The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Future Fragments: Reality TV and Our Love/Hate Relationship with “Talent”

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor


TV is filled with song and dance shows right now: hours and hours of The Voice (now moved to two nights a week!), Smash, Glee, and even American Idol still desperately clinging to the memory of its glory days. On the surface, Smash and Glee are the scripted versions of what the reality TV shows are pointing towards—over and over again, there are reminders of competitiveness and the difficulty of succeeding in show-business. In some ways, shows like American Idol opened the door for shows like Glee by proving that audiences were interested in watching people sing and dance. But is that really why we turn into The Voice? What draws us into these shows—and why has reality TV become another of those genres that seems poised to never die?

There are a few genres of scripted shows that seem unavoidable—crime and medical drama, roommate comedies, and so on. One is cancelled, another two emerge to take its place, hydra-style, to the point where it’s hard to tell the difference between the many incarnations of Law and Order or CSI, and someone who watched ER at the beginning would have a hard time recognizing the series near its end. But reality TV wasn’t supposed to be one of those genres, and when it thrust onto the scene with shows like Survivor featuring hours of people sitting on an island, quickly followed by a million spin-offs and pseudo-competitions, it seemed like oversaturation would eventually spell its death. How long can we really care about the string of women fighting over “The Bachelor”? Apparently, as long as they can keep finding men who want to draw from such a dating pool.

Even scripted TV has not been immune to the influence, as the song and dance show connection illustrates. This season of Glee has included a number of faces from The Glee Project, yet another reality TV show that sought out more 20-somethings to play at high-school. As I discussed in my article on the beginning of this Glee season, the addition of these reality TV winners to the mix simply highlights the fleeting, fickle nature of fame.

Smash has so far stayed away from the reality TV influence—unless you count the role of Katharine McPhee as one of the stars, better known from her American Idol days. To put that in perspective, Katharine McPhee was on American Idol in 2006, when the show was already in its fifth season and people were already forecasting the death of the reality TV genre.

Smash and Glee sell the same formula as reality TV does, with the bitter competition for success in musical careers at the center in each this season, but it’s only an illusion. We already know the successful careers of these “struggling” stars, just as we know at the beginning of Miss Congeniality that the real transformation was making Sandra Bullock that unattractive—taking her to beautiful is just restoring the status quo. In shows like American Idol and The Voice, the struggling is real, and the eliminations can really mean the end of a dream. And apparently, that’s ratings gold for these competitions.

If you don’t know the difference between American Idol and The Voice, it’s not just your imagination—after a while, all singing competitions start to sound the same. The Voice begins as a remarkably positive show, especially when you compare its selective approach to American Idol’s gleeful blind auditions spent skewering the most talentless and misguided of hopefuls. But even among the deserving, the tone quickly turns to elimination, which is ultimately the great thrill of reality TV—watching not just the success, but the failures, the decisions always drawn out into agony while we watch even the most talented squirm.

There’s a lot to like about The Voice, including the fact that in the blind auditions most of the sniping is kept between the judges, a formidable group of music industry stars who make the most of their connections to bring in coaches for the hopefuls in a show that at least promises to let its contestants walk away with a little more training than they had before. But the battle rounds, the phase of the competition currently airing, are perhaps even more cruel as they quickly whittle the “teams” in half through paired battles that are almost predetermined as the coaches maximize the talent that makes it through to the next round.

There’s a beautiful song in one of my favorite musicals, Avenue Q, called Schadenfreude:

Is reality TV’s continued existence more a testament to our own schadenfreude than to our desire to see someone win their dream? Ultimately, who do we identify with? Consider Glee—sure, some of the watchers of that show are also talented performers in their own right, but most of us are not Tony and Emmy material. Contrast the quality of the performances in Glee’s auditorium to your average high school, and if anything a show like Glee is potentially discouraging to most Broadway-hopefuls. Smash, on the other hand, reinforces exactly what we expected about the musical biz—it’s unforgiving, competitive, and downright unfair (and apparently, sleeping with the director is worth bonus points, but will only get you so far.) The Voice and American Idol only reinforce it: sure, the occasional person makes it, but it’s the shattered dreams that really power the franchise.

So will we ever see the end of the reality TV genre? Maybe if we get tired of seeing other people live out our dreams—and even more people fail spectacularly at them. Reality TV has always been cheap to produce, but that isn’t the whole story behind its endurance. After all, writers don’t cost that much money (just ask the writer’s strike crowd), and it’s not the lack of scripting that makes these shows so cheap—it’s the endless supply of dreamers, ready to risk hugely public failure for a shot at being one of the few to move over to the world of scripts and happy endings.