In 2008, showbiz Satire 30 Rock sent a section called “MILF Island”. For fun with how awkward reality TV can be, it follows network honcho Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) as he welcomes his latest hit, a reality contest based on a naughty acronym about hot moms. “It has sex, lies, puberty, betrayal, relay races,” Jack says, beaming. “MILF ISLAND reflects the drama of the human experience. ” MILF ISLAND was a good joke. Foresight too: 13 years later, HBO Max aired a reality contest based on a naughty acronym about hot men called FBOY Island. Life had imitated art in the most silly way.
As TV critic Alison Herman pointed out earlier this year, compare something with a fake 30 Rock show has become “a shorthand for surreal, dystopian and painfully desperate television programming” that “holds up pretty well in the streaming era.” She is right. HBO Max is not the only streaming service that offers the exact crazy taste of show 30 Rock writers can come up with. In most cases, non-scripted television is cheaper to produce than scripted, so streamers looking for quantities have plenty of green light from it. For the past three years, Netflix has pushed a high-concept reality board, including Marriage or Pledge (people choose between having a wedding or owning a home) Sexy beasts (people wear artful creature prostheses to hide their faces while dating), and Is it cake?, a show where people guess whether an item is or is not cake. It is also home to an uplifting misanthropic suite of romance shows by Nick and Vanessa Lachey, among others. Ultimatum, a “social experiment” in which one half of a romantic couple forces the other to either marry them or break up with them. Individually, many of these shows are ridiculous enough to be as much of a punch line as MILF ISLAND. But they are the reality of reality, part of the greater 30 Rock-writing of script-free TV.
Now, the first big wave of reality TV hits in the early 2000s was not exactly devoid of high-concept premises and deeply seedy executions. Consider Joe Millionaire, where women competed to date a construction worker who pretended to be rich. Or The Swan, where women competed for who could become more conventionally beautiful by having plastic surgery. These programs were released back in 2003 and 2004. Television reached new heights of depravity in 2007, when Kid Nation plop children on a ranch and filmed them slaughtering chickens and injuring themselves. Qualifying voyeurism is baked into the DNA of the genre.
But the streaming era has acted as an absurdism accelerator, urging creators to create increasingly complex, specific, and bizarre premises. The streaming era has resulted in increasingly granular entrances into the reality cannon and surprisingly long aftermath of niche reality shows from basic cable. A new rule for the internet might be: If you can think about it, there is probably already a reality show about it, especially if you are thinking about truck drivers. (There are so many shows about hauliers.) There is now a subgenre of Netflix reality shows dedicated to watching people tidy their homes; there is another on the renovation of holiday homes. Everything, it seems, can be a reality show. Blade forging? Reality show. Glass puff? Reality show. Flower sculpture? Reality show. Do you stay awake for 24 hours and then you have to do things? Reality show. Chocolate makers? Reality show. The pediatrician, where you pretend the floor is lava? In some way also a reality show. The streaming service Discovery + is built around these types of shows, including a call Celebrity help! My house is haunted, which is a British celebrity-based spin-off of a show about ordinary people with haunted houses. I have not seen it, but I do not recognize any of the celebrities’ names on IMDb.
I’ve only seen a fraction of a fraction of all the reality TV available to stream right now. A complete assessment of the genre may at this point be physically impossible for a person to make in a lifetime even if they had nothing else to do. But even with my limited research, I can say this: These shows are at their most boring when news gets replaced by wit when 30 Rock of it all is all that really is. Despite its splashy costumes, Sexy beastsfor example, was simply boring. Marriage or Pledge committed sin to be immoral and humorless. For hit franchises, spin-offs can deliver declining returns; without the songfroid star power of protagonists like Christine Quinn, Selling Sunset spin off Selling Tampa is eroded by glamor. Yet it does exist, a product of algorithm-induced overconfidence.
Still, this new wave has a few gems that are characterized by their playfulness. They are both on the joke and more than the joke. Netflix’s Nailed It! is the best example of a show with this good-natured self-awareness. Conversely, the premise is manipulated from a meme about baking disasters: Participants who are not very good at the kitchen must try to recreate artful cakes within a short period of time with almost uniform, horrible results. The incompetence is punch line, but it is not vicious. No one is expected to be good at this. The show’s tone is as light as meringue, but it has a discombobulated, absurdist kick. Participants sometimes appear to have walked in from the street while host Nicole Byer kindly steers them around. It has more in common with alt-comedy from Eric Andre Show or Tim and Eric, Awesome Show, Great Job! than with something similar The great British baking show or Chopped. There are cartoon-like sound effects, awkward pauses, and a general sense of celebrating the grotesque. Unlike the disgusting creations, its participants are whipped up, Nailed It! pulls his strange soufflé off at last.
Sometimes this playfulness includes adjusting to reality show conventions. Sociologist Danielle Lindemann, who recently wrote a book on reality shows and culture, says she has noticed “reality TVs that are more conspicuous about themselves as reality TVs” in this recent harvest of new and recurring shows. Nailed It !, for example, its behind-the-scenes transforms staff into recurring characters, most notably assistant director Wes Bahr, who interferes from the wings every time Byer summons him. There is hardly even a fourth wall to break in the first place. And this embrace of the eye-catching artificial is not limited to comic cooking shows. Hulu’s Kardashians, a glossy infomercial for various Kardashian-Jenner outlets, is at its most interesting when it glimpses truth in its polished world. In a recent episode, Kim Kardashian tells Kanye West that he is now allowed to recognize the camera operators and he starts chatting with them outside the cuff. (If only the show had more of it and fewer plotlines about Kendall Jenner not getting one Vogue cover.) I wonder how far we are from watching a reality show about a reality show – or even a reality show about a reality show about a reality show. Maybe we will continue to get atomized reality franchises with gradually more baroque premises forever, until today’s crop looks positively picturesque.
Or maybe we do not want the chance to become quite so ridiculous meta. It’s been a rocky 2022 for Netflix. It is still the most dominant streamer, but the number of subscribers has fallen along with the stock price. There are many layoffs. There is simply too much television. The days of green light for many shows may be approaching a break, if not an end. But quality control will kill MILF ISLAND mentality? Or will the pursuit of spectacle, above all, no matter how lowest the common denominator is, erode the prestigious TV landscape instead and put costly script fluctuations in favor of cheaper reality gambits? Imagine: an archipelago of MILF islands, one for every possible set of eyes. The drama of the human experience, in fact.