Humans can be divided into two camps: Those for whom watching Bravo reality shows — its stars flipping tables, cursing each other out, and hatching diabolical plans to ruin each other’s sanities — is a traumatising experience, and those for whom it’s a tranquilising one. For me, these scenes of conflicts are deeply numbing, and intensely cathartic. Though, if you saw me watching them, you might not know whether I’m experiencing pleasure or pain, because the truth is is that it hurts so good. My preferred viewing position is halfway inside my shirt, like the end of a pig-in-a-blanket, the rest of me rolling back and forth on the couch in rhythm to the bug-eyed screaming coming out of the TV: “Taaake a Xanaaaax! Caaalm dooowwwnn!”
Do I like watching this kind of reality TV? Yes, I do — in the same, urgent way that someone with food poisoning “likes” to barf. My body requires the release of watching people unencumbered by self-awareness, humility, and the ability to understand cause-and-effect do and say the things I fantasised about. Every time I swallow a comeback, offer a tight-lipped nod instead of lashing out verbally, or delete a draft of a tweet, I feel myself reaching out for reality TV star, who reliably behave in ways I could never.
These days, I don’t have to turn on Bravo to see unhinged behaviour from hyper-privileged women. They’re all over the news, and on my social media feeds. These entitled narcissists — whom we know as Karens — lay it on thick for the cameras, and utilise the same grade-school logic to justify their rage. They are the stars of their own realities, and they have a rotating cast of nemeses: retail workers, non-white picnic-havers, beleaguered protestors. But I can hardly bring myself to watch these interactions. There is no catharsis here. There are only the tired faces of those who have to clean up the mess afterward, the embarrassment and rubbernecking of those witnessing the outburst, and the wild anger in her own eyes. In “reality,” I’ve found reality-show-like outbursts to be only traumatising.
Reality show behavior defines the most awful of what’s happened this year. Far too many of us are too self-interested to wear masks in order to protect our neighbors, too self-centered to consider certain systems relieve some while killing others, and too self-indulgent to understand the sacrifice, patience, and effort that goes into fostering a community — and country — in which people look out for one another. Bravo’s reality shows aren’t to blame, but they certainly do not help as far as modeling how emotionally healthy, conscientious humans treat one another.
Enter: Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast, a reality TV show program that first aired in South Korea in 2017, and that I found myself revisiting this year. The premise is simple: Pop-star Hyori Lee, 41, turns the Jeju-island home she shares with her husband, Lee Sang-soon, 45, into a bed-and-breakfast for regular Korean tourists. Their home is shockingly modest by celebrity standards: There is only one queen-sized bed even though they regularly host 10 at a time. The cooking and cleaning are all done by Hyori, Sang-soon, and a surprise celebrity guest-turned-helper (during the first season, it was singer IU; singer Yoon-ah Im and actor Bo-gum Park split duties the second season), who look after their guests like they’re family. There are no designer or luxury labels on display, unless you count the Dyson vacuum cleaner Sang-soon uses in the first season. Hyori rarely wears makeup or dresses up — in the first episode, she brushes her hair with a dog brush. She often wears the same inside clothes for days in a row. There is so little drama that, by comparison, it makes other relatively soporific reality shows like Terrace House, hailed for its “calming” and ‘“low-stakes” plots, feel like an emotional battleground.
When it first aired, Hyori’s Bed & Breakfast was the most-watched program in South Korea. A Nielsen Korea survey found that 9.9% of South Koreans tuned into JTBC to watch the broadcast (in comparison, during that same year, the most-watched TV series in America was The Big Bang Theory, which 3.6% of Americans tuned into). Part of the appeal is Hyori’s celebrity. She’s one of the most famous people in South Korea, as the lead of popular girl group Fin.K.L., who later went on to a successful solo career. I’ve asked Korean friends to contextualise her fame, and most compare her to J.Lo.
But it’s also who Hyori represents. Through a translator, the show’s main producer Ma Gun Young told me that when the show was being developed, television audiences were growing tired of “dramatic and abusive” programming. The country’s president was being impeached, and there were a myriad of societal stressors; reality show producers looked for ways to comfort their viewers. For Young specifically, the answer was to present a real Hyori in her real environment, with as little production interaction as possible: “When we were preparing the show, Hyori and our crew both agreed and began with the intent to show Lee Hyori and her home without fabrications. The result was that the guests were able to appear more naturally, and Hyori was also able to be very free and comfortable. Hyori's Bed & Breakfast gave viewers a window to feel emotions through natural, unfiltered content."
It’s not exactly a groundbreaking idea to show real human reactions in a reality show. But the effect is extremely disorienting. Near the start of the first episode, Hyori and Sang-soon sit around a dining table, using a handheld camera to find the most unflattering angles to shoot themselves with while also making tea. There are tangled extension cords below their feet, and the haphazard shelves that surround them are filled with thoughtlessly stacked books, unopened mail, and a single sock. The conversation, though, is serious. The couple wonder if the show will slow down the tide of trespasser fans, who’ve attempted to break in over the years to catch a glimpse of the publicity-shy couple. “Maybe people will stop ringing our bell after this,” Hyori muses, but then stops. “It could get worse…”
If this was any other reality show, there would be an emotional escalation after this: a hysterical insistence of owed privacy, unhinged fans, and the cost of fame — lots of emphatic nodding by sympathetic, not-quite-paying-attention third parties included. Instead, Hyori and her husband break into chuckles. It’s an absurd situation, after all. Then, they move on; they’ve got shelves to clean and a dining-set to put together.
This scene sold me on the show. I was hooked, and blew through the first season — 14 episodes that were each an hour and fifteen minutes long — and then devoured the second. During quarantine, I find myself turning it on whenever I feel myself getting worked up into Real Housewives-worthy moments of solipsism and rage, which is often. But watching people eagerly and sincerely treating each other with kindness, working to anticipate each other’s needs and desires, and finding joy in other’s happiness and lightness, is more than just soothing. It’s instructive.
When Sang-soon wakes up before Hyori, the two of them having spent the night in the studio because the house is full of guests, he retucks Hyori’s blankets in around her without theatrical flair: when he and Yoon-ha start to make breakfast for the guests, they don’t need to tell each other to be quiet, because they’re already whispering. Instead of sprinting around to claim the biggest rooms, guests who are given a choice of where they’d rather sleep always choose the most inconvenient and uncomfortable beds. The drama — the stuff that warrants music with booming drums, freeze frames, and close-up shots of furrowed brows — only occurs because of random circumstance, like an illness, a blizzard, or when a fish fillet gets stuck to the bottom of a nonstick pan. In this universe, people are the ones who can fix problems. They are only rarely the cause of them.
All of the show’s conflict resolutions are done with such matter-of-factness and sincerity that it’s clear it’s routine. But to think that conscientiousness is a South Korean cultural trait in a way that unhinged narcissism is an American one is unfair and too easy (as South Korea undergoes second waves of infection, headlines point to the same selfish behaviour we see in the States). As usual, it’s the mundane, behind-the-scenes policies and procedures that make a difference. Producers pick guests and characters to create environments that breed the behaviour that’s most valuable to them; politicians plan policy in the same way. Whether a show — or a country — is notable for its harmony or its conflict is a product of human choices.
In recent days, the US TV channel famous for reality TV, Bravo, has fired many of its stars for exhibiting, in private, the same behaviours they have been rewarded for on their shows. Four members of Vanderpump Rules were fired for bullying a Black cast-member; on social media, die-hard fans are turning against the Housewives. Our tolerance for ignorant and self-obsessed antics have decreased. Personally, I find catharsis these days from speaking out against policies and corrupt people, through protests, posts, and phone calls. There is a surfeit of friction that affects us as individuals just by being alive. Caring about our neighbours, knowing how to de-escalate, and paying attention to how our actions — big and small — harm others will become some of this era’s most important social skills.
Hyori and Sang-soon’s fear during the show’s first episode came true. Due to the sheer popularity of the show, the frequency and severity of trespassers forced them to sell their house, and move. According to Young, there are no plans to film another season, especially as the pandemic has made bed and breakfasts themselves irresponsible. “But if we have the chance, and if the international situation improves, we hope we can open a bed-and-breakfast in a better and different way,” acknowledged Young. “It would be an honour to be able to do a new season.”
Until a vaccine, the reality shows being filmed right now will continue to be on our phones. But for every Amy Cooper, Florida Walmart man, and Bebe woman caught on tape, there are dozens others who, out of the limelight, are working to keep us healthy, comfortable, and taken care of. If the trope of the table-flipping reality show star defined our last decade, it’s possible that the next will show her setting tables instead.
In its early days, reality TV was an easily mocked amusement that “serious” people talked about in hushed tones. Today, it’s an Emmy-awarded genre in its own right, and perhaps the most important and relevant form of entertainment in a world where we document and distribute every moment of our lives in high definition. But now, against the backdrop of anxiety-inducing headlines and societal upheaval, the previously low-stakes genre provides welcome relief (See: Hyori's Bed & Breakfast ), cultural commentary (see: Survivor ) and an examination into how the country got here (see: Vanderpump Rules). In 2020, there’s truly no escape from reality, whether it is playing out on our screens or outside our door.