Perusing the benefits of reality TV

Image Credits: Brandon Hillier
Image Credits: Brandon Hillier
Image Credits: Brandon Hillier

Some people spend their free time writing music and jamming with their friends. Others volunteer overseas, building homes and saving orphans while travelling the world.

Me, I like to watch reality TV. And that’s okay.

When people find out that I have a guilty pleasure — especially one that does not appear to have any discernible value — they always ask why. Why do you, a full-time student with many extracurricular commitments, waste your precious free time engaged in such  a dull pastime?

Editorials online explain how people watch reality TV because it gives people a certain schadenfreude, or pleasure from seeing the struggles of others. Alternatively, these shows lead viewers to juxtapose the experiences of the characters with their own lives, frequently casting themselves in a comparatively flattering light. More often than not, these explanations imagine human nature as critical, judgemental, and ultimately ugly.

Judgements like this implore viewers to peel themselves off of the couch to engage in more high-culture activities. Spending a day reading Dostoyevsky or Whitman cannot be considered a waste of time, because readers are going to take away valuable life lessons.

These sentiments imply that wasting my life away in front of these television programs is something I should be ashamed of. And if you buy into the myriad of explanations for why people watch reality TV, then yes, I probably should be ashamed of it. 

And I completely agree; thinking critically about a Beckett play or a Dickens novel  — if you’re actually engaging with the material — is a better way to spend your day than streaming the full fourth season of Dance Moms.

However, that shouldn’t devalue pleasure derived from more low-brow sources. After a long day of collaborating in seminars, writing pieces in the office, or coaching on the soccer field, watching awful TV gives my mind a break from fairly constant stress. Instead of having to engage with a program that requires my undivided attention, I can flip on Property Brothers or Project Runway and toodle around the house or type away on my laptop.

Beyond a way to turn my mind off at the end of a long day, reality TV gives me, my friends, and my family something to enjoy together. We find ourselves scheming along with the characters, cheering their victories and booing their betrayals.

For us, the latest episode of Survivor doesn’t have to leave us with some deeper insight. That’s not why we watch it. We can balance our intellectual nights spent with Tolstoy, Eliot, and Didion with our indulgent evenings spent with Jeff Probst.

When it comes down to it, I don’t have any profound explanation for why I spend an obscene amount of time watching FaceOff, or Big Brother, or MasterChef, other than it allows me to wind down and spend time with those I’m close to.

While there rarely comes a moment during an episode of Naked and Afraid that causes me to think more deeply about the human condition (unless the human condition involves shitting yourself to death on the side of a mountain in the Himalayas), reality TV is just this guilty pleasure that I love.

And that’s okay.

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