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We Ruined Reality TV TIME

Heather Gay is standing on the beach, her long blonde hair and pale yellow-caped dress blowing gingerly in the wind with the green-tinted waves behind her. The sky in Bermuda—or, perhaps, the filter chosen by editors to emulate the look of a Christopher Nolan film—is gray, an indicator of the storm about to crash down onto the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. Lisa Barlow, Meredith Marks, and Whitney Rose (all cast members since the first season, which debuted in 2020) descend onto the beach to join Gay, who drops the bombshell about newbie housewife Monica Garcia while the show’s signature chorus sings a tune more dramatic than “Carol of the Bells.” This is cinema.

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“Monica is not who she says she is. She’s not our friend,” Gay says. “She’s someone that has schemed and worked to infiltrate our friend group. And the name that you all know her as, is Reality von Tease.”

Reality von Tease is not a name even the most-engaged consumer of Bravo’s programming would know, but it is a name that is “triggering” for the cast, to use an overused word in the Real Housewives universe. Garcia was outed as the anonymous user behind the Instagram account named which has been responsible for spreading gossip and rumors about the Real Housewives of Salt Lake City since 2021. When confronted at the reunion, Garcia said she started the account to expose the “truth” about Jen Shah.“I honestly feel like that page did not come for any of [the other cast members],” Garcia explained. Gay quickly chimed in, citing cruel names that the page has posted about her. “Every person on this couch can go through that page and give you 10 personal examples,” Gay said. Host Andy Cohen sided with the other housewives, stating that Garcia would’ve never been cast if production had known she was running a burner account. Garcia has since been let go from the series.

While the season finale, cheekily titled “Mysteries, Revealed?,” was riveting thanks to clever non-linear editing that built up to the plan to expose Garcia combined with Gay’s committed self-aware performance (Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence quoted, “Receipts! Timeline! Screenshots!” on the Golden Globes red carpet), it’s also an indicator of an inflection point: Reality television is broken. And it’s because the fourth wall—which exists for a reason—has been shattered by not only too much self-awareness by its cast members but also, frankly, too much information.

Read More: Every Unanswered Question We Have About That Real Housewives of Salt Lake City Bombshell

The Real Housewives shows, in particular, have morphed from frivolous farce about delusional but entertaining women who contain multitudes into shows that demand sincerity and gravitas (the delusion remains). Cast members’ have learned how to self-produce, how to be the favorite (Beverly Hills’ Sutton Stracke’s “name em!” is a perfect example) and over time, storylines have become more about being a reality star than being a person.

The most obvious influence of the state of reality television is the overflow of information from an insurmountable level of sources. There are rumor accounts such as Reality von Tease, whose rise can be linked to the rise of the blind celebrity gossip accounts like DeuxMoi. These accounts run by anybody (even an actual cast member like Garcia) eliminate the element of surprise within the shows themselves.

Scandal, rumors, and gossip have always been the building blocks for storylines on shows like Real Housewives or even their spin-offs like Vanderpump Rules. It keeps things interesting. It starts fights. It creates a narrative—who to root for and who to despise. But with an array of gossip readily available any time of day at the tip of your fingers, the shows seem to find themselves in a perpetual game of catch up. The element is no longer surprising because once it airs, it feels like old news. Imagine how inconsequential Teresa Giudice’s table flip in the Real Housewives of New Jersey would have been if we knew it happened months before it aired? It wouldn’t be the same, because we would have already seen it unfold online, commented on it, and overanalyzed it to death.

This is a primary problem that’s made Hulu’s The Kardashians, essentially a behind the scenes show about the family’s Instagram grids, a well-produced bore. The third season of the series was defined by a fight between sisters Kim Kardashian and Kourtney Kardashian about Dolce & Gabbana. Kourtney claims that Kim, who collaborated with the Italian fashion house and walked the runway for its Spring/Summer 2023 show, stole her “dolce vita lifestyle.” Kourtney’s claim to the lifestyle: her wedding in Portofino, Italy. The conflict inspired the most authentic drama seen on the show in years, but something was missing: At this point, the Kardashians loom so large that they can have relationships with brands like Dolce, and despite even their best attempts, they don’t discuss the complexities of “the business” on camera. And, in Kim and Kourtney’s case, with each other. In the new age of reality TV, the subjects, more hyper aware of their audience than ever before, decide what the audience sees and how much or, more significantly, how little it sees.

Reality TV has always been loosely scripted, but now, it makes The Hills look like a documentary. And while social media shapes the lives of everyone who exists today, it rules supreme in reality TV. Bravo’s Summer House, a series that follows a group of New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s every weekend when they rent a house in the Hamptons, used to have natural conflict and interesting cast members who actually worked full-time jobs in Manhattan. Now, the show primarily revolves around whether or not the cast follows each other on Instagram, rumors they get in their DMs, what they discuss on their reality TV podcast, or if they even liked each other’s Instagram posts. Any real-life conflict created off-camera is never really explained. Stars avoid the true stories at the heart of their conflicts to preserve their reputation.

Although the fourth season of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City was successful in its conceit, it revolved around rumors we now know came from Garcia (though, generally speaking, the cast refused to acknowledge or even say what the rumors were on camera). Competition shows are a different beast than Real Housewives, but Survivor—which one could argue has social strategy in common with the Real Housewives franchisehas a similar problem: it is so studied by its superfan cast members that the game feels hacked, with winners more impressive for luck or finding advantages than for their gameplay.

Social media participation—both from talent and audience—has also contributed to this, with too many explanations, too many complaints, and, particularly in Bravo’s case, too much listening to its audience. Outrage on social media led to the dissolution of the original cast of the Real Housewives of New York after its first and only bad season (a reboot, featuring Jenna Lyons, premiered in 2023), and has created a blueprint for the Housewives universe where slow-burn cast members don’t get a renewed contract. Then, there is the abysmal hate Vanderpump Rules’ Rachel Levis got during “Scandoval,” resulting in her opting out of coming back on the show, which proves that the audience can get too involved. If the stars of a show like Vanderpump Rules—which revolves around sloppy people who lie and cheat—are morally policed, do they even have a show? Or, at least, a compelling one?

The internet is oftentimes an easy thing to blame, but in this case, it’s true: the dissolution of reality TV as we know it is the result of an overflow of information. We simply know too much now, and casts are in turn too aware of how these shows work. What used to be a necessary separation between audience and cast feels snapped in two, and Bravo has mended it with Scotch tape.

Carrie Wittmer

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