1. Surprise visitors!
It’s late in the season on Archetypal Reality Competition Show, and a bunch of contestants have gone home, leaving more time to fill with fewer cast members, who are all starting to get a little annoying—time to inject some pathos! Enter a bunch of long-lost family members whom the contestants haven’t seen for upward of three weeks. Moms are the go-to for teary onscreen reunions; babies are good too, if you got ’em. Significant others are acceptable, especially if they’re willing to, say, propose marriage, as Natalie Martinez’s boyfriend did during the 11th season of Big Brother. Beyond that, though, heartstring-pulling reunions can quickly morph into pity parties, such as when Richard Blais had no one to stand for him during this season’s Top Chef finale other than a random uncle.
2. The teary phone call home
If you’re on a reality competition show and a producer hands you a Samsung/Nokia/LG-brand video-equipped cell phone and tells you to call home (while trying to keep the logo in the shot), you might as well pack your bags. Ostensibly, that fleeting glimpse of your wife or newborn might buoy you through the next challenge, reminding you why you’re doing this or whatever; really, it’s the kiss of death. You dare care about anything more than you care about winning this reality competition? Off you go! If you’re on a non-competitive reality show, such as The Real World or Jersey Shore, teary calls home are generally less fraught with peril, and can be a good way to generate camera time and maybe even a little audience sympathy, if you can keep from being a whiny brat.
3. The black-and-white instant memory
What does a second-rate Deadliest Catch knockoff do when it has half an hour to fill, but only one YouTube clip’s worth of honest-to-goodness action? It plays that precious clip over and over, ostensibly to recap the proceedings for viewers. (You know, because the plot threads on Ax Men are so hard to follow.) So if you weren’t paying attention when the hubristic trucker on Swamp Loggers sort of got his back tire stuck in a ditch, don’t worry, you’ll see that pulse-pounding drama again. Except the second time—and every time after that—it will be played in slow-motion black-and-white. The desaturated color instantly ages the clip and applies an ersatz fog of memory, as if the producers are asking, “Hey, do you remember this? Do you remember when the Ray Bans-wearing asshole on this episode of Storage Wars paid a hundred bucks for that locker full of pajamas and old textbooks?” And yeah, we do remember it, because it happened four minutes ago.
4. The “He sure do talk funny!” montage
One of the difficulties faced by reality-show creators is that they are often forced to cast people who do not speak with the comforting Middle American accent long favored by network suits, and therefore, by the viewing public. To avoid terrifying their audiences, producers will single out the different-talking cast member—usually the token Southern guy—for a wacky montage of his zaniest utterances. The key is to intercut the non-standard dialogue with shots of other cast members looking baffled, thus reassuring everyone at home that it’s okay to be confused when J.T. on Survivor says he’s “fixin’ to make a move on all y’all.” (“Fixing”? Isn’t that what the nice man at the garage does to our Chrysler minivan?) Project Runway goes to the funny-talk well as much as any show, and while the bizarre affectations of fashion designers make some of these amusing, they mostly tend toward the moronic, like a sequence in which Tim Gunn is mocked for using such supposedly bizarre words as “ambivalent” and “consternation.” Literacy is hilarious!
5. The ouroboros moment
A staple of cast-reunion episodes, the ouroboros moment occurs when cast members are made to watch goofy clip montages of themselves while also remaining on camera. Trapped in a little picture-in-picture prison in the corner of the screen, that hapless Big Brother contestant has no choice but to smile and laugh as his or her most idiotic, sleep-deprived antics are replayed. Even by the standards of the genre, this setup is exceedingly awkward. It’s bad enough that the cast members are forced to consume their lowlights, akin to a dog’s face being forced into its own mess. But worse yet, they’re expected to offer a nonchalant quip once the tape stops rolling, simultaneously consuming and producing their fake TV character in the same breath.
6. The photo shoot
A high-end photo shoot always seems like it should make for a brilliant setpiece. Bright lights, a professional photographer, expensive hair and makeup: It all says “glamour.” But what’s glamorous on the page doesn’t necessarily look like much on the screen, and on TV, photo shoots play out as what they really are: a bunch of people standing around watching someone try to keep still. Given that reality television is all about people posing and preening for the cameras to begin with, it feels redundant to make the cast members do the same thing in a tamer, more structured setting. Plus, photo-shoot scenes tend to get further bogged down with lame post-production elements, like freeze-frames and fake camera-shutter sound effects. It’s telling that in this studio session from The Celebrity Apprentice, the most gripping moment is Darryl Strawberry calling to order a couple of pizzas.
7. That new-car smell
A momentary bout of staged excitement may be enough when somebody wins a new HP tablet computer or a gift certificate to Kohl’s, but when new cars are being given away, the sponsor demands a little extra love. The result is that odd kabuki in which the contestant and/or host spends 15 seconds in quiet admiration of a shiny new motor vehicle. The sequence varies, but the steps are the same: Fondle the exterior, let out a low whistle, slip into the driver’s seat, and grunt as if experiencing a respectful, discreet orgasm. For those allowed to actually drive the vehicle, it’s advisable to smile placidly or look outside with mouth agape—as if the car is making one see the world anew—all while remarking on the smooth ride. In one episode last year, Bravo’s Work Of Art took new-car smell to such a degree that contestants were instructed to make art inspired by their Audi experience when they were done. (If only Manet had owned an R8, imagine what he could have created.) But the gold standard for new-car-smell cheesiness is an episode from Survivor’s second season, in which Colby Donaldson asked audiences to believe that his new Pontiac Aztek, the homeliest car to come out of Detroit since the Edsel, was “way cooler” than he had imagined.
8. “You haven’t seen the last of me!”
It’s the final refuge of a failed reality-show contestant: “The judges were wrong,” they declare in their final on-camera moments, “and I’ll prove it with my dazzling success.” In other words, “You haven’t seen the last of me!” Sometimes delivered in anger, and sometimes in self-consolation, these proclamations carry a shred of truth: The judging on your average competition show is as capricious as anything, and contestants would be foolish to take it at face value. But hey, eighth-place finisher on Shear Genius, let’s get real: While we admire your moxie, we probably have indeed seen the last of you, and once the credits roll, we’ll never think of you again. So when the latest member of the American Idol reject pile spends five minutes ranting about her imminent superstardom, it only serves as a reminder that reality TV fuels more delusions than dreams.
9. Makeover meltdown
Why, why would a girl audition for America’s Next Top Model (or any superficiality-based reality TV show) if she can’t handle the possibility that her hair will get changed? It happens every season: a girl gets her hair cut, her weave taken out, or a new weave put in, and she sobs and keens as if she never thought this could happen, and she’ll be stuck like this forever. Come on, girls, get it together: as Project Runway’s Santino Rice once famously said, “It’s just fashion.”
Occasionally, a meeting with a show mentor can be fruitful for reality-show contestants (such as when Tim Gunn expresses concern that a Project Runway design is a “lot of look”). But most of the time, the meetings seem useless, such as when Tyra Banks checks in with the contestants on America’s Next Top Model to lend them her valuable advice on how to be on a reality-TV competition while simultaneously stumping for how great it is to be Tyra Banks. This reality-show cliché was later cleverly mocked on RuPaul’s Drag Race, when the host sat down to “lunch” with each of the contestants, and the meal consisted of a single Tic-Tac.
The phrase “If you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” doesn’t apply to reality TV. In fact, quite the opposite. Reality shows would be nothing without drama, and sometimes it’s of the just-add-water variety. Often, it only takes a few seconds with a fellow contestant for a reality-show cast member to decide that this brand-new acquaintance is so odious, she feels okay sharing this information with her other new acquaintances, including the camera. Just once, we'd like to hear a contestant say, “So-and-so made a bad impression on me… but maybe she was just having an off day. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. We were all so tired and drunk yesterday, anyway.”
12. Fabulous prizes
Reality-show contestants know what they’ll gain if they win the show—that’s why they signed up, after all, to win the chance to get an internship at a magazine, or a modeling contract, or the chance to swallow Bret Michaels’ sperm. But the audience at home might forget for a moment who the show’s sponsors are, which is why the prizes are re-announced every episode, with careful cuts to the contestants looking as excited as if they were hearing this news for the first time.
13. Shakily filmed fisticuffs
The complaint here is simply a matter of camerawork. On certain shows (Real World, Bad Girls Club, Jersey Shore, a hundred more), physical altercations are expected, if not encouraged. How is it that we can send a man to the moon, yet reality-TV cameramen haven’t mastered the art of filming a fight without making it look like amateur cell-phone footage? Would it be so hard to learn how to film a fight artfully? Perhaps the “handheld” look is supposed to contribute to the cinéma vérité of it all, but once you’ve seen one fight on reality TV, you’ve seen them all.
14. Pretend enthusiasm
While the genre isn’t known for its politeness, TV competitions do an unusually good job of coaching their contestants to be gracious—though reality stars aren’t the same as actors, and sometimes their enthusiasm isn’t entirely convincing. But the Top Chef contestants do their best to act super-excited about winning a cookbook after acing a Quickfire challenge, even though any old person in the world can acquire a cookbook. On RuPaul’s Drag Race, meanwhile, the contestants must pull out their best “Oooohs” and “Aaaahs” for a motley crew of judges, not all of whom are necessarily gay icons. See: their polite applause when RuPaul announces that their guest judge will be the star of Caprica.
15. The hot-tub tryst
There are no reliable statistics on the exact origins of this time-honored trope. Over nearly two decades of reality programming, one thing has remained consistent: Exhibitionists just can’t resist the siren call of a Jacuzzi jet. The trend, which took off in the mid-to-late-’90s with shows like Blind Date and The Real World: Hawaii, reached its apotheosis with Jersey Shore. Where many of us might see a fetid pool of incubating microbes, reality-show producers see an aphrodisiac with a molded fiberglass shell and imitation cedar cabinet. Also, please note that hot-tub hook-ups tend toward reckless extremes. The bi-curious, commitment-phobic, and spectacularly inebriated are welcome; long-term, stable couples need not apply.
16. The oh-so-casual get-together
When you’re producing a reality show about people who are supposed to be friends, but are actually complete strangers—if not mortal enemies—one of the more persistent challenges is simply getting your cast in the same room. Luckily, reality-television stars like those found in Bravo’s Real Housewives Of… nebula are fueled by a desperate, gnawing need for attention that outweighs such quotidian concerns as social comfort—all that’s needed is a staged social setting. First, a cast member “decides” to throw some kind of party—say, a tequila tasting to benefit her favorite charity, Operation Cleft Palate. (Note: It helps sweeten the pot if there’s almost some self-promotional element.) The hostess invites her closest frenemies via speakerphone, and casually explains, “I just thought it would be nice to get the girls together.” (Translation: “The producers really want us to throw alcohol in each other’s faces, or we won’t get picked up for season three.”) Just before the event begins, the hostess expresses her earnest hope of avoiding “drama.” Predictably, the gathering descends into a drunken catfight, and the housewives refuse to talk to each other—at least until next week, when the ladies take a totally spontaneous trip to Cabo.
17. The confidence-building exercise
America’s reality-television producers are, if nothing else, enthusiastic proponents of pop psychology. Watch a few episodes of Made or The Millionaire Matchmaker, and one might conclude that practically any personal demon can be diagnosed and dispatched in 42 minutes of television. That suburban band geek who wants to be prom queen? She could do it, if only she’d accept that she is beautiful inside and out. That 32-year-old Ivy League graduate who’s never had a real relationship? All his mom’s fault. Unfortunately, intensive therapy is expensive and boring to watch, so reality producers instead rely on contrived stunts designed to “heal” their subjects of their easily diagnosed disorders. Who knew belly-dancing lessons could be so, like, cathartic?
18. “I’m not here to make friends.”
“I’m not here to make friends” is so omnipresent in the reality-show universe, it’s moved beyond the realm of cliché and is now woven into the very fabric of the genre. Hell, it even warranted its own This American Life story chronicling the efforts of blogger Rich Juzwiak, the Internet’s premier archivist of the phenomenon. Saying we never want to hear “I’m not here to make friends” again would be like saying we never want to watch a reality competition again, but no list of reality-show clichés would be complete without it.