The summer’s biggest reality TV-related controversy involved CBS’ Kid Nation, a series that gave 40 kids 40 days to live without adults, and to construct their own society. Critics were appalled by the contract parents signed (which, among other things, absolved CBS of responsibility if any of the underage participants died or contracted an STD), reports that some kids were injured, and just the concept itself.
When Nation finally debuted, the series turned out to be rather watchable, thanks to the kids and their witty one-liners, intelligent insights and unbelievably childish behavior.
One contestant, 10-year-old Taylor, a beauty queen from Georgia, was fond of being stubborn and self-centered, shouting ‘Deal with it!’ as a way to end the conversation. She also repeatedly insisted that she was above doing labor (‘I’m a beauty queen. I don’t do dishes’), and was cruel to others (‘Shave the unibrow!’ she told one boy). In other words, Taylor, who became the show’s primary villain, was the perfect fodder for commentary, as were many of her fellow cast members.
But once Nation debuted, people essentially stopped talking about it. Media coverage dropped off, and while some viewers discussed the show, the series lost its buzz. Ratings were okay but not spectacular.
Kid Nation‘s disappearance from the cultural radar seems primarily to be because there wasn’t anything for people to make fun of or be angry about. Critics ran out of fuel after they watched an episode, when it became clear that, besides the ever-present crew members, adults had a central role in the kids’ lives, from the show’s host to the regular challenges, to the fake yet parental ‘journal’ that told the kids what to do.
And while characters like Taylor would typically have been excoriated online and in the entertainment press, that response appears to have been at least suppressed, probably because the show starred kids. People like me, who offer criticism and analysis of reality shows (i.e. make fun of and bitch about them) found covering kids in the same way to be difficult. Taylor, after all, is 10.
There are still vital questions, such as why any thinking human being would have signed the contract CBS required participants’ parents to sign, and whether or not kids can consent to offering their lives and experiences as entertainment. But those questions only seem interesting to us while we’re anticipating future outrage. Once it arrived, Nation didn’t deliver continued fuel for anger, and much like easily distracted 10-year-olds, we ran along to find something else to be annoyed with.
Must some people loathe a series for it to be a hit? Must there be controversy? Increasingly, that seems to be the case.
No one has seriously cared about MTV’s The Real World for years, because it offers only overly familiar stereotypes and repetition of the same conflicts via the same empty cast members. When Real World Denver cast member Davis Mallory got drunk and used the n-word in reference to his roommates in 2006, both his castmates and the show’s editors didn’t really seem to care; other cast members instantly forgave him and producers wrapped up that storyline inside a single episode.
While MTV shrugged its shoulders and aired Mallory’s use of the word on The Real World, A&E pulled Dog the Bounty Hunter off the air after its star, Duane ‘Dog’ Chapman, used the same word repeatedly in an off-air, but taped phone call. Chapman’s behavior consumed the national conversation for weeks.
Both series are personality-driven, both introduce us to the lives of their subjects, so why the disparity in response? I suspect it’s because only one show is new and interesting, and boredom mutes indignation.
In addition, that behavior was not what we expected from Chapman, a reformed criminal who now chases criminals, while we do expect drunk, stupid, sheltered, immature 20-somethings to act like asses.
The tragic consequence to this phenomenon is that there are a number of great unscripted television series that immerse us in the lives of fascinating real people, but that aren’t juicy fodder for blogs or media. That explains why some producers charge through ethical boundaries to manufacture drama that will inevitably lead to conversation, but it doesn’t explain why there’s so little interest in subjects that don’t inspire outrage.
Andy Dehnart is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred (realityblurred.com) and writes TV criticism for MSNBC.com