Reality Check

Are you pathetic enough to get on TV?

“Do you have bad habits or an unhealthy lifestyle? Are you addicted to food, cigarettes, caffeine, diet pills or plastic surgery? […] Do you feel overwhelmed or frustrated? Are you feeling isolated or lonely? Do you have trouble balancing your home life with your career? Do you feel pessimistic about the future? […] If you answered YES to any of these questions, a team of experts may be able to help you on a new primetime reality show.”

This press release from Fox, as quoted on the television Web site Reality Blurred, suggests one answer to the question: Whither reality TV? Given the diminishing returns of competitive shows like Survivor and The Apprentice—which tend to flame out quickly, losing viewership after a strong first season—many have speculated that the trend for unscripted programming is dying out. But reality television’s merely taken on a new attitude—albeit one that may be even scarier than its former bullying bluster. The new reality TV wants to help you become a better person.

Gone are the days of the deliberately humiliating subgenre that might be thought of as the high-concept bottom-feeder—flagrantly exploitive shows like CBS’s The Will, which tied the record for the shortest-lived TV show ever, or Fox’s creepily titledWho’s Your Daddy?, in which an adopted woman had to pick her birth father out of a lineup of eight impostors. Network executives soon realized that, once the initial “They can’t show that, can they?” question had been answered in the affirmative, there was nowhere for the bottom-feeder show left to go. After a certain saturation point of sleaze, viewers could no longer look themselves in the mirror. As irresistible as it may be to spy on other people’s tawdry problems, at the end of the day, people want to feel good about themselves (and if a little smug pity gets thrown into the bargain, so much the better).

Hence the new slate of transformation-themed reality shows, inspired by the monster success of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Extreme Makeover’s genius was that it found a way to combine morbid voyeurism with the cheerful pluck of an Amish barn-raising. Just think: If your life story inspires sufficient pathos, you could be sent to Disneyworld while fey, shirtless carpenters destroy and rebuild your house! A couple of years ago, the ideal candidate for a reality show was a bleach-toothed, gym-toned go-getter, someone willing to scale K2 in exchange for a meeting with Donald Trump. These days you stand a better chance of getting your day in the sun if you’re an asthmatic junkie with a gambling problem, raising a family of 15 in a run-down shack. Soon, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will be launching a Wedding Edition spin-off, in which “deserving” couples will be provided the nuptials of their dreams. (Think you and your sweetie are sufficiently pitiable enough to apply? Fill out this form.)

The ever-increasing ratings of the ultra-touchy-feely syndicated self-help show Starting Overhave paved the way for grittier therapy-themed TV, like A&E’s new Intervention. Each week, the show visits two addicts (they can be hooked on just about anything: alcohol, crack, self-mutilation) and documents their downward spiral before staging an intervention with friends and family. It sounds tawdry, but Intervention is actually quite sensitive and respectful toward the suffering of its subjects and their families—it feels more like a documentary than a reality show. Last week’s episode, which focused on a gambler and a compulsive shopper, was an almost unbearably intimate look at addiction and recovery. I sincerely hope that neither you nor yours ever qualify for an appearance on Intervention, but if hitting bottom on national TV has always been a personal dream, you can submit a letter or tape here.

After you’ve gotten off drugs and moved into your dream house, you’ll still need to contend with your fucked-up family. Fox’s Nanny 911, which a friend of mine refers to as “televised birth control,” is a compulsively watchable, and generally warm-hearted, show in which no-nonsense British nannies offer live-in coaching to the clueless parents of squalling demons. If you think your spawn are hellish enough to qualify, here’s the application. Starting April 25th on Fox, there’ll also be Marriage 911. (Squabble much? Apply here.) The new reality has you covered coming and going; no matter what stage of life you’re at, you just might be pathetic enough to get on TV.