Why do we love Reality TV so much? It’s a question I’ve asked myself often, as I watched my friends get sucked into different shows over the years.
Clearly the answer is different for all of us. For some people it’s the glamour – the beautiful contestants and enviable locations, factors that shows like Keeping up with the Kardashians or The Bachelor amplify for all they’re worth, with contestants offered private helicopter rides and experiencing fairytale dates – a lifestyle many of us can only imagine.
For others it’s the intrigue – the fun of guessing who will win out in each scenario, of trying to figure out who’s playing who, who’s got the measure of the show’s designated villain, and who’s out to win at all costs – something shows like Traitors and Big Brother really excel at.
Then there’s the romance – the real life will they, won’t they that shows like Love Island or Married at First Sight spin off. Who doesn’t want a romantic happy ever after?
And for some it’s the chance to see celebrities up close and vulnerable, with the mask off – definitely the lure of shows like I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. In an age where celebrities can seem like gilded gods, it can be highly entertaining to see them lose their cool like everyone else.
Whatever that secret combination of catnip ingredients is, that makes a hit show, it’s something I’ve tried to figure out since becoming addicted myself to the very first season of what was arguably the UK’s very first reality TV show, Big Brother*, which aired on Channel 4 here in the UK back in the year 2000.
I was a student at the time, and like everyone else I knew, I was gripped by the show. It was the perfect after-class thing to watch with friends, immersive, voyeuristic – sometimes even uncomfortable – and it created stars out of its first contestants. There was “Nasty Nick” who grasped, much faster than the other contestants, that the show was not a popularity contest, or even a fly on the wall documentary, but a game – and one that he was playing to win. He was eventually ejected after the producers tipped off his housemates that he was lying and manipulating to avoid being nominated for eviction – something that seems completely remarkable now in the light of the brutality of modern-day shows. There was runner-up Anna, whose life as a lesbian ex-nun was treated as titillating column fodder by the press. And then, as a kind of polar opposite to Nasty Nick, there was charming nice guy Craig, a bricklayer who eventually won the series and cemented his reputation by donating his winnings to a friend, to raise money for her heart and lung transplant.
The contestants weren’t quite a microcosm of society – they were overwhelmingly young, extrovert, and only a handful were non white. But I think what I was fascinated by – and perhaps the factor that unites all the reasons above – is the way that the show did hold up a kind of mirror to the viewers. These were ordinary people, in spite of the strange circumstances – and in spite of the cameras, they quickly began to act in very ordinary ways, forming friendships, rivalries, scheming and supporting. In them, viewers were able to see their own actions and motivations play out in the goldfish bowl of the Big Brother house – and it was fascinating.
But as the years wore on, as reality TV shows became more commonplace on TV, and the formats became more outlandish (Married at First Sight? Dating Naked?) I found myself losing interest. I dipped in and out of shows like I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here and Love Island but I never found myself completely absorbed as I had been with that first season of Big Brother.
Partly, it was just an age thing – I had two small kids and a demanding job, I no longer had time to keep up with shows, and struggled to care about the mind games and petty squabbles of the contestants when I was exhausted by a teething baby, and trying to figure out how to pay the bills. But partly I think it was the fact that the factor that had first attracted me to Big Brother (ordinary people in an extraordinary situation) was disappearing. Increasingly the contestants weren’t ordinary people – they were aspiring actors, models, influencers, who were competing for an unspoken and entirely different prize: fame. And on the other end, the producers were picking contestants more for their looks and for their willingness to create controversy. In a strange way, reality TV had become… unreal. Just another form of acting.
However when The Traitors came around last year, I found myself once again getting sucked in.
I don’t know what it was exactly about The Traitors that piqued my interest, but undoubtedly part of it was the crime-adjacent format, the idea of setting some contestants up to deceive the others, while the rest try to see through the lies. For those who haven’t seen the show, the format is twenty contestants shut in a remote Scottish castle together. In the case of the UK version, these were exclusively regular people, with no reality TV stars. A few of them – initially three – are selected as “traitors”, the rest are “faithfuls”. Every night someone is selected for eviction by a brutal public vote. If the faithful evict all the traitors, they win. But if even one traitor remains at the end of the game, the traitors win and scoop the entire prize pot, making it sometimes strategically important for them to betray their fellow traitors to remain above suspicion.
It’s a format that in some ways could have come from one of my books – and as someone who makes my living writing about liars and deception in fiction, the chance to see a real-life version play out was irresistible. What fascinated me was a theme I’ve explored often in books like The It Girl and One Perfect Couple; how very bad people often are at seeing through the machinations of others, and how frequently they reward the charming but unreliable people around them rather than the more unhonest but less sympathetic.
I watched, hypnotised as the contestants on The Traitors ignored the evidence under their noses and instead based their verdicts on “a funny feeling” or, more often, personal grudges that had no bearing on the identity of the traitors. In a bitter twist of logic, that often translated to the most honest contestants being punished for speaking their minds – and the most deceptive being rewarded for telling people what they wanted to hear.
It was a sharp reminder of how extremely difficult it can be to tell real honesty from feigned, and real friendship from fake declarations of loyalty. The traitors mostly came across as lovely people – which was exactly the point. These people had been hand-picked by the producers precisely because they were charming and plausible – and prepared to be ruthless into the bargain.
All of that was territory which was fascinating to me. I began to think about how the most charming people are often the ones least to be trusted, and how that might play out both in a game show situation, and in real life – and how the two scenarios might bleed into one another, given the right circumstances.
From all of those questions, One Perfect Couple was born.
* I realise this is a contentious claim, given shows like The Real World had been around since the early nineties, but I would say that Big Brother and Survivor, which launched in the UK the same year, were the first reality TV game shows, rather than a show which simply observed the participants, and particularly the first of those which made eviction a key game mechanic.