Everyone who knows me knows this: raccoons are my spirit animal. I love trash. I like collecting knick-knacks, I save my movie tickets, and I absolutely love bad entertainment. I can’t count the amount of times my mom came into the living room and asked me why I keep watching garbage–or as she collectively called bad television–The Kardash. Why she could never get the title of the Kardashian’s famous reality tv-show right is beyond me, but I digress.
It’s true, I do love watching Keeping up with the Kardashians. I also particularly love other shows on TLC or MTV, with big shoutout to Say Yes to the Dress and Catfish. But every time I watch these shows, I hear an echo of my mother’s voice–like a war flashback–asking me why I’m wasting my time on these shows. What is it about these shows that entertain me to no end? Now that it’s so cold out, I feel no guilt staying in and watching cooking show after baking show after 90 Day Fiance. So why is it so satisfying to watch Kourtney Kardashian shut down her over the top dramatic sisters with a deadpan comment? Why do I love to cry when a bride says yes to her dress? Why do I get so invested in the relationship where one person is probably just trying to get a green card?
In order to answer myself, I think I should clarify what kind of shows I’m talking about. Garbage TV can be organised into different categories:
The first is simply reality TV. I like to think of this category as Life™. This category simply follows a person or a group of people during a certain period of their lives. This can be a brief period of time, such as an afternoon or a week, but it can extend up to a few weeks or months–or in the Kardashians’ case the rest of their lives. The Life™ shows have simple goals, such as finding a wedding dress or the person they have been talking to online. Some Life™ shows have none at all, except for being entertaining and showing the life of a specific person or group of people, such as teen moms. There is no prize for the people on the shows, they simply focus on their lives. Examples of the Life™ category are Teen Mom, Catfish: the TV Show, Ex on the Beach, and Say Yes to the Dress.
Now, I can hear you asking: why do we care about these random people’s lives, Elise? I think we have a natural curiosity about life and how other people live it. It’s not just about comparing our own lives to theirs, like damn I’m glad I wasn’t a teen mom, but it’s also this sort of daydreaming aspect like, what would I do if I had a billion dollar empire like the Kardashians? It’s entertaining to have a peek into other people’s lives, even if it is a small snippet, such as a bride finding her wedding dress.
The second category is something I’d like to call The Failure Setup. Alternatively, I like to call this the Cringe Inducer. This usually a sort of competition or challenge where the viewers are meant to root for the success of contestants. The twist is usually that the contestants are setup to fail in some way or other. The first show that comes to mind for this category is TLC’s First Time Flippers. On First Time Flippers a pair of contestants buy a house, renovate it, and attempt to sell it. The catch here is that they have never flipped a house before, they have a budget, and they have a set timeline. From the episodes I’ve seen, they rarely finish on time and are usually over budget. Yikes.
Another Cringe Inducer is First Dates. We’ve all seen these episodes. People go on blind dates in hope to find the ever-elusive true lurv. Viewers watch as a couple has their first date in a restaurant, watching their conversation from appetizer, to entree, to desert, and finally, to the bill and the question: will they split it? After the bill has been paid, the couple is asked if there will be another date, which leads to some awkward and cringey moments, such as one person wanting a second date and the other who would rather not.
There is something so satisfying about cringing at these shows. The entertainment is in the cringe, the secondhand embarrassment. Why does The Cringe feel so good? For me, I think cringe is simply a sense of relief. Something along the lines of shit, I’m so glad that isn’t me. But there is also something so satisfying about watching someone fail, and then making a comeback. You root for these people and live through the cringe with them and finally, when they succeed you once again feel a sense of relief, but this time because something good happened.
Finally, the third–and possibly my favourite–category is the Oddly Specific shows. I imagine that the birth of these shows begins with someone thinking of a title for a show. This title get passed on to a producer, who in turn presents the title to a network, where the title gets turned into a concept, and finally gets funded and turns into a show. The best example of this, to me, is TLC’s My Big Fat Pet Makeover. My Big Fat Pet Makeover follows animal trainer Travis Brorsen’s journey to raise awareness of pet obesity. He advises pet owners as they attempt to help their furry friends on their weight-loss journey. The premise of this show is ridiculous, but boy, am I entertained.
Another Oddly Specific show is Little Life on the Prairie. I can’t say that I’ve actually watched this show, but it definitely sounds like something some producer thought of and then promptly presented to the TLC execs. Little Life on the Prairie is a show that follows the life of a family that moves out to the countryside to live on a farm. But here’s the catch: they have dwarfism. Thus, Little Life on the Prairie.
The thing about Oddly Specific shows is that you see the title and feel intrigue. What does this mean? you ask yourself. This may be the best (or worst) form of procrastination when it comes to watching TV.
What all of these shows have in common is the entertainment factor. They entertain in different ways, such as making you cringe and giving you little peaks into other people’s lives. At the end of the day, these shows seem to be an escape for viewers. My mother doesn’t see the appeal to these shows, and I generally feel like Gen Z kids enjoy these shows more often than not, whether as a guilty pleasure or not. I have seen Gen Z alternatively being called the burnout generation, and I have to say that doesn’t seem far from the truth. A general malaise hangs around this generation, and these shows offer a moment of release, where viewers, for the briefest moment, can live the life of someone else. A lot of these shows also really show the humanity of the people in it. I won’t claim that none of it is scripted, however they often portray people as what they are: people. People who are trying to find love, who are trying to take care of their fat pet, or renovate a house. This humanity is something that is endearing, to see someone try their best or live their lives. I think that is the reason why I personally get so invested in these shows that seemingly have nothing more to offer except entertainment. I enjoy finding the humanity in a space that loves fiction.