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The golden age of reality TV is already here

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The Bachelor and Survivor evolved while you were away

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There’s plenty to hate about Nick Viall.

The latest star of The Bachelor — ABC’s 21-seasons-and-counting (not including spinoffs) competitive dating show — has the smile of a smug startup founder, the unsettlingly intimate murmur of a close-talker, and the wardrobe of a J.Crew outlet that only stocks V-neck tees. There’s the heavier stuff, too: compared to the women who will compete for Viall’s love on network television, he has the discomfiting advantage of sheer experience. The contestants are all appearing on The Bachelor for the first time, but this is Viall’s fourth go-round. Yes, four is a record.

This latest season, and the previous two, are part of a long, ongoing redemption narrative for Viall, who self-destructed in his first run on The Bachelorette. In 2014, a then passive-aggressive and emotionally immature Viall competed for the love of attorney (and now author) Andi Dorfman, and lost. On the season finale special, Viall and Dorfman shared a couch one last time on live television. He puckered his mouth, fiddled with his hands, and sighed, “If you weren’t in love with me, I’m not sure why you made love with me.”

Sex is a thing you do, but don’t say on The Bachelor — especially not as a slimy, whiny dig at your almost-spouse. And so in the 2015 season of The Bachelorette and the 2016 season of Bachelor Paradise, we witnessed Viall transition from skeevy, needy boyfriend to smarmy, desperate-to-please supplicant. Or in reality TV parlance: Viall aspired to shift roles from villain to hero. Like I said, it’s a redemption narrative. To be fair (and maybe too generous) Viall has remade himself, undoubtedly with the help of the show’s producers, who have given him two years of likable edits. Nearly three years into his Bachelor-franchise tenure, and on the eve of his big moment, a case can be made that Nick Viall is still unlikeable as ever, but that he’s molted his snake-skin.

Now we have Viall 2.0.

Like Viall, reality television has evolved in the shadows of its own notoriety. After 15 years and change, the form has achieved some self-awareness, and on occasion it produces unscripted moments not merely comparable to the best of scripted television, but transcendent in the way art is — the kind of art film-crit professors present in dark rooms to hungover BFA students. This season of The Bachelor — this tastefully dubious season — should warrant your interest, whether you’re a fan of the show, a reality-TV addict, or simply someone wondering how you’ve made it to the sixth paragraph of this piece.

Both Viall and reality television (if you’re willing to look closely and open your mind) have desperately sought the respect of viewer. But in their quest, both have stumbled into something richer, more compelling. With few people noticing, including the producers, reality TV has found itself in a golden age. Nick Viall is its poster boy.

If you haven’t been following reality TV, you’re forgiven for that loud scoff. The genre never had a chance in the court of public opinion. From conception, it’s been derided as half-baked, artificial, and void of mental nutrients. The negative opinion stuck. When Trump won the presidency in November, newspaper columnists smugly claimed that we’d elected the first reality-television POTUS, lumping Trump in with his well-known reality show, and not his malevolent business practices, history of misogyny, or toxic social media persona. Reality television, for lazy media critics and beltway pundits alike, is shorthand pejorative for tawdry and cheap.

The Apprentice
NBC

But in 2016, reality television and scripted television aren’t separated by as wide a gulf as casual spectators and smug critics might believe. Like scripted TV, a lot of reality TV is terrible, and like scripted TV, some reality TV is good, and a few shows are downright brilliant. Reality TV has learned to resolve its innate flaws with dedicated character development and well-crafted storytelling. Meanwhile scripted TV is, in some ways, cribbing from reality TV, with writers’ rooms still playing catch-up to reality television’s diversity.

Take for example the recent epiphany amongst television producers that diversity isn’t just a creative boon, but a strong long-term investment. In 2014, James Poniewozik, then at Time, wrote, “In TV’s new reality, diversity is just good business.” His report underscored the recent financial benefits that have come with an increased focus on diversity in scripted television and the ads that air alongside it. But five years earlier, in 2009, the Los Angeles Times spotlighted reality TV producers charting the path for their scripted siblings. Staff writer Greg Baxton wrote, “Just as the military and professional sports — two arenas not heralded for their liberal thought — became the unlikely vessels for breaking racial barriers decades ago, reality programming may be a similarly transformational force in bringing greater diversity to television today.” Baxton pointed to a 2008 report by the NAACP, which criticized the lack of representation of non-whites in every form of television but reality programming.

“One positive aspect of reality shows is that they are likely to be more diverse in casting than most of their scripted counterparts. From the beginning, reality programming has tapped a variety of participants, which tends to be more representative of America’s racial make up [...] Another positive aspect of the reality show phenomenon has been the opportunity for the world to see African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans as professionals, students, laborers and homemakers.”

Since the early 2000s, reality stalwarts like The Amazing Race and Survivor have cast people of color, gradually improving from tokenism and promotional stunts to the complex portrayals that most white cast members received all along. Since the 2008 report, the low cost of reality shows and the abundance of cable shows targeting specific audiences have combined to produce a litany of programs focused on communities that rarely appear elsewhere on television. Channels like LOGO, Bravo, and BET have, for more than a decade, diversified reality programming with shows about the experiences of diverse sexualities, races, and identities.

Terrace House
Netflix

Meanwhile, public broadcasting and streaming platforms (and for some viewers, illegal download services) have introduced international reality programs, and each episode has offered a portal out of our national bubble. Netflix’s Terrace House chronicles the disorientingly familiar yet unfamiliar life of Tokyo 20-somethings, while The Great British Bake Off captures a racially inclusive Britain at odds with the post-Brexit nationalists seen in the news. At The New York Times, Poniewozik wrote of the most recent season: “The tension between classicism and creativity is part of nearly any cooking show — you don’t win with boring. But here, it’s also about the interpretation of culture, the idea of nationhood as something that requires both continuity and growth.”

Diversity isn’t a gimme, and it doesn’t guarantee quality. Representation can be wielded incorrectly as a blunt object by producers and editors, who undermine contestants with final cuts that play to negative stereotypes. The Bachelor brand has been regularly criticized for almost exclusively casting white stars, and predominantly white suitors — a topic that inspired the second season of Lifetime’s UnReal, a scripted drama based on the behind-the-scenes drama of reality television.

Reality TV, like the rest of popular culture, still has to achieve some greater purpose. For nearly a decade, it didn’t, which was largely a repercussion of its own ubiquity.

Survivor
CBS

Consider Survivor, which premiered in 2000. Alongside MTV’s Real World, Survivor is credited with popularizing the modern reality television genre. After a handful of successful seasons, the show sank into a creative nadir. Producers added rules, rotated locations, brought back fan-favorite players. Survivor’s fall 2006 season divided teams by race, a controversial premise that ultimately faded after tribes rearranged a few episodes into the season. No tweak — particularly not a ham-fisted play for a perversion of inclusivity — could staunch the show’s obvious wound: fans who had watched the game became the pool of players, bringing with them a perception of how reality-TV contestants should behave, what they should say, and what roles they needed to take for maximum screen time.

When the crew docked on yet another nearly identical tropical island for the 10th season (the series airs on average two seasons a year), the competitors weren’t behaving like humans; they were performing like stock players. The tropes on display included the exercise-obsessed stay-at-home mom, the cop who tells everyone he’s totally not a cop, the entitled just-out-of-college 20-something, and the meta-tastic Survivor superfan turned Survivor player. Behold, commedia dell’arte through the lens of Americana, gender and racial stereotypes, and reality TV’s own metafiction. While the show represented a wider swath of people, the performances themselves became a predictable echo of past seasons.

The most regurgitated phrases was literally the title of a former Bachelor contestant’s tell-all memoir: “I didn’t come here to make friends.

And then, around 2010, people on reality TV got comfortable with being people who just happen to be on reality TV. Reality television began to loop the loop, still self-aware but not so self-conscious. Participants began to speak to the camera as they would to a peer, or a bathroom mirror.

We have begun to witness reality television contestants who not only grew up with reality TV, but with smartphones and social media, too. These young men and women are accustomed with sharing their lives with everyone who follows their social handles, with being on-camera every moment of the day. In the past half-decade, gossip sites have begun introducing the cast of women appearing on The Bachelorette by sharing their Instagram accounts, each groomed with a reality producer’s eye, perfectly distilling their personas down to a few dozen filtered photos. This generation learned firsthand that how people present themselves on social media can often impact their “real” lives. The result is a generation that’s less willing to play the villain or the idiot for 15 minutes of fame and a lifetime of infamy.

Not being despised is crucial winning tactic, but it’s also fiscally responsible. Cultivating a likable persona is the smart play in the side-game of a reality television program: social media ads. Being sincere and vulnerable allows for relatability, a commodity that, in 2016, is sold via ads for vitamin water and skincare products on the personal Instagram accounts and Facebook pages of former reality contestants.

The fall 2016 season of Survivor pitted Gen-Xers vs. Millennials, an unintentionally hilarious conceit that pretended Gen-X is known for hard work and fiscal responsibility, and not shitty music and being awarded jobs right out of community college. Anyway. The twist, obviously, was supposed to be that different generations have more in common than most people think. But that wasn’t quite the case, if you looked closely. The younger contestants behaved in a way rarely seen on the series, refusing to fall into “types.” You could spot who was cast as the non-athletic gay young man, the bronzed dumb jock, and the bookish indoor girl. But in their direct-to-cameras, the cast rebelled against their assigned characters. They regularly put the game above their would-be identities, and they unexpectedly came across as more human than the established reality archetypes.

Survivor
CBS

Survivor winner Adam Klein had the most pat background story. Early in the season, the show revealed that his mother had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. The Mortally Sick Family Member is a morbid but familiar story arc of competitive reality television, so Survivor viewers had beats to expect. At some point, to draw sympathy and trust, Klein would tell his allies of his hardship, and provide producers with a dramatic, episode-long throughline. But that moment never came. Instead, Klein revealed his personal battle to one other contestant: his biggest adversary, Jay Starrett.

“Me and him have been fighting forever,” said Starrett in the season finale special, “but we’re like brothers. And I think he just needed an outlet on the island. I think he respected me so much, even though he hated me at the same time. We’re messed up. It’s the most dysfunctional relationship I’ve ever been in. But I love him. So I showed him respect. He came out there and was like, ‘Yo dude, I love you. I’ve got to tell somebody this, because it’s killing me.’”

At this point, as you can see at CBS, both Starrett and Klein are near tears; so much for “I didn’t come here to make friends.

It’s not that contestants have returned to the earliest days of reality television, naïvely untrained in how to behave in front of the cameras. No, the contestants, particularly the youngest among them, are simply so literate in both reality television and the portrayal of a public persona on social media that they can navigate real life and the “reality” one. And in truly stunning moments, they can communicate the difference to viewers. Which is to say that savvy reality contestants in 2016 can break the fourth wall and invite millions of people into their lives without the exchange compromising the humanness of it all.

That might sound cynical, but it isn’t meant to be. Young reality contestants, like anyone with an Instagram account, have learned the value of privacy, which makes truly intimate moments rarer and more precious. They’re gifts given by the contestant, not emotional twists stolen by producers.

Or as Klein puts it, while describing his final bedside minutes with his mother, whom he returned to immediately after the last day of production, moments before her death: “Oh God, this is crazy, because it’s my life. Like, it’s such a beautiful story, I can get that looking outside of it. This is my life. And it’s real.”

It’s a heady concept, one that doesn’t fit comfortably into reality TV marketing materials. But it makes for gut-wrenchingly human drama that isn’t so much reality TV as it is reality on TV.

Of course, the improvement of reality television isn’t solely in the hands of its participants. The people who produce reality TV have honed their expertise. Survivor has returned back to its roots in documentary, with striking nature cinematography, and renewed emphasis on players as humans with genuine wants and needs, instead of characters with grudges and sinister motives. Programs like the aforementioned Terrace House, The Great British Bake Off, and fluffier stuff like The Great Christmas Light Fight have delivered on the promise that process, spectacle, and human-interest stories are no less enjoyable than screaming matches, bar fights, and sex caught on night-vision camera.

The Bachelor
ABC

Which brings us back to The Bachelor. No reality production matches the skill, for better and worse, responsible for ABC’s dating empire, a self-sustaining soap opera disguised as a one-off quest for love.

The Bachelor producers know the potential of good reality television, but respect the ratings power of its trashy first decade, and the byproduct is a surreal rollercoaster ride through snark and smarm, cynical fame-grabbing and emotional unloading. In one episode, one contestant will break into song for any music agents in the audience, another contestant will open up about a history of abuse, and another will dress up as a human-sized cupcake. Recent seasons have played out like the history of modern reality television, regularly in existential battle with itself.

But The Bachelor exhibits one other achievement of reality television that scripted hasn’t and may never achieve. The Bachelor and the best of reality TV are seeds of perpetual art. Contestants from The Bachelor and The Bachelorette feed into one another, along with spinoff programs like Bachelor in Paradise, the defunct Bachelor Pad.

Ben Higgins and Lauren Bushnell scored a standalone show on Freefrom, but other contestants have found success building small, less controlled communities on social media. Former Bachelorette contestant Cody Sattler, for example, operates a closed, subscription-based Facebook page and lifestyle site for his weight-loss program. Carly Waddell, James Taylor (no, not that James Taylor), and Vinny Ventiera (aka DJ Vinsane) continue to document their lives in pursuit of music careers. Their stories continue outside the network franchise, overlapping on vacations, ad deals, business partnerships, and official and unofficial franchise meetups in New York and Los Angeles, along with Nashville, Chicago, and elsewhere as the roster grows into the hundreds. The vast majority of contestants continue their stories on Instagram and Twitter, providing incremental updates to their pools of fans. Gossip magazines like US now feature Bachelor contestants alongside Hollywood A-listers; in the case of the Kardashians, A-lister and reality star overlap. As for Bachelor contestants: they’re just like us because literally they’re just like us. Some Bachelor seasons have yielded actual marriages — their guest lists stacked with former Bachelor contestants they count as friends.

And Viall, by virtue of his time inside the series (three years on a network reality series is like 15 human years) and the need for producers to make him more than one stock character, is the perfect fit for star of The Bachelor in 2017.

Viall began as a despicable villain, but has become something new. At 36, he serves (at times uncomfortably) as the paternal figure of the series, particularly on Bachelor in Paradise. On the tropical island of misfit toys, Viall spent more time as hardened navigator, directing the naive contestants through the rocky terrain of being a televised star, than he did in pursuit of romance. Midseason, he publicly copped to his negative portrayal in the tell-all from Andi Dorfman, who he’d humiliated on television so many years ago. And he used other quotes from Dorfman’s book to humiliate the villain of Bachelor in Paradise, Josh Murray. The moment was a warning to other contestants: who you are here will be who you are back home. Don’t be a character; be a human.

“Villain” is to reality television what “first base” is to baseball, a position, one of many essential to comprising a full team. Nick is all-but-guaranteed a spot in the reality TV Hall of Fame, the rare utility player, bouncing between hero, villain, comic relief, mentor, and romantic, sometimes within a single episode. He is a complex character at the center of a show and genre dismissed as one-note.

Viall is messy and trashy, charming and smart, cagey and open. He could very well regress into all of the worst tropes — The Bachelor isn’t too proud to destroy its best contestant for ratings — but he could also give us our clearest look into the reality of reality television. That’s something you won’t see anywhere else.