near-impossible to find.
I’ve been a reality tv fan since I was a little kid, devouring American Idol each week until all the good judges left for the later seasons, and I’m far more invested in the Bachelor franchise than I would like to admit. I think I’ve always liked reality tv because I’ve always been a daydreamer. I want to live in a version of reality where love at first sight exists, where NFL stars can learn to tango, and where adorable old ladies win trophies for their beautiful biscuit towers. I understand, however, that sometimes problems exist with viewing the world that way—all those things don’t happen in real life, and expecting your day-to-day to feel like a highly produced and sensationalized episode of television can lead to lots of disappointment and resentment. Conflating real life with reality tv can certainly be harmful, but in this dumpster fire of a year, there is absolutely no chance of confusing the jet-setting skydiving dates on The Bachelor with my days of doing my homework in a house I haven’t left in months. The currently heightened difference between reality tv and real-life makes these shows feel fictional enough to be escapist, but they still provide a glimmer of hope, because they are grounded in reality.
Another thing that I’ve always loved about reality tv is the contestants. Now, I don’t think I’d become good friends with every contestant from Bachelor in Paradise—quite the opposite— but watching the individual development of real people on these shows has always been compelling to me. I’m always trying to get into the psyche of the contestants, working to discern why they did this or said that, especially on programs focused on the emotions of the contestants, like dating shows. There are certainly problems with getting too invested in reality tv personalities, mostly because it’s important to step out of our naivety and acknowledge that viewers don’t get an unbiased or wholly accurate picture of what these people are like. Unfortunately, not everyone sees it that way. Reality personalities are spoken to in unbelievably hurtful and disrespectful ways online, especially female contestants, because viewers may fail to understand that the connection formed with the person on-screen is parasocial—they don’t actually know these people. Becoming familiar with these people isn’t all bad, though, if it’s kept respectful. It certainly doesn’t come close to the time with friends that was lost to this pandemic, but getting to know more about the curated versions of reality tv stars can feel like a baby step in the direction of seeing people. As an extrovert who’s starved for the human contact that energizes me right now, it can be really helpful to have some human interest stories to follow and have fun with.
I know that the bit of positivity produced by reality shows doesn’t have any widespread impact. The winner of Dancing With the Stars gets a trophy and remains just as privileged as always, and the relationships that come out of The Bachelor barely last long enough to impact the lives of the people in the couple, let alone any broader community. These shows don’t mean anything, and honestly, I need that so much right now. This year has been incredibly heavy for everyone—we have had to deal with huge levels of loss, and with upending all feelings of comfort and security in the trajectory of the future (especially with the deluge of terrifying election news). Existing in 2020 is exhausting, and I’m one of the lucky ones. There are so many real and important dangers competing for our attention that it feels like a luxury to care about something that is completely silly and has no greater meaning. On The Great British Baking Show, the large-scale stakes could not be lower. It’s just a cute competition of sweet and helpful people, and at the end of every season, one baker gets bragging rights and a cute commemorative plate. The greatest pressure the contestants face week to week is whether or not one of their bakes has a “soggy bottom”. Following something that is grounded in reality, but where no one’s lives or human rights are at stake has been absolutely necessary in this mess of a year. Holding onto any joys that still exist and feel normal, even relatively trivial joys, is enough to make this period just a tiny bit brighter. It’s the tiny positive story that escapes the news, but is just real enough to remind me that good things can still happen. Reality tv is stupid, but it’s fun, and I’d recommend it to anyone who’s looking for the world to feel just a little bit more comforting right now.