The Fake Drama of Trashy Reality TV Is the Ultimate Quarantine Comfort
You can binge your prestige dramas. I'll be watching delightful, mindless crap.
Recently — Last week? Last month? Who can even tell anymore? — I was mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, feeling overwhelmed by the latest pandemic news yet unable to look away, when I came across a tweet from someone I follow declaring that she’s “reached the point in self-isolation where I watch five seasons of Real Housewives of New York in 14 days.” Just in case we couldn’t read between the lines, she punctuated it with a popular GIF of Dorinda Medley from the show’s ninth season:
I laughed out loud — because Dorinda is an all-time great reality TV character, because her delivery of “not well, bitch” is just as artful as Pete Campbell’s iconic “not great, Bob” on Mad Men, because these days, we’re all not well, bitch. But while plenty of people have taken advantage of their time in quarantine to rewatch their favorite prestige dramas or remove their cultural blind spots and finally catch up on a critically beloved series, I’ve found myself unable to watch anything other than mindless reality trash.
To be clear, this is a new development. I’ve always enjoyed my share of reality shows, but I also prided myself on keeping up with every buzzy Golden-Age-of-TV offering that critics deem high art. Friends have asked me what I’ve been watching in quarantine expecting a great recommendation, and I’ve had to shrug and admit that all I can bring myself to watch lately are MTV’s The Challenge, TLC’s 90 Day Fiancé and a smattering of other extremely dumb-yet-delightful reality shows.
I’ve tried to toss a few episodes of FX’s Mrs. America — a very well-executed show about the 1970s fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment that’s sure to earn Cate Blanchett an Emmy nomination — into the mix every now and then, and under normal circumstances it’d be very much in my wheelhouse, but the idea of spending an hour being reminded of how awfully women continue to be treated to this day (spoiler alert: the amendment still has not been adopted!) feels tedious. With everything else going on these days, I just don’t have the emotional bandwidth; I need TV to escape, and trashy reality shows provide an opportunity to turn off my brain, tune out the real-life drama that currently plagues us and focus instead on the quaint-by-comparison conflicts that have been carefully concocted for me by each show’s producers.
Reality shows have always been TV’s equivalent to comfort food, and while the genre prides itself on cliffhangers, twists and surprise guests much like the soap operas that preceded it, I’ve been finding the most comfort lately in the tried-and-true formulas it adheres to. We live in a time of horrific uncertainty. I have no idea whether or not I’ll catch the virus, but I sure as hell know CT’s recent “shocking” elimination on The Challenge was only a surprise if you’re unable to recognize a classic “loser’s edit,” and I was likewise patting myself on the back for correctly identifying him as the winner of The Ringer’s Greatest Reality TV Character of All Time bracket before he even set foot in the ring.
There’s no telling how long it’ll be before we’re all allowed to return to our normal routines and see our friends and family again, but when Ramona Singer takes her fellow Housewives to a winery in the Hamptons and asks them to each share something that makes them feel vulnerable — a delightfully transparent prompt that was no doubt fed to her by producers to sow discord — we know with absolute certainty that we’re about to see a drunken fight.
I’m not the only one finding comfort in these familiar tropes. John Mulaney recently devoted a whole segment of his Late Night With Seth Meyers appearance to the fact that he has been binging The Real Housewives of New York City while quarantined, poking fun at the way every conflict plays out on the show. “You know, one thing they never do ever, ever on that show is apologize,” he told Meyers. “So let’s say that I said that you were tacky, Seth. I made that up, but that could easily be on the show. I tell Fred this, Fred tells you immediately. We’re at a function together within hours, and you call me out on it and you’re mad at me. The way I would apologize is I would say, ‘I just wanna put this behind us.’ And you’d hug me, and I’d say, ‘We’re good, right? We’re good.’ Never would I say that I insulted you directly, on camera, knowing it would get back to you, with little remorse.”
John Oliver, another Housewives fan, explained just what’s so comforting about the show’s formulaic nature in a recent Watch What Happens Live appearance. After Andy Cohen asked him whether he thought Luann overreacted by leaving Ramona’s in the middle of the night because she was mad she’d have to sleep in the basement (you don’t even need to have seen the show to know that the correct answer is yes), Oliver responded, “On a human level, of course she overreacted, but in a time of pandemic like this, we all want some sense of normalcy, and what is more normal than Luann overreacting to her room assignment? I was so grateful that she blew that out of all rational proportion.”
We crave the familiar as the world around us comes to a grinding halt. But there’s also a sense of catharsis that comes from watching a trashy reality-TV meltdown. They’re sparked by much more mundane concerns than the ones we’re all currently dealing with — a room assignment, a Jersey Shore wedding toast gone wrong, someone getting thrown under the bus on a competition show — so they’re still a welcome distraction. On top of that, there’s just something deeply relatable about watching someone scream and throw a glass of wine in this particular cultural moment.
Of course, there are notable exceptions involving substance abuse, mental illness and violent outbursts. But for the most part, reality-show drama is relatively tame. Participants know they’ll be kicked off the show for any sort of physical altercation, and there’s a general understanding that any lingering interpersonal conflicts will be drawn out for as long as they can without becoming boring — wrapped up with a hug and an “I just wanna put this behind us” just in time for the season finale.
I’m not proud of myself for what my current viewing habits have devolved into. (Last week I watched an entire season of a Lifetime show about gold-diggers called Married to Millions.) But there’s something freeing about leaning into the trash, of meeting the shittiness of our current situation with the shittiness of 10 hot singles being sent on an island retreat to drink, fight and hook up only to find out doing the latter will cost them their cash prize.
I’m not well, bitch, you’re not well, bitch, we’re not well, bitch. But we’re all trying our best to keep it together; it just so happens that my way of doing that involves watching someone else lose it.