No one ever believed that reality television was totally real. Thirty-one days before The Real World premiered on MTV in 1992—a one-off about eight young strangers living together in a New York City apartment that ignited the entire genre—a New York Times critic sneered that “when television programmers talk about reality, prepare for a classic lesson in language debasement.” In 2000, the year Survivor debuted, Time reported that reality shows were “edited” and that “subjects adopt false faces,” practices “widely acknowledged by viewers and many participants alike.”
Critics and devotees of reality television understood that people’s behavior changes when they are crowded by several cameras, a boom mic, and the promise of a recurring slot on primetime TV. It’s not that reality television is a scam—it’s just a particular version of reality. As Andy Cohen, the man behind Bravo’s Real Housewives juggernaut, put it to The New York Times in 2017: “It is very real to them,” the people on the show. As in, a catfight, even if half-engineered by an exhausted producer eager to wrap shooting for the day, is still a catfight.
The promise of an actual reality behind reality television is the premise of Cohen’s new seven-part docuseries For Real: The Story of Reality TV. Bearing “inside scoops” and “candid sit-downs” with the somebodies, nobodies, has-beens, and will-bes who have graced the camera over the past 30 years, Cohen sets out to tell the history of the genre, the “behind-the-scenes secrets” that turned reality TV into a cash cow for most major networks. But in truth the series is a highlight reel of the genre, done in Bravo house style: quick cuts, reaction shots, one-on-one confessionals, and montages of people misbehaving. It underscores that what reality television has always sold isn’t reality but a fantasy.
The series forgoes chronology, opting to chop history up into themes: competition shows (Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model), makeover shows (I Want a Famous Face, Tabatha Takes Over), “celebreality” (The Simple Life, Keeping Up With the Kardashians), shows about love (The Bachelor), “shock and awe” (Fear Factor). Despite splicing together clips from the glory days of reality television, the series tends to lag. That’s in part because Cohen is hell-bent on proving that reality TV is really, really real. To prove it, Cohen calls in industry insiders for one-on-one confessionals, bringing the previously faceless casting directors, producers, and studio executives to the other side of the camera. They offer some insight, but they mostly offer justifications.
One of the minds behind The Real World admits that, during a particularly dull two-week stretch in season one, producers planted a Bruce Weber photo book in the living room. It just happened to include a tasteful nude of the male model housemate, a photo another housemate just happened to find as she casually flipped through the book, and which she proceeded to mock and show the rest of the house, inciting a minor spectacle. The producer assures us this was done in good faith because the number one rule of reality TV is to “produce the situation, not the people.” It’s a necessary technique to manage unwieldy egos and conniving personalities, multiple executives and producers insist.
Cohen has used the tension between artifice and reality to drum up more drama. With the premiere of The Real Housewives in 2007, he inaugurated the now routine end-of-season reunion, in which a show’s cast regroups to hash out “what really happened.” This often entails housewives accusing each other of lying and cussing each other out about bad cuts, never-seen drama, and misinterpreted motives. This conceit—the airing of the cold hard truth as an invitation to call someone a lying bitch—is also part of Cohen’s talk show Watch What Happens Live. Five nights a week, two guests and a bartender, often Bravo personalities, dish about just-aired drama. Cohen says, “For real?” with a wink as his guests spin new rumors and tell half-truths. Why pretend there’s a truth to get to the bottom of now?
For Real takes a turn in episode five, “Makeover My Life.” Makeover shows have possibly raised more eyebrows and dropped more jaws than any other subgenre of reality TV. By 2004, the conceit had spread to seemingly every area of life: cars, clothes, parents, businesses, addictions, faces, physiques, marriages—all demanded makeovers. Studios cast “compelling underdogs”: Fuddy-duddies turned into hotties, broke people into millionaires, slackers into entrepreneurs. The subgenre made the subtext of reality TV obvious: The shows would totally transform your life, not necessarily reflect it.
The subgenre of the subgenre that provoked the most criticism was plastic surgery reality TV—shows in which studios teamed everyday people with plastic surgeons to create dream faces (and therefore lives). The cluster of cosmetic surgery shows that premiered between 2002 and 2007 followed the same basic structure: They began with montages of ordinary, defeated people (mostly women) who lament how their looks have precluded love, money, success, and happiness. The lucky ladies plucked from their drab lives meet with a plastic surgeon and undergo surgery and recovery on camera. In For Real, Cohen crowns one of these shows, Fox’s 2004 two-season wonder The Swan, “the most controversial reality show ever.” A TV executive likens the show to “a snuff film.” Even the American Society of Plastic Surgeons denounced these shows in the early 2000s, while People asked, on a 2004 cover, “Has TV Plastic Surgery Gone Too Far?” Surgeons didn’t just smooth a bumpy nose—they lifted brows, injected cheeks with fillers, shaved jaws, liposuctioned thighs, tucked tummies, and Botoxed wrinkles all at once.
Critics of The Swan often rolled their eyes at the melodrama. Each woman on the cusp of beauty had to tearfully detail an impossible number of traumas before the plastic surgeons would take a scalpel to her face. In the end it didn’t really matter if the studios encouraged the women on The Swan to ham up their conflicts for the camera, because they really did leave the show with new faces.
But reality television’s promise of transformation was just that—a promise, and one that studios didn’t necessarily intend their shows to keep. Cohen asks, “But how does she look now?” and “Did the transformation last?” before he trots out six former makeover show subjects—including two former Swan contestants—all of whom slipped back into their pre-makeover, pre-TV ways once they returned to their unrecorded lives. All three former The Biggest Loser contestants gained most of the weight back. One of the ex-swans has a post-makeover fate so tragic it sounds scripted: Shortly after returning home from filming, Cindy Ingle “took a fly ball to the face” while playing softball, “crushing” her six-part facial reconstruction surgery, sending her back to a plastic surgeon’s office. On top of that, she moved her family to Italy, “embraced Italian life,” which meant living on “cheese, wine, bread,” causing her to gain the weight she lost with the help of the show’s personal trainer and plastic surgeon. “So I’m not what I was,” she confesses to Cohen.
The point of these interviews seems to be: Look, these shows really did reflect the subjects’ raw, real, tragic truths, because they snapped back to those raw, real, tragic selves once the cameras stopped rolling. But all reality TV shows are makeover shows, to some degree. They offer cash prizes that will change lives, earth-shattering romance, branding deals. And beyond all that is the dream that you can flip those 15 minutes of fame into exposure for a new business, a jolt to a half-dead career, a boost up the social ladder. As one talking head puts it, “Reality TV is a means to an end, it is not a destination.”
Even shows that focus on people who have supposedly made it—like The Real Housewives—become platforms for posh (well, posher than your average reality star) ladies to shill a product that will pad their pockets. (See: Skinnygirl cocktails, Sonja by Sonja Morgan, Lisa Rinna’s QVC line, Tamara Judge’s fitness center, Vicki Gunvalson’s insurance company.)
The last episode features a montage of the lucky few who turned their close-up into a dependable paycheck, like Christian Siriano from Project Runway or Lisa Vanderpump from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. But there’s a catch. Even a truly good reality TV star can only stretch those 15 minutes so far. Siriano went from a contestant on Project Runway to a judge on its reboot. Vanderpump starred in a spin-off series about her restaurants. Even the most successful stars are still trapped in the world that created them.