I watch a lot of reality TV. I refuse to call it a "guilty pleasure" because I hate that term. Why should I feel guilty about pleasures that merely lack social approval?
Though, to be honest, I think reality TV can often be quite morally problematic, so, perhaps, in some cases, the phrase aptly fits. Though I'm interested in the moral problems with reality TV, that's not my main focus here (I have already brought up some of those issues when I discussed the fictional TV show about reality TV, Unreal (here), also see Mona Rocha's take on HGTV (here)).
Here I'm concentrating on a facet of reality TV and documentaries that bugs me. What I have in mind is the way in which the televising of the reality necessarily distorts the reality without any acknowledgement of that distortion. Let me explain.
So, when I'm watching the Real Housewives of the San Joaquin Valley (wait, maybe they haven't gotten to that one yet, but you get the point -- and I'm sure they will eventually...), I'm not watching them as if they weren't on a TV show. It is constitutive of who they are on the show that they are on the show. Even if we pretend, for the sake of argument, that they do not change purposely in this fashion (that reality stars do not think about what it means [or are told] to be a reality star and attempt to approximate that [such as by fighting A LOT over small things]), they cannot help but to change because they are on TV.
This is especially true once they become famous: the real housewives exist as famous housewives in a way that they did not exist prior to the show. The effects of their fame is going to relate to their personalities, their circumstances, and their opportunities (many of these shows will involve reality stars getting business opportunities or other kinds of benefits that we know exist precisely because they have this reality fame). But, of course, it is true as soon as the camera turns on: the camera's effect is glaring as we can easily imagine if we picture our routine day suddenly becoming televised for millions to view later.
While the change is completely obvious, the shows almost always hide it. Sure, they'll show some reality character who suddenly got a big deal to sell ugly coffee mugs,* and they'll show the ugly mugs. They will even show how excited the company giving the deal is to make the deal to sell the ugly mugs right there on TV. But they will never allow anyone to say, "Sure, but you only got that deal because you are on this reality TV show. "
*I purposely chose mugs because I have no memory of any coffee mug deal in particular.
In fact, for most of the reality TV shows I've watched, the fact of being on a reality TV show has pretty much never been mentioned. Maybe it comes up in reunion shows, but otherwise, the characters do their best to pretend that they are not on a reality TV show and/or the editors take out any explicit reference to the show as a show.
Having said all that, when I watched Last Chance U on Netflix (significant spoilers to come), I had two thoughts: (a) this is a fantastic show and everyone should check it out, and (b) the fact that the show is televised created a good bit of the trouble that occurs in the show, which is unfortunate but impossible to avoid.
So, just briefly, the show follows a community college football team that is loaded with extremely talented players who, for various reasons, are not currently playing football in Division 1 universities.
What's great about the show is that you really get a great sense of the humanity of the people around the players and of the players themselves. The academic advisor, Brittany Wagner, almost steals the series. She works so hard at her job, that you really understand why the players both hate her and love her.
But, I say almost because the players really are the heart of the show. As you watch the show, you really see the complexity of the lives and the depth of the heart of players like Ronald Ollie, DJ Law, and the two QBs, John Franklin III and Wyatt Roberts.
Having said all that, the show turns quite ugly, especially as players on other teams, who we know nothing about, start to turn aggressively violent against the Last Chance U team.
Yet, importantly, this all makes sense. You see, part of college football is the idea that you prove yourself in large part by running up the score. It isn't good enough to beat an inferior team 21-6, because the voters who decide the playoffs or the championship game, want to see impressive scores. So, the goal is to score 65 or 81 points, or whatever, against a team that long ago gave up when they were down by 21 or 28.
But that can't be good to have happen on television. That is, if you are the team that knows you cannot compete with this team of future college stars and potential NFL players, it is one thing to lose by 70 points in a regular year, but you sure as hell do not want to lose by 70 points when it is going to be sent around the country for everyone to see.
Just to be clear, my point is not to excuse the violence or blame the documentary makers. But, just to point out that the TV series plays a role in things turning violent. Not every casual role is a blameworthy one. It is unavoidable that broadcasting this shame is going to stir up some intense feelings of those who feel the shame. Of course, they should not act on those feelings, and it would be great if the players on the show failed to respond.
There can though be good in the show in spite of the violence it shows. Perhaps it also plays a role in us learning more about problems in college football, both related to this violence and otherwise. It certainly pinpoints how horrible the practice of expecting teams to run up the score is. It may also make us think harder about what football teaches us and why we should work even more diligently with football to ensure its practices are respectful and not productive of the kind of shame that easily translates into violence.
And, of course, it is important to acknowledge the role TV plays to understand that good people may do bad things in part because the fact of it being televised changes everything.