Tradition demands that we review at least one previous ranked show. Let’s do this with one of the most popular breakout shows this year, Duck Dynasty. It’s now the second-most watched cable shows of all time. It got a 7/10 on our reality scale last year. How is it fairing today? As the show has aged, to some extent it is becoming less and less real. The show itself is largely staged – watch any episode, and you will see fairly typical sitcom situations: a central plot, a subplot, and a resolution around the dinner table at the end. In that sense, even the family doesn’t try too hard to pretend that this is “reality” in any real sense. Having said this, though, the characters are largely who they are. We said in 2012 that as the ratings grew, the temptation would be very real to make the show more and more contrived, and that has happened (e.g. a finale in Hawaii). The characters are still real – if anything, A&E has been trying to downplay some of the more offensive aspects of some of the characters as the series becomes more mainstream, and that part is relatively real. So we’re going to go with a 5/10 – relatively real characters, staged situations but not scripted – yet!
DANCING WITH THE STARS
Dancing with the stars is a different type of reality show – unlike most reality show which crafts characters into villains and heroes, the show invites celebrities that already have a following, a narrative, and then makes then dance with experienced dancers before eliminating them one by one. In that sense, it’s not an easy show to manipulate: viewers can actually see the dances, and it is hard to manipulate the outcome too much. Accordingly, Dave gave this a rating of 8/10. There have been allegations of some past stars that the pairs are eliminated in a secret sequence designed to maximize ratings, and that is probably true – the main reason the show has judges is to ‘shape’ the popular opinion of each dancing couple and exert some influence over the outcome (why would a dancing / voting show need judges otherwise), and the only reason to do this is to maximize ratings.
Gypsy sisters is a spinoff of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding series, and it chronicles the complex dynamics between members of a gypsy family in West Virginia. In terms of reality show, it’s a pretty raw one. It features fights, drug and substance abuse, and less than great parenting. In many ways, it’s a reality show that is the opposite of Duck Dynasty – Duck Dynasty essentially tries to portray redneck living at its most sanitized and palatable, while Gypsy Sisters does a lot less to ‘clean up’ the show – cameramen on the show have been forced to intervene on some emergency situations, for example. It’s only 7 episodes per season, but each of them packs a lot of drama. The reality level? It’s relatively real – there are few stagings, the editing is designed to enhance rather than fake outcomes, and there is little scripting (mostly because these women are wayyy to emotional to follow scripts). Let’s go with 8/10.
Parental control is a reality show with a twist – parents set up their kids on dates and the kids have to choose whether or not to keep their old relationship or to move onto the new one.
It’s not a new show (been on the air for almost five seasons), and it set a low bar for shows in general. It was cringe-inducing for many reasons, but it is also probably one of the fakest show on record. Watch any episode and see how long you can stand the poor acting or the weak writing – adult writers trying to write parts for teens and failing miserable. 1/10.
This is the grand-daddy of TV reality shows – it’s been on TV for almost 25 years now, and the iconic opening music is recognized by almost anyone who watches TV. Cops is an interesting show because it breaks many reality show rules: it has no recurring characters, for one thing; the show moves from town to town, and rarely revisits the same locale. It doesn’t have storylines per se – most of the show is action-focused, and doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to build up a narrative or a complex story. The producers of the show have often spoken out about their belief that reality show should just show reality, and not shape it. So it scores pretty highly on our scale: 9/10. The only reason it is not a 10/10 is that the very act of having cameramen follow police officers introduces a bias – police officers behave better when filmed, and of course the producers select footage from a very large sample, so you don’t see many criminals getting away, for example, in the show. But it’s pretty close to true reality.
SOUTH BEACH TOW
This is a Jennifer Lopez-produced show that chronicles the doing of a family-run towing business in Miami. Not sure why Jennifer Lopez is involving herself into a reality show, but to be fair the reality part of it is not particularly true – there is very little reality here. The show is ‘inspired’ by a real family business, but the show is fairly shameless about staging incidents, hiring actors, and generally faking most of the action on the show. The show claims that the show “features real people and is based on real situations. Due to production needs, some scenes are reenacted.” It is very, very fake. 2/10.
Sister wives chronicles the life of a polygamist family – one man and his four wives and his 16 children. It’s on the learning channel, which is an odd place to be, but there it is. In reality, the husband, Kory, is legally married to only one wife, his first, but the group refers to each woman as his wife and are quite free with details on how they live their life as a polygamist marriage. This is probably the only reality show that I know of that changed a law – after the show aired, Utah prosecuted all of the participants under Utah’s bigamy laws. Eventually a judge struck down the law as anti-constitutional, handing Kory and his wives a resounding victory. That is usually a sign of reality, so let’s give this one a 8/10. The characters are definitely real, and the producers occasionally prod for reactions and retakes, but in general the show is fairly representative… of one, unique family.
That’s it for 2013! There were a lot more shows, of course, but in general this year was relatively light on reality shows. Scripted shows like the Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad had massive years, fueling more scripted shows and a relatively low number of reality shows in the top 40 shows of the year. Singing shows dominated, like the Voice and American Idol, but they are increasingly the exception rather than the rule. We’ll have to see what 2014 brings, but if the trend continues it will be interesting to see if shows that are less manipulative rise in the ratings more than the more heavily-handed manipulative ones. Perhaps the audiences are learning?