The A.V. Club's best of the decade coverage kicks off this week with television lists spearheaded by my very own husband. I contributed to some of the lists, but not the one on reality shows that Noel produced solo, running today.
The comments on this list have been particularly interesting. Earlier lists focused on miniseries and late-night television, but the reality show list has provoked protests that reality television is not worthy of critical attention or celebration.
Reality television is truly the genre of the decade, and yes, there's a case to be made that it's the scourge of the medium as well. But are we still so bitter about the decline of scripted television that we can't recognize some of the more interesting, creative, and even compelling reality series? I find myself talking to many of my colleagues and other educated people about popular culture, and among those who admit to watching television, most express great surprise that I would enjoy Top Chef or The Amazing Race.
The opposite is true among professional TV watchers, who recognize these shows as the class of the genre. Even some of them, though, scorn the talent competitions and offbeat follow-people-around shows as unworthy of consideration.
Me, I'll take drama, comedy, pathos, and entertainment where I can find it, and even though reality television has a tendency toward manufacturing all those elements when they're not actually happening in front of the camera, that doesn't mean that nothing of interest happens on those shows. To the contrary, I enjoy cheering for actual competent people doing things that I can't do (as on the cooking and fashion designing shows, for example), and I enjoy gasping at the machinations of people scheming to be the last ones standing on the Survivor-type shows. Yes, I'm as disgusted as anyone by the whoring-after-fame that proliferates among the would-be celebrities that apply for some of the shows, both reputable and sleazy. But as Noel points out in his piece, many of these shows represent the last vestige of a mass medium that actually unites us as a contrary, something everyone has an opinion on, weekly events that leave you out of the water-cooler conversation if you choose to forgo them. And it's hard to overestimate the power of that possibility in an increasingly fractured media landscape.