Our Contributor Sarah looks into the fascination with reality TV.
I absolutely adore Jon Taffer, the rage-fueled, possibly bipolar bar consultant and fixer on Spike’s “Bar Rescue.” Taffer’s job is to go around and fix up bars that look as though you may get Hepatitis if you touch anything. In my opinion, he is the quintessential reality TV star. He screams profanities at people who clearly had lobotomies and somehow ended up running a bar, spews off random catchphrases (I love his weird obsession with the car count–during every episode, Taffer points out how many cars drive past the bar. It’s not a perfect episode of “Bar Rescue” unless he randomly yells about the car count) and when he shows moments of heart (like when he worked to save a bar after Hurricane Sandy). I’m 99% sure that Taffer only owns three sports coats that he wears–all three of which are plaid and make him look like Danny DeVito’s character in Matilda. I don’t just love Taffer for his insane fits and his ability to put heinous bar owners in their place, I like watching the joy spread across his face when he realized that he rescued a bar.
There isn’t an exact reason as to why I enjoy watching “Bar Rescue.” The show is as trashy as the bar owners, and I really shouldn’t take as much pleasure in watching Taffer belittle others as I do. As I watched the latest episode of “Bar Rescue,” I began to wonder how many others were at home, giggling in glee as Taffer ripped apart his next prey. Why are we so drawn to reality TV? What is it about watching humanity at its worst that we simply can’t resist?
It’s not as though every reality television show out there is complete crap– “RuPaul’s Drag Race” is full of sharp satire and heartwarming moments. But for every “RPDR,” there’s a “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” A “Real Housewives of Pick Your Affluent City.” A “Naked and Afraid.” As a society, we can’t seem to get enough of women who look like the animated California Grapes (remember those?) and exhibitionists.
According to a study completed by Ohio State University psychology professor Steven Reiss, some people watch reality TV because it makes people feel superior. Logically, this does make sense–I’m pretty sure the appeal of MTV’s train wreck “Jersey Shore,” was to marvel at the fact that human beings actually went out in public and behaved this way, and then to be able to pat yourself on the back for knowing you don’t (or to just be grateful you don’t resemble a tanned koala).
However, not all of us watch reality TV to feel better about ourselves. It seems that some of us actually watch reality TV to learn–even if it’s not intentional. In 2010, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy released a survey in which 87% of teenagers who watched “16 and Pregnant” and “Teen Mom” felt that the show educated them about being a parent, while only 17% felt that it glamorized pregnancy. If what is normally considered to be a rather trashy show managed to educate and warn teenagers about the dangers of young parenthood, then there has to be some merit in reality TV. Perhaps some of us watch these shows such as “Storage Wars” or “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” to learn a bit about a different culture or way of life–even if it’s not 100% accurate.
There doesn’t seem to be an exact reason as to why we watch reality TV. I could continue to list psychological studies, all of which would list different reasons–we relate to everyday people, we secretly want to be on a reality show, we like competitions because we are inherently competitive. Each of us watches reality shows for different reasons. I enjoy watching “Bar Rescue” because I find Jon Taffer to be strangely likable and I am interested by the bar business. One of my best friends loves “Mob Wives” because she thinks that Big Ang may secretly be a superhero. We are all drawn to reality shows because they allow us to escape, to learn something new, to feel better about ourselves–just as scripted television does. So until there is a day where I start to feel truly guilty about the fact that “Bar Rescue” is my guilty pleasure, I will continue watching Jon Taffer rattle on about car counts in peace.