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The Smartest Person You Know Watches Reality TV

Photo: Adam Rose | Netflix; Emily Shur | Bravo; daronk Hordumrong's Images, Proxima Studio | Canva
Reality stars RHWOBH, Cast of love is blind

Since the moment it began in the 1990s, reality TV has been called "trash," inherently low-brow, and a "guilty pleasure" at best. 

But there's only one word for that line of thinking: snobbery. And like most forms of looking down one's nose, it's based entirely on a false premise that totally misses the point. Because the truth is...

The smartest person you know watches reality TV. 

Since its very inception, reality TV has been controversial. Cultural historians and the like often cite two main works as the genre's forebears: PBS's 1973 documentary miniseries "An American Family," and Madonna's 1991 concert documentary "Truth Or Dare."

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Both were purposefully salacious and the latter gave way to MTV's "The Real World" the following year, forever altering TV for better or worse. But they also gave voice to private matters and cultural taboos that were rarely if ever spoken of so bluntly in their time.

The Loud family of "An American Family" unflinchingly detailed the life of openly gay son Lance, and parents Bill and Pat's teetering marriage and eventual divorce. Both issues were virtually unheard of in media and unmentionable in the vast majority of American households in its era.

In "Truth Or Dare," Madonna and filmmaker Alek Keshishian pulled this format into the world of Hollywood fame, delivering a warts-and-all chronicle of a celebrity that has since become the default but had never been seen at the time. Along the way, it gave a humanizing and bracing glimpse into politics, the lives of Queer people, and the AIDS crisis killing them.

   

   

Both projects sparked outrage in their eras for the way they came head-on at issues that simply weren't spoken of openly, and both were accused of sparking the moral collapse of civilization.

Talking about her depiction of Pat Loud in "Cinema Verité," the 2011 HBO film about "An American Famly," actor Diane Lane described the Loud family as having been "brutalized" by the public's response, 

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But even among those who found the moral panic ridiculous, both projects still sparked tons of eye rolls, They were low-brow, prurient, a representation of the dumbing-down of the culture.

Today, both are considered cultural watersheds, but that perception of the reality television genre they gave rise to has stuck. Reality shows are still considered by many to be for dumb dumbs, too simple to "get" more "sophisticated" programming. That is frankly as stupid as reality television is accused of being.

You cannot truly enjoy reality shows without a keen understanding of human nature. 

Now, I'm not going to sit here and pretend like half the allure of reality shows isn't how silly, outlandish, campy, and voyeuristic they are. Nor will I pretend like some of them aren't deeply foolish, if not actively problematic.

   

   

But all that is not what keeps your butt on the couch watching episode after episode. In fact, most reality shows that relied solely on bombast haven't lasted.

People of a certain age will remember shows like "The Swan" in which everyday people were told they were hideous and given so many surgical procedures and workouts they were rendered unrecognizable. That show was riveting in the way car wrecks are, and ultimately too ghastly to have staying power. Eventually, you started feeling sick and had to look away.

   

   

Contrast that, however, with shows like "Survivor" or "The Real Housewives" franchises. The former is nominally about people having to eat bugs in the jungle or whatever, and the latter is catty rich women fighting in restaurants.

   

   

But what they're really about is human nature and the human condition. They are televised anthropology classes detailing, in the case of "Survivor," what extreme adversity and a bit of greed bring out of the human psyche. 

Meanwhile, this season of "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," arguably the franchise's shallowest iteration, is giving a detailed master class in exactly how once idyllic marriages can end up running aground and falling apart.

Most of us can't relate to Kyle Richards' and Mauricio Umansky's wealth and privilege. But their transformation into two erstwhile soulmates struggling to figure out what their common ground even is anymore and their palpable fear of even acknowledging that it has come into question is discomfitingly recognizable. I find myself watching them each week thinking, "Ah ha! So this is how it happens…"

   

   

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But there is perhaps no greater example of this misconception of reality television than "Big Brother," an eminently stupid show about hot idiots locked in a TV studio for three months to double-cross each other while grappling through pits of slime in order to win $500,000.

Or at least that's how the show appears on the surface. What it actually is, is a Ph.D. level master class in psychology. The pressure cooker of being sequestered in a studio for months on end requires people to revert to their most basic, and often basest, instincts.

Unlike some other reality competition shows, it's mostly not the people with muscle who ultimately win "Big Brother" but rather those who best understand human nature — and know how to expertly and covertly use it against people.

I have learned more about the human condition and the power of simply sitting back and watching the way people's psyches operate from iconic "Big Brother" players like Dan Gheesling and Janelle Pierzina than I have in 45 entire years of living my actual life.

Watching them (along with "Survivor" star Parvati Shallow) not only export this kind of cunning but use it against each other on everyone's current reality obsession "The Traitors" has been exhilarating.

   

   

That is what makes so many of these shows compelling. Anyone can put on a bikini and swim through a pool of oatmeal trying to find a medallion that keeps them safe from being voted off the show, but it takes incredible, if not downright diabolical, intelligence to Jedi mind-trick someone into helping you win half a million bucks to their own detriment.

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One of my best friends often refers to herself as "not an intellectual" with "low-brow" taste, and her prime example of this is that her favorite TV show of all-time is "Kroll Show," the Comedy Central series by Nick Kroll that lampoons reality TV with absurdist parodies.

"Yeah, but you have to be really smart to even GET 'Kroll Show'" I am always reminding her. Those Publizity sketches are hilarious on their face because they're so absurd.

But you can't truly understand WHY they're funny unless you first understand the overlapping foibles of human nature, psychology, and pop culture that Kroll is satirizing. And you can't adequately understand any of THAT unless you understand how those foibles underpin and operate reality television.

It's like learning about symbolism in high school English. Sure, a bizarre play about weirdo witchcraft-obsessed religious fanatics in 1600s Massachusetts is intriguing, but it's not until you learn that "The Crucible" is actually an allegory about the McCarthy hearings that it really begins to sing.

As Lisa Kudrow's character, Valerie Cherish, famously said in her Emmy-nominated HBO reality parody "The Comeback" (which itself can't be understood without a keen grasp of the psychology of reality television), "Reality TV is the reality of TV." That was a satirical joke, but she was kind of onto something! 

And besides, the very concept of "guilty pleasures" is empty and pedantic, and all too often bigoted in the first place. The phrase is little more than code for "stuff girls, gays, or people of color like," a clever way of saying that these groups' interests are inherently unserious and worthless without actually saying so. That's as gross as it is insipid.

   

   

So, sorry haters. The smartest person you know watches reality TV because it teaches you more about human nature than many Emmy-winning scripted series will. And if all you can see is the silliness, melodrama and salaciousness? Well… maybe you're just not quite smart enough to get it!

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John Sundholm is a news and entertainment writer who covers pop culture, social justice and human interest topics.