Even before the reality-based genre took off, it served as fodder for movies and TV shows. See how some of the domain’s tropes – confession, control, competition – have been turned on their head to tell a bigger story.
The Truman Show came out in 1998, years before the reality television boom of the 2000s. Jim Carrey plays Truman, an affable salesman who slowly discovers his whole life is a live reality show. Everyone is protective but pretends. The people he knows like his family, friends and colleagues are paid actors. Even the horizon is simply painted. It is a sensitive look at collective consciousness, the commodification of human experience and what it takes for a spirit to free itself.
The scathing criticism
What is the opposite of a reality drama? An animated sitcom parodying a reality drama. Drawn Together was created in 2004, featuring loud, rude, dirty stereotypes competing with each other to kick each other out of a house. There are three seasons and a movie from 2010. There’s racism, homophobia, violence, and petty indignities, and this time the audience knows for sure that they were scripted. Think of it as a grand show poking fun at the worst of the genre.
The quiet genius
The best thing about The Office (the UK original and the US remake) isn’t the antics. The employees of the paper company in a small American town mostly hold meetings, make sales calls, play pranks, throw birthday cakes and leave at 5 p.m. It’s the premise of the reality TV show that makes the scenes shine – the sideways gaze at the camera, the POV angles, the cutaway interviews, and the hilarious everyday moments. Modern Family and What We Do in the Shadows are worthy successors.
The shocking documentary
You are supposed to be disgusted by Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006). Sacha Baron Cohen’s character, Borat Sagdiyev, a wide-eyed Kazakh journalist making a documentary in the United States, is made up. But the public’s reactions to him are improvised and often more offensive than his own feigned ignorance. Cohen stayed in character while promoting the film, blurring the lines between real-life and staged storytelling. A sequel, Borat Later Moviefilm, was released in 2020.
The allegory of the young adult
The format of the elimination contest, but with a dark twist. The winner of The Hunger Games is the last person alive in a man-made forest filled with real threats. It’s a game that’s played every year so the elite can entertain themselves, offer very occasional help, and pick a neighborhood to reward. Reality TV tropes abound – candidate stories, votes, alliances, surprise challenges. But the story and its sequels (based on a series of novels by Suzanne Collins), use them to sell a larger political message: that real power lies in refusing to play along.
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