Phil Robertson is real. He recently did a real interview with GQ. In that interview, he said described homosexuality as a sin and expressed a preference for “a vagina” over “a man’s anus.” That opinion is pretty heavy intellectually stuff and is, as far as anyone can tell, real. As a result of those comments, A&E has suspended Robertson from Duck Dynasty. That suspension is also real.
Duck Dynasty is a “reality” TV show on A&E. It depicts the “real” life of a “real” family of good-natured rednecks living in the backwoods of Louisiana. It’s “real,” but, like most “reality TV,” very little of it is real.
I’m not sure when it happened, but it’s been decided that for the purposes of television, depictions of “reality” can be called “real” even if everyone involved (including the audience) is aware that they are at best a contrived reality. This is no big deal when the actual reality that we’re missing out on is footage of Chloe Kardashian scraping her bunions with a PedEgg, but things get a little murky when “reality” excludes the rawest and most interesting aspects of actual reality.
A&E’s indefinite suspension of Robertson is a rational business move – what he said is controversial and bad for the network’s image. But it also exposes A&E’s complete lack of interest in giving its audience actual reality.
This interview may be the single most interesting thing Robertson has ever done. Even if you hate what he said and hate him for saying it, this is the first time that most of us have ever cared about anything he’s had to say. Duck Dynasty would be undeniably more interesting if this controversy and the aftermath were made part of the show.
But A&E has taken the exact opposite route. The response from A&E is not that it isn’t interesting enough to be on TV, but that it doesn’t fit the particular version of “reality” that Duck Dynasty offers its viewers (even if that version of “reality” is, admittedly, not what’s going on in reality). They’re making a point of avoiding what’s real in an effort to preserve what they’ve designated as “real.”
Of course, we don’t need A&E to put this controversy on Duck Dynasty because the media is already running with it. One of the ironies of “reality” TV is that anything truly interesting will be picked up as a news story before the footage airs, so no matter how “real” things get, you know it’s not going to get that real – if it was you’d have heard all about it already. This is perhaps the greatest flaw of reality programming – if it’s really interesting, we know it’s going to happen before the show airs. Reality TV can never shock you because the 24-hour news cycle will always get there first.
Tragically, it was national news when The Jersey Shore’s Deena Cortese was arrested for disorderly conduct after getting in a fight in a crowded bar. But MTV ultimately decided not to include the fight, arrest, or aftermath in the show. To viewers who didn’t pay attention to news – presumably all of them – it was as though the arrest never happened. The decision not to make that footage part of the show was the least real thing that MTV could have done. It was by far the most interesting footage the show’s producers had filmed, and it was totally real. Apparently that was the problem. The Jersey Shore was always “real,” but it was never real. And Chris Christie agrees with me.
Cops is the only TV show that is real. Cops is even more real that the evening news, because the news is arguably contrived at least some of the time depending on your perspective. But while the cops themselves might contrive things for the camera, Cops never contrives anything. What you see is what went down, and nobody pretends that the cameras aren’t there.
Cops is so real that most people don’t even put it in the category of “reality TV,” because “reality TV” has come to imply fluffy, mindless programming that viewers can escape to as a guilty pleasure. Cops is a guilty pleasure, but it also makes you think about the harsh realities of American life. Keeping Up With the Kardashians can do that, too, but in their case the harsh reality is that fact that the Kardashians are real.