We call the stars of reality TV shows “characters,” yet that’s not quite what they are. They are, at the most basic level, people who become famous for playing the role of, well, themselves. But it’s a heightened version of themselves, and one that is often shaped by the not-so-light-touch of reality TV producers.
Audiences love a villain — especially in their reality TV shows. With a villain, you can take your outrage, your hate and your disbelief to a personal level and harmlessly rage at the actual human walking around on screen.
In other words, it’s easier to feel personally offended by Gordon Ramsey than by Anthony Soprano. And in this year’s presidential race, the ultimate reality TV villain, for many audience members, is turning out to be Donald Trump.
Monday night, we watched two opponents face off in the most important reality show ever created. Both of these people have become characters we can cheer on or sneer on.
And let’s just admit that Clinton did not rake in the Super Bowl-sized viewership on her own steam. Trump is Clinton’s perfect character foil. She needs him standing beside her, in high-def, split-screen brilliance, so that we can love to hate the villain propped up before us.
I’ve been writing for a reality TV website for a few years now, covering everything from Kim Kardashian’s narcissistic selfies to Bethenny Frankel’s Twitter wars. And one thing has become clear to me: People are angry at reality TV stars. Like, really angry. Our website’s comments section needs regular and heavy-handed moderation, lest commenters virtually stab each other in the face with stiletto emojis. (It happens, people.)
And what do they argue about most? The villains, of course.
Ever watch Lifetime’s “UnREAL”? It’s a scripted show about the inner workings of contestant-driven reality shows like “The Bachelor,” and in one poignant scene an executive producer whispers to another producer, “Nice. People are going to hate her!” after a contestant acts particularly offensive. This is considered a reality TV win.
Hate, in the world of reality TV stars, is a precious and coveted commodity. In fact, if you’re a reality star who finds that people don’t hate you (at least sometimes), you just might be in trouble.
Bravo’s “Real Housewives” producer Andy Cohen maintains that casting someone who people love to hate is absolutely critical. This “love to hate” concept is an important distinction from plain old “dislike,” given that Housewives who are thought of as sniveling, grouchy, boring, or simply rude eventually become universally ignored — by their castmates, by the audience and eventually by the network itself, which usually fires them after one dud of a season.
If reality stars are going to make it big, they’ve got to amp up the drama — and by drama, I mean totally insane behavior.
Thus, Donald Trump is the perfect Real Housewife — the perfect villain — in the sense that some of us cannot stop talking about how much we freaking hate him. We can’t stop retweeting his deranged rantings. We cannot stop fact checking his obviously false statements. We cannot keep looking at each other — whether in real life or on a comments board — and asking, Can you BELIEVE this guy!?
In short, we cannot look away from the specter of Capital “C” Crazy before us, even if we shove an entire basket of deplorables over our heads.
If Trump had a “Real Housewives” tagline, it might be, “Hate me all you want. I’ll be back for more.”
It is as thought Trump has taken the basic tenets of reality TV and shot them up with steroids.
Let’s take a look at a short list of reality TV casting requirements, and see if he fits the bill.
1. Is the character willing to say or do just about anything to become famous?
2. Is the character polarizing among castmates and viewers?
3. Is the character highly charismatic, yet highly offensive?
4. Is the character willing to be groomed by the network?
5. Is the character predictably unpredictable?
Add to this list the requisite delusional nature of most reality TV stars, and you’ve got our 2016 Republican candidate for the presidency.
To Trump himself, this list might seem totally incomprehensible. Because reality stars also have a shallow understanding of their flaws, and a tendency to blame their rampant inconsistencies — say, with truth telling — on whimsical lapses in judgment. Reality villains are also forever threatening to quit their jobs, or to not show up for their next appearance — a move that keeps viewers and producers on their toes.
Even as some of us celebrate Hillary Clinton’s handling of Donald Trump in their first presidential debate, we must remember why this debate was so compelling, so incendiary, and — most importantly — so very, very popular.