Writers Reveal (and Revel In) Their Reality TV Obsessions


Anna David’s new book Reality Matters

is a collection of personal essays from noted writers about reality TV shows that have shaped them in some way. If there’s anything more entertaining than experiencing the guilty pleasure of reality TV firsthand, it’s reading a bunch of brilliant people trying to rationalize their obsession with the genre. We asked David about the moment that inspired the project, and here’s what she had to say:

One night when I was watching The Real World, I realized that the show actually inspired me to think about my own life — mostly about how happy I am not to be a semi-ignorant, self-destructive twenty-something anymore. Then it occurred to me that other writers might have their own interesting thoughts about what they got out of whatever reality shows they liked. And since watching reality TV is considered so shameful by such a large segment of the population, I figured that it could be fascinating to turn the standard wisdom on its head and say that no matter how ridiculous some of these shows are, they really do have something to offer.

Which makes perfect sense to us. (For the record, if we’d been asked to contribute it would have been impossible to decide between an ode to 16 and Pregnant or Ruby — and that’s just right now.) After the jump, find excerpts from a handful of our favorite essays. Reality Matters hits shelves tomorrow.

“I got high one afternoon and tuned in. I don’t remember where in the season they were, or what happened on the episode, and it doesn’t matter. I saw people doing shit that I could identify with, except that it seemed cooler, more exciting, more dramatic, more difficult, more rewarding, more perilous, more of everything, and, most important, more real. I was fucking hooked.” – James Frey on The Real World

“The show is artifice inspired and cut like a music video; the dialogue is awkward and stilted, as only real conversations are (no one is really as witty as Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl); but somewhere, just ever so slightly below its glossy surface, is a real portrait of youth and friendship and relationships and their ugly or not-so-ugly aftermath.” – Melissa de la Cruz on The Hills

“I’m desperate to be Tim Gunn’s friend, and fantasize about meeting him at the Neue Galerie uptown for Viennese coffees at Cafe Sabarsky before taking a stroll in Central Park, where we discuss are, literature, life. Alternatively, he might summon me to an elegant little pre-opera supper at his apartment before we attend a performance of La Gioconda together at the Met, where we discreetly squeeze each other’s arms during onstage moments of high emotion.” – Jancee Dunn on Project Runway

“In the land of the Dog Whisperer, there’s no problem in the world that isn’t caused by insecurity, discomfort, and alpha male territorialism. And there’s no problem that can’t be solved by a calm setting of boundaries, by informing the offender just who is in charge. Cesar Millan is a problem-solver. Cesar Millan brings order to chaos. Cesar Millan can save families by making them his own.” – Will Leitch on The Dog Whisperer

“Regardless of the adjectives that may currently adhere to your life, they’re generally better than the ones describing the existence if a convict. So what if you find yourself staring at convicted felons at four in the morning with tears in your eyes and a bowl of cereal balanced on your leg? At least it’s your television — it’s not, at any rate, own and operated by the city, state, or federal Department of Corrections.” – Jerry Stahl on Lockup

“Stacy serves up tough love, but she never concludes that you’re hopeless without medical intervention. She’s the television equivalent of comfort food — if you like your comfort food with lots of garlic (and I do). When Stacy recommends a better-fitting bra “to show off the girls,” she doesn’t point out that uplift surgery would have a more profound, effective, and dramatic effect.” – Helaine Olen on What Not to Wear

“When I speak of the awe-inducing spectacle of watching these young warriors sing their hearts out while teetering on the precipice of destiny — well, that’s usually around the point when others at the dinner table start giving my wife looks of pity and one another glances of ‘Is he okay?’ You can anguish about the fate of the Boston Red Sox in the American League pennant race, pull the hair out of our head over the outcome of a presidential campaign, and moan like a dying animal over the cliffhanger on Lost, but if you suggest that the fate of the world hangs on whether the seventeen-year-old balladeer or the twenty-six-year-old bar rocker is chosen as the next American Idol, you are, apparently, no longer fit for decent company.” – Richard Rushfield on American Idol

“So how did Jersey Shore draw me in? I’d sworn off not just virtually every permutation of the classic Hanging Out with Douchebags genre of reality TV (a big, dysfunctional tent that now not only includes The Real World and its imitators but also mutant strains like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives franchise) in favor of much more in vogue dancing/singing/cooking/sewing competition shows. Initially, I thought it might be that I was finally ready, after that long absence, to watch some more terrible people get drunk and copulate, spurred on by the belief that these would be the drunkest and copulatingest terribles MTV had produced in years. But no, that wasn’t it. Then I realized: It’s the Guidos, stupid.” – Mark Lisanti on The Jersey Shore