It seems redundant to say that "reality" TV is entering its decadent phase, so I'll suggest instead that it's proving remarkably versatile at recombining its constituent ideas. Last night, for example, saw the debut of Married by America, in which young men and women compete for the chance to marry someone sight unseen. The idea seems new, which is one reason why millions of Americans tuned in to gape at it, but it's actually a pretty straightforward cross between Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and American Idol.
The hardest thing to swallow here is the idea that these improbably good-looking contestants would have any trouble attracting a mate some other way. But then, that's hardly the only reason to participate. The show's alleged losers have a much better shot at a career pitching products or playing bit parts than its winner has at enjoying a long and happy marriage, which may explain why hardly anyone seemed disappointed when they were eliminated.
The real pleasure here is watching a form of evolution in action, as network execs learn from their past successes and imitate what they take to be the most popular features in reality TV. Supposing, for the sake of argument, that they know what they're doing, what do their decisions tell us about America's aggregate preferences?
Love is more interesting than money. These days the only way to launch a new prime-time show with a cash prize involved is to attach that money to the promise of eternal romantic bliss. (Or eternal mutual dissatisfaction.) Every dollar looks the same, after all, but every bimbo and himbo is amusing in a different way.
OK, so some of them are exactly the same. But there are enough different character templates out there, and enough different ways to bounce them off each other, to fuel a hundred different show ideas.
Rules are a MacGuffin. Apparently, it's not important if you can't follow the alleged rules of the game. I don't know what those judges were saying to each other, and I didn't know American Idol was going to have "wild card" contestants either. It doesn't matter. They're an excuse to advance the story, not a rulebook you can follow at home.
Don't take yourself too seriously. There's a small niche for reality shows that don't mock the genre, as the success of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette makes clear. Even here, you can make the case that they're simply outsourcing their mocking chores to the audience. (I'm told that you have to watch those shows regularly to get into them, which presumably explains why I can't stand them at all. The one time I sat through The Bachelorette, the characters were vapid enough to be boring but not vapid enough to do anything entertainingly strange.)
But the real money is in self-mockery. Joe Millionaire satirizes half the genre. This Surreal Life satirizes the other half. And Married by America never strays from being light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek. The next variation on it, I suppose, could be mean-spirited and tongue-in-cheek. They could throw in some obvious losers, and bring in Simon to explain why no one would ever want to marry them. They could feature nothing but pregnant 19-year-olds, competing to marry the class geek. They could set up Klansmen with Black Muslims. They could raid years of Springer for ideas.
Diamonds tarnish, but roaches are forever. Joe Rogan's Fear Factor is on the verge of lasting longer than Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Think about that for a while.
Documentaries are more fun than we thought. Don't try to tell me that reality TV shows don't count as documentaries, just because they contain much more spectacle than truth. As Jean Renoir once said, documentaries are the most false form of filmmaking. All that's different here is that the documentary's been crossbred with the game show.
Here's what makes the result fun: unpredictability. A measured, controlled unpredictability that must survive all the rules the programmers set up and then not get lost on the editing floor, but an unpredictability nonetheless. There's always the possibility that someone will do something unexpected, which marks a welcome contrast with most TV comedies and dramas, in which no one ever does anything unexpected at all.
I will leave it to the reader to decide whether that means reality TV shows are extraordinarily good or the rest of the prime-time schedule is extraordinarily bad.