In The Age of Constant Consumerism, What Is Our Obsession With Trashy TV?

Media consumption and cancel culture share one trait, viewer vs. spectacle. When you engage in viewership, no matter what kind of media you consume, you build a wall between yourself and the entertainment. Whether this decision is conscious or an unknowing invention of your subconscious, everyone who consumes media falls guilty of observing a spectacle.

Say you’re streaming a well-crafted docuseries like The Girl from Plainville or a saucy reality TV show like Love Island, you subject yourself to viewing the characters as others. Sometimes a show so riveting comes along that you envision yourself in the picture, but once the credits roll, you know the story doesn’t reflect your life.

So, you continue with your day-to-day activities while awaiting the next episode. The show might stick with you for a bit. You daydream how you would react in a live-action version of The Handmaid’s Tale, or you imagine yourself as a real estate agent on Selling Sunset. Still, even if that Truman Show sensation holds firm, you know real life differs from these fictional, exaggerated, and scripted occurrences.

Some consumers claim to stick to a diet of higher-quality media, but what about those streamers who splurge with reality TV? What makes someone subject themselves to raunchy, poorly-written, trashy TV?

Hate-watching vs. Guilty Pleasures

Emily Nussbaum, a New Yorker reporter who published a piece entitled “Hate-Watching Smash,” allegedly became the first person to use the phrase hate-watching, watching something to micro-analyze, dissect, and fuel hatred. However, the origins of the rage-fueled activity extend further back than those ten years.

Entertainment spectators have dissected performers and media for centuries. Jonathan Richardson is the first reported art critic spanning back to 1719. Following his legacy, criticism developed into a popular and (at times) esteemed career path.

Guilty pleasures refer to acknowledging the scale of terrible media but reveling anyway. Turning on a show so bad it’s good you lose yourself in the antics of the appalling writing and grating characters.

Today, criticism dominates daily life. Twitter users scroll feeds for the latest “dirt” on celebrity life. People find plot holes in streaming media, report those findings to social media, and friends share chats about the latest awful show or song, also confiding how addictive the program is.

So what makes trashy TV all the more alluring?

I Can Never See Myself Doing Those Things, so I’ll Watch Someone Else Do Them

The premise of reality TV is quite simple. Broken into two categories, people either participate in a contest for a grand prize to showcase their talent, or the shows focus on personalities that seem concocted out of a writer’s room asking for the worst, two-dimensional characters to navigate daily life and try to survive despite challenges

Maria Mendia, a fan of reality TV, shared her thoughts on the genre.

“I think the reason it’s good is because of how trashy it is because I could never see myself doing any of the things those people do. That’s what makes it so addicting.” Mendia said.

This idea of separating the viewer from the spectacle allows us to judge and critique, hate-watch if you will, easier.

Since we do not have a solid connection to the characters or the plot, other than seeing what drastic event they carry out next, we are quick to judge them and close the door to understanding.

Character depictions on reality TV tend to flock to two-dimensional, shallow portraits of people, allowing for mindless viewing and exemplifying the idea that trashy TV is similar to watching your least favorite family members, causing pandemonium at a family reunion. It is so ridiculous you can’t look away.

Shows like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad earn viewers’ respect by introducing fleshed-out and complicated characters. We can see ourselves in these three-dimensional illustrations.

Take a Step Back From Real Life

Reality has roots in the word “real,” but almost all reality programs stray from the truth. A counselor from Los Angeles, Kim Stewart, said reality TV is enjoyable because “It usually makes you feel better by comparison. Sometimes it’s so outlandish, and out of the norm you can almost escape your life for absurdity.”

Reality TV always has high ratings, hence why ABC renewed The Bachelor for the 27th season. And when the pandemic hit, viewers tuned to reality TV for comfort. An article published on NME reported Tiger King became the “most-watched title on Netflix for the longest period of time, holding the top spot for 15 days.”

Tiger King dropped amidst lockdown on March 20, 2020, amusing viewers with tales of an eccentric, exotic animal owner and a woman who may or may not have killed her husband.

This program, and others of the like, permitted us to zero in on a life that is not representative of our own, one not confined to staying home, chatting with friends over Zoom, or going to the grocery store with face shields and gloves on.

Instead, as Stewart said, the outlandish nature of Tiger King let us escape from the daunting realities of the pandemic. Reality TV ratings remained high even when governments lifted or lightened pandemic restrictions, but some people chose to stay home and continue to delve into the saucy, formulaic programs.

Comfort Formula

In addition to disengaging from the hardships produced by the pandemic and the reeling aftermath of lockdown, reality TV serves as a retreat into a formulaic output of brash behavior and bawdy distractions.

If you experience something traumatic, say a loss of a loved one, reality TV offers an oasis.

By nature, trashy TV survives by removing the hardship from life. If you're mourning a death, you might struggle to watch emotional programs such as This is Us, a familial, tragic account of interconnected lives. Tuning into Snowflake Mountain, a Netflix original reality program about young adults surviving without technology or pampering, distracts you from the loss. Plus, watching TV can elevate your mood.

When you tune into a reality TV program, you either see the same two-dimensional, chaotic characters living their lives or individuals competing in a contest, judges judge them, and the audience boos performers off the stage. Through this spectacle, viewers can make mockeries of people they otherwise don’t know to exist.

Another comforting element of reality TV is the lack of commitment involved. Have you ever read rave reviews for a show but neglected to watch it because of its length? Due to the formulaic and predictable plot layouts of reality TV, you can jump in during the 13th season and share the same viewing experience as someone who watched the show from the pilot.

What Does Reality TV’s Popularity Say About Us as a Society?

Is our society’s fascination with reality TV more complicated? Could it be that, as a society, we like witnessing others struggle, immersing ourselves in a twisted game of hate-watching? Depending on the show, the fewer character dimensions, the easier to watch the struggle.

Watching the single father with 11 kids attempt to raise a family hurts more than seeing those on Too Hot To Handle search for a partner.

So why do we religiously view reality programs?

Two kinds of news flood daily roundups today: Cancel culture and gruesome violence. At the same time a celebrity said something offensive on camera, someone else committed a violent act against a community.

Depictions of both kinds of content fill user interfaces of streaming platforms today, but with all the bad news in the world, reality TV provides a reprieve from our strident reality. I would say viewers would rather devote their time to portrayals of people likely of cancellation than actors portraying violence.

This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.