In politics, the cliché says, power corrupts. In unscripted television, it’s success that corrupts.
The most apparent example of this comes from the company responsible for most of the conventions of televised unscripted drama. In 1992, Bunim/Murray Productions created The Real World, an MTV series that most reality shows borrow elements from regularly: the confessional interviews, rapid-fire establishing shots, and lavishly decorated living spaces, among others.
Over its 18 seasons (the 20th is currently casting, while the 19th is filming in Sydney, Australia), The Real World has devolved into a parody of itself. The cast is lifeless, spring-boarding from high school or college into a reality show that they’ve grown up watching. Thus, instead of 20-somethings contending with their jobs, friends, and futures, we have a cast that’s left to drink, hook up with one another and fight, and they do that endlessly. Occasionally they’ll have conversations, but those are usually about drinking, fighting, or hooking up.
The editors include very little footage of other activities, although apparently not much else happens. Instead of being encouraged to lead their lives, the production seems to encourage that sort of behavior; one of The Real World Denver‘s cast members told the media that the cast was prohibited from attending concerts or baseball games. Of course, they were allowed to go to bars.
The company’s other major series, Road Rules, was the first competitive reality series and a spin-off of The Real World. Before it went on hiatus a few years ago, it began a desperate search for viewers by imitating its imitators. Gross food challenges and unnecessary game twists borrowed from Fear Factor and Survivor corrupted its original spirit and did not fit organically with the format.
The tragic part is that those changes were unnecessary. The first few seasons of both shows were not without drama, conflict, sex, and alcohol. But in an apparent search for increased ratings and cultural relevancy, the show was run into a wall.
This is, sadly, a trend – one that is found far too frequently among the production companies that produce quality, genre-influencing unscripted television shows. Their quality programming isn’t always sustained over time.
Perhaps increased scrutiny from the audience just reveals more of shows’ flaws; during early seasons, viewers and critics are so fascinated and thrilled that they don’t pay attention to the negatives until they’re repeated season after season.
What seems more likely, though, from a critic’s perspective, is that producers get insecure about their own work. They forget – or just don’t know – what an audience loves about their shows, or they overcompensate, working too hard to create the drama that should occur organically.
American Idol, for example, unashamedly and relentlessly increases the humiliation of its contestants every season, both during the audition stages and the later rounds, as if viewers won’t tune in unless producers find yet another way for contestants to suffer as they wait to hear who will be eliminated.
Reality television’s newest golden child, Magical Elves, is also guilty. The company produces Project Runway, among other series, and its classy, smart approach to the trade-focused competitions is increasingly used as a template on Bravo and other networks.
The second season of the company’s Top Chef, however, overemphasized drama among the contestants instead of the food. Many fans were left horrified after one contestant was hazed by others, and the show’s editing obviously but unnecessarily distorted the event in an apparent attempt to maximize its impact.
When unscripted shows are renewed for new seasons, they seem to come back as weaker versions of their former selves, but that’s not the way it has to be. There is always the possibility for change; each new season is, in some ways, a blank canvas. Bunim/Murray recently announced that for the 20th season of The Real World, they are ‘searching for cast members with career and life goals that they want to pursue in a major metropolitan city.’ Essentially, they now want the opposite of what they’ve been casting these past 10 years or so.
If that works, perhaps Bunim/Murray can prove that corruption can lead to a new chance at success.