Lifetime’s reality series Dance Moms draws more than 2 million viewers a week, making it one of the most-watched shows of its kind on basic cable. Here’s what happens in a typical episode: Brash dance coach Abby Lee Miller yells at a bunch of teary-eyed preteen and teenage girls; the girls’ parents snipe and gossip behind each other’s backs; the dance routines border on the inappropriate; and the audience gets the sense that all of these people’s priorities are out of whack. Like so many other cable reality shows right now, Dance Moms is steeped in schadenfreude, allowing viewers the opportunity to spend an hour cackling at colorful characters who’ve made some weird choices. And there’s nothing wrong with this, necessarily. That particular kind of emotional response to a piece of entertainment—feeling morally superior to jerks and nimrods—can be cathartic, not unlike the feeling of watching a good comedy or tearjerker. What’s most morally questionable about Dance Moms is that Miller, her students, and their moms are real people, not fictional characters.
Or are they?
Anyone who watches any amount of reality television grows accustomed to artificiality. We know the situations are contrived, sometimes blatantly—as on Big Brother, where strangers share a tricked-out house provided by CBS—and sometimes more subtly, as on the various Real Housewives, where acquaintances are coaxed off-screen into generating drama. And we know that the shows have been edited to maximize that drama, sometimes conjuring conflict out of reaction shots and ominous music rather than anything that actually happened. Most of all, we know that these shows are populated by people willing to trade a certain amount of privacy and dignity for money and fame, which means the shows don’t reflect the lives of ordinary people, but rather the lives of wannabe celebrities.
In various interviews, Dance Moms doyenne Miller has admitted to some of the ways her show is deceptive. Talking with the website Reality TV World in October of 2011, Miller said that the show’s production company, Collins Avenue Entertainment, chose the parents and kids depicted in her main class. She added that many of her other students and their parents are sweet-natured, and get along well with her, but that Dance Moms never includes any of that. And in a July 2011 interview with TV Guide, Miller confessed that her rather cruel system of publicly ranking students from week to week was the show’s idea, not something she’d ever done before, and that it’s “insane” that she’s asked by Dance Moms to train kids for competitions in a week or less, which is something else she wouldn’t usually do. In short: According to its star, Dance Moms’ depiction of what it’s like to train dedicated young dancers for competitions shows almost nothing that’s true about actual training, actual competitions, or even actual young dancers.
Again, though, this isn’t all that unusual for a reality series, and nothing that people who watch these kinds of shows don’t suspect—or even demand. (Knowing that Dance Moms is significantly faked makes it feel slightly less problematic to be entertained by watching 12-year-olds cry.) Yet there’s no reason why a minimally manipulated, verité-style docu-series about young dancers couldn’t be even more entertaining, and even enlightening. Instead, we get Dance Moms. And we get The CW’s summer series Breaking Pointe, which forced the real lives of a Salt Lake City ballet company into the mold of MTV’s The Hills—complete with awkwardly expository, apparently half-scripted conversations.
Some folks wave off all reality television as junk, but that’s shortsighted. Most reality TV falls into the category of either “slice of life” or “competition,” and both of those have a lot in common with two perfectly respectable genres: the documentary and the game show. One of the best-reviewed documentaries in theaters this year is The Queen Of Versailles, about a billionaire family that falls on hard times, and in its broad outline, The Queen Of Versailles isn’t that different from Real Housewives, except that neither the story nor the characters’ reactions feel as forced as they do on Bravo’s hit series. Potentially, a Real Housewives-like show could be as good as The Queen Of Versailles. And occasionally, reality competition shows are as gripping as a good sporting event—or at least as exciting as an especially competitive episode of Jeopardy.
No, the problem with reality TV right now isn’t that the genre itself is irredeemable; it’s that too many producers are using the same formulas and techniques to tell stories, which has led to these shows becoming boring—that is, when they’re not insulting. Granted, “problem” is a relative term when it comes to the entertainment business. It would be hard to persuade Lifetime or Collins Avenue that they’re doing Dance Moms wrong when the ratings say otherwise. Still, the over-familiar editing grammar of reality TV means that it only takes a few minutes for most television devotees to figure out exactly what any new reality show has to offer, and how long it’ll take to get sick of it.
For example, here are a few tropes that reality TV overuses:
1. The villain
Nearly every reality competition show casts someone it knows will be manipulative and rude, and while it’s one thing if conflict develops naturally—as sometimes happens on the better competition series, like Top Chef and The Amazing Race—on too many of these shows the obnoxious contestants roar out of the gate boasting about their skills and running the other competitors down, as they’ve fairly obviously been encouraged by the producers to do. The way that reality TV has turned unapologetic jerks into stars has had some deleterious effects over time. The most recent season of Survivor featured one of the most appalling villains in reality TV history: the openly gay yet openly bigoted Colton Cumble, who left the show due to appendicitis after spending weeks bad-mouthing Asians, “ghetto trash,” and dwarves. In the Survivor: One World reunion special, it was clear that Cumble was a fan of the show, who’d decided he’d have a better chance of getting attention by playing the bad guy. But Cumble took the “man you love to hate” role too far, while the producers happily let him bury himself.
2. The faux-calamity
By now, regular watchers of reality TV know that if something terrible is about to happen right before the commercial break, then more often than not, there’s no need to worry. The editing staffs on reality competition shows have become experts at making blowout races to the finish line look closer than they actually are, and making it look like there’s more than one person in danger of being “voted off” when it’s fairly obvious who’s going home. They also know how to make it look as though a challenge has thoroughly bested a contestant, when in fact he or she is only experiencing a momentary setback. These predictable storytelling beats have also found their way into the slice-of-life reality shows, which frequently introduce trumped-up “problems” into episodes for the sake of a hook. On the debut episode of the E! series Opening Act, for example, music-industry professionals in charge of prepping an amateur to perform a song before a Rod Stewart concert made it seem as though she might have trouble hitting a big note. Of course there was never any real doubt that she’d hit the note on the night of the show; the hand-wringing was just a way to fake suspense.
3. The ridiculous deadline
The Pitch, one of AMC’s recent forays into reality, is in some ways a superior example of the genre. It’s beautifully shot, and in taking a more detached view of the advertising business, The Pitch reveals something about how advertisers think in the 2010s. (Specifically, The Pitch shows advertising companies as obsessed with “going viral,” and overly enamored of crudely suggestive, “edgy” ad copy.) But The Pitch doesn’t just watch advertising agencies go about their business; it also contrives a competition between two different agencies to win a company’s business, giving them only a week to come up with a pitch. The “crazy challenge” aspect does liven up shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, where skilled contestants are set apart from each other by how they handle obstacles. But with The Pitch, the contest gets in the way of the “look behind the scenes” aspects of the show. Every time a show like The Pitch, Craft Wars, or Around The World In 80 Plates gives its contestants tight deadlines and/or wacky materials to use, it calls to mind the Saturday Night Live parody of Top Chef, in which Christopher Walken plays a cook who’s baffled by why he has to make a pizza in 30 minutes using stale Peeps and a paper bag. (“When I cook at home I use whatever stuff I want. … If I was gonna make a pizza I would need an hour. Maybe more. Ideally, there would be no time limit.”)
4. The manufactured plot
At its best, AMC’s other recent reality venture Small Town Security is reminiscent of some of Ross McElwee’s and Errol Morris’ early documentaries, with its even-keeled, non-judgmental look at some decidedly quirky Southerners. But even Small Town Security squeezes its subjects into stories where none need exist. For example, in the first episode of Small Town Security, the head of a Georgia security company “spontaneously” “decides” to try and get back her gig as a public-access talk show host. This actually leads to something unexpected (more on that in a moment), but nevertheless, from the moment the episode starts angling to get its heroine Joan Koplan back into a TV studio, the show loses some of its genuinely unscripted charm and becomes more like a wacky ’70s sitcom, cast with non-professional actors.
5. The “invisible” camera crew
Travel Channel’s Hotel Impossible has also been one of the more entertaining new reality series this year, thanks largely to its host, Anthony Melchiorri, who travels the country showing troubled hoteliers how to save their businesses. As with Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares—the British version anyway, not the crappy Fox version—what’s enjoyable about Hotel Impossible is that it features practical insights into how the hospitality industry should be run, and how well-meaning people make the same mistakes over and over. What’s bothersome about the show, though, is that Melchiorri often walks into hotels pretending to be an ordinary customer, just to see how he gets treated, which would be more believable if we weren’t aware that there are camera people standing behind the front desk and behind Melchiorri, recording everything. We know that the desk clerk is aware of who Melchiorri really is, and why he’s there. Why do so many of these reality shows pretend the cameras don’t exist?
6. The stereotyping
Two of The Amazing Race’s most memorable participants—LaKisha Hoffman and Luke Adams, both from season 14—are openly gay, which was never mentioned during their season, not because The Amazing Race is timid about homosexuality, but because both of the contestants already had their “character.” LaKisha was cast as one of a pair of athletic black sisters, while Luke was there as the courageous deaf son of a hearing mother. This happens again and again, both on the slice-of-life reality shows and the competition shows: Characters get defined in the casting, and then the shows are structured and edited to emphasize the elements that the producers wanted from the start. This is especially annoying on Survivor, where host Jeff Probst shows open disdain for the castaways he determines to be “nerds” or “brains,” while he encourages the ones who are conventionally attractive, arrogant, or spiritual. It’s bad enough that these shows try to reduce people to one or two key traits; they also seem to want to guide the viewers toward specific opinions about people with those traits.
All of the above—not to mention the suspiciously abundant cool old artifacts on the likes of Storage Wars and Picked Off—are examples of reality TV stacking the deck, most likely to get the outcome predetermined in the development process. Of course, there are also scattered examples of shows more willing to let the footage guide the storytelling rather than the other way around. TLC’s On The Fly (essentially a reboot of A&E’s much-missed Airline) follows the travails of Southwest passengers and employees more or less as they actually occurred; and ABC’s NY Med (a sequel to Boston Med and Hopkins) arranges footage gathered at a major metropolitan hospital into short anecdotes and longer stories, and seems to do so after the fact. The aforementioned Small Town Security also mixes its manufactured plots with wonderfully weird scenes of its principals just sitting around talking naturally, not in expository mode. And though Small Town Security is clearly encouraging viewers to gawk at its array of oddballs, the show is also willing to let these oddballs reveal surprising dimensions—as in the first episode, where on Joan Koplan’s talk show her gruff, militaristic second-in-command is revealed to be transgender.
Ultimately, what’s so bothersome about Dance Moms and so much of its ilk is that they aim to confirm biases, not to subvert them. When the Collins Avenue producers selected their exact combination of helicopter moms, and told Abby Lee Miller to be even meaner and more demanding than she naturally is, they aimed to give viewers what they expect from a show called Dance Moms. At its best, reality TV can expose us to people and places we rarely see on television, and can teach us about jobs and hobbies that might otherwise seem closed-off. But then there are the shows that exist merely to say, “Those people that you think are probably terrible? Guess what? They are!” These shows serve a function as guilty pleasures, yes, but do there have to be so many of them? And so little of the better kind?