My Reality TV Habit Isn’t Trashy — It’s Complicated

I first visited the reality world in earnest back in 2013, when I accidentally joined Bachelor Nation. A then-coworker of mine, whose group of friends also hosted a monthly book club I desperately wanted to join, invited me over for wine, pizza, and the premiere of Desiree Hartsock’s season of The Bachelorette. I was, unlike many a Bachelor villain, literally there to make friends. The episode’s many limo entrances were insultingly silly, the manipulation of the cast by producers was blatant, and there wasn’t a second in which I believed that this woman was on her way to true love (the egg is most certainly on my face now — Hartsock and her winner are still happily married).

Despite it all, I was hooked. There was a ritual to this show, from the food and drink to the hurried debates between commercial breaks, to the Tuesday morning debrief by the office coffee maker and accompanying lively group texts. By the time Hartsock was being dumped by textbook fuckboy Brooks Forester during the finale, I was hosting my own viewing party and inviting new inductees to the reality world. I never got invited to that coveted book club, but I did walk away with a newfound hobby turned career move. 
Jump forward a few years, and I’ve written and edited more stories about The Bachelor than I can count: I literally make my living — at least partially — off my devotion to reality TV. In addition to watching The Bachelor weekly and covering the show from all angles — from daily gossip to in-depth criticism — I also co-produced and co-hosted a Bachelor podcast for two years. The now-defunct Will You Accept This Podcast? featured weekly interviews with the series’ biggest stars, from Bachelor Nick Viall to polarizing contestants like Olivia Caridi, which means I am also responsible for some of the gossip coming out of Chris Harrison’s Drama Factory. And most importantly, I know the rush of finding a new reality show and getting to know the audience that so dearly loves it. 
I’m still positive I’m not the only person who’s seen every episode of Bachelor In Paradise and feels like they need a cold shower afterwards. For many of us, the only way to dive into a reality show is with many, many grains of salt. Despite the viewpoints of anti-reality TV types (see: every guy who’s asked me to justify my habit on a first date), watching these shows doesn’t betray an underlying lack of intelligence or a willful ignorance of the (actual) real world. 
Like many people who’ve resisted the siren’s song of reality TV, I once thought the genre was pure garbage — nothing but an endless loop of fabricated fights, all aimed at exploiting real people’s (more often women’s) emotions in service of a volatile narrative for callous viewers to gawk at. It’s possible that at one time that’s all reality TV was, but now it’s a little more complicated. Calling this pulsating, mutating world of human fascination mere “trash” is unfair, if only because that designation is subjectively just one facet of that world. 
Reality stars have become household names; the genre continually splinters into hyper-specific sub-genres (“sweet, feel-good reality competition” was an unexpected addition); and even This American Life wants to know what makes the reality machine run. Decades of articles begging us to stop watching for fear of everything from increased body dysmorphia to brain rot haven’t stopped us; reality TV is a cultural inevitability. 
I’m constantly jumping down a rabbit hole of ethical, moral, and emotional dilemmas about the thousands of minutes I’ve spent watching reality stars throw manufactured bon mots at each other in straight-to-the-camera confessionals. Every time I let myself really think about this world, I wind up sitting in a vat of self-judgement, wondering how I can reconcile a love of these ridiculous shows and genuine care and concern for the real world they undoubtedly affect. While the appeal of reality TV is kicking back, relaxing, and giving zero fucks, it’s not actually that easy. There is nothing simple about any of this.  
Kelsey Weir brought a bottle of Dom Perignon, which she had saved for years, to Peter Weber’s 2020 season of The Bachelor. On night 2, Weir was a victim of Champagne thievery when another contestant opened that bottle. But when that story no longer served producers, she became a mean girl via a time-honored villain edit. It was short-lived: A mere three episodes later, she became the victim again, preyed upon by Tammy Ly, who claimed Weir was an alcoholic. This kind of frenetic storytelling is often the result of manipulation; reality TV producers setting dominoes up for the cast to knock down for viewers’ amusement. But there was a real victim: Ly, who started the season as the voice of reason only to become the poster child for Bachelor villany, would later be sent death threats and racist emails by fans who took the edit as gospel. 
Photo: Francisco Roman/Getty Images.
Kelsey Weir, Victoria Paul, & Tammy Ly On 'The Bachelor.'
It’s TV magic like this that makes one’s reality habit hard to grapple with. To watch The Bachelor, participate in lively Twitter discussions, and, in my case, publish articles about it all, is to tacitly endorse the whole machine. Yes, the fandom includes many thoughtful, caring people, but it also includes viewers who take a villain edit at face value and write vicious messages to someone whose only real crime is giving a producer footage that could be stitched into a nefarious storyline. 
Even supporting Bravo’s decision to fire Stassi Schroeder from Vanderpump Rules over her past racist actions means acknowledging what our support has done to mute or bury her very publicly available past (Schroder issued an apology on her Instagram, as did her accomplice Kristen Doute). Who’s digging for an old podcast episode when a doe-eyed, bombastic Bravolebrity is getting engaged in Hollywood Forever Cemetery? Many fans quickly forgot that time she called an outfit  “Nazi chic,” and even for those who didn’t, Schroeder often got a pass because being VPR’s resident mean girl was her schtick. 
I’ve never found it easy to fully justify enjoying the ridiculousness of a show like Vanderpump Rules (or Below Deck… or Selling Sunset), but it’s another matter entirely to wonder if that VPR group text with my former coworkers was worth also being a support beam in the platform of a fairly toxic reality star. 
Because of the distorted prism through which we receive reality entertainment, we only know the parts of reality stars’ stories that make good television. We can’t comfortably hail them as heroes (no matter how many hell yeah moments they give us), and even most of the dastardly ones aren’t the villains they appear to be. Yet, the genre thrives on being able to convince us that a 25-year-old house flipper from Syracuse getting caught in an argument on the Bachelor is her whole story. And once you allow yourself to process that the genre is a moral minefield whose very survival depends on viewers taking the bait, you start to reconsider sending a harsh tweet about that house flipper when you don’t like a face she makes in a pre-taped (see: heavily edited) Women Tell All special. And then you find yourself where I am: Questioning your place in this reality TV universe.
But the truth is, everything from Real Housewives and 90 Day Fiancé to Storage Wars, to Bachelor Nation’s myriad offerings, and The Great British Baking Show carry the potential danger of fans falling for reality stars’ on screen characters — even when we know better. 
In early 2020, 90 Day Fiancé was pulling in 3 million viewers an episode while other cable series floundered. In 2019, 10,000 Bravo fans paid upwards of $299 a ticket to attend BravoCon in New York — an event that boasted the attendance of 88 Bravolebrities, including 36 Real Housewives. And depending on the season, the average Bachelor series can bring anywhere from 7 to 12 million viewers per episode. For reference, that means The Bachelor draws a bigger audience than even The Masked Singer, another hit reality show that brings in 5 to 7 million viewers an episode. Reality TV is woven into the fabric of American culture, for better or worse. 
Photo: Karlolina Wojtasik/Bravo/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images.
Stassi Schroeder and the cast of 'Vanderpump Rules' on stage at Bravocon 2019.
Yet we’ve all heard the little voice that tells us it’d probably be healthier to pick up a new book instead of starting a Below Deck marathon. Many of us watch RuPaul’s Drag Race while also demanding to know the truth about RuPaul Charles’ Wyoming ranch, where it’s possible he may be allowing fracking — a theory fueled by Charles’ own comments on a 2020 episode of Fresh Air. We are aware that The Bachelor finally hiring a Black lead did not fix racism, and that the franchise has years of work to do if it actually wants to stamp out the racial biases it perpetuates. We also know that our disaster of a president, a one-time star of The Apprentice, could only get the attention of a nation trained to follow the splashy twists and turns of a reality TV storyline. 
But let's be real: Quitting reality TV would mean giving up conversations with friends, weekly rituals, and the perfect accompaniment to a winding down from a day at work with a glass of rosé. It’s my job to cover these shows, but they’re also fully stitched into my social life. Watching The Bachelor helps me stay in touch with one of the best friends I left back in New York after moving to Los Angeles. My Fridays are reserved for RuPaul’s Drag Race — either I watch it on time or episodes are spoiled by my sister-in-law’s usual Saturday morning texts. I’ve even been known to spend an entire Saturday night with my boyfriend dissecting the production of a show like Netflix’s The Great Flower Fight, a Great British Baking Show-inspired series that forgot the original’s greatest appeal: unrelenting kindness. 
We’re all in too deep to quit at this point, but loving reality TV and calling bullshit on it are not mutually exclusive activities.
Documentarian Werner Herzog recently explained why he, of all people, felt obligated to watch his chosen reality show, Keeping Up With The Kardashians, telling Variety, “You have to know what a good amount of the population is watching. Do not underestimate the Kardashians. As vulgar as they may be, it doesn’t matter that much, but you have to find some sort of orientation. As I always say, the poet must not close his eyes, must not avert them.”
I’m not saying any of us are coming at this from the lens of a prolific filmmaker whose documentaries aim to capture the human experience, but if Werner Herzog can find meaning in a seemingly mindless reality show, trust that there is meaning to be found. 
“A good amount of the population” resides in Bachelor Nation, to the tune of about 8 million viewers an episode. It’s why social progress on the show, from hiring a Black lead to giving survivors of sexual assault a platform, actually matters. For every one of us who was practically screaming “It’s about damn time!” when Bachelor in Paradise finally included a LGBTQ+ couple in its 2019 cast — the absolute least the show could do — there were just as many fans of the show who were shocked by that inclusion. For everyone who supported Hannah Brown or Kaitlyn Bristowe speaking up about sex on The Bachelorette, there is a faction of fans that shamed them publicly and brutally. It might be easier to dismiss any one of these shows as empty fluff, but to ignore that Bachelor Nation is genuinely a reflection of our actual nation — and its numerous perspectives and faults — is to lie to ourselves. Once you’ve accepted that reality TV is a window into America’s soul, you have a leg to stand on when you ask that the window get an occasional scrubbing. 
At least that’s what I’ll tell myself next time I have a reality TV-induced existential crisis. 
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.

More from TV

R29 Original Series