Reality TV: Realism and Revelation

By Taddeo, Julie Anne | Film & History, July 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Reality TV: Realism and Revelation


Taddeo, Julie Anne, Film & History


Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn. Reality TV: Realism and Revelation. Wallflower Press, 2005. 183 pages; $22.50.

Therapeutic Culture

In Reality TV: Realism and Revelation, Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn discuss the cultural significance of reality TV programming in Britain. Using several case studies, the authors demonstrate how this genre (which includes talk and game shows, law and order programming, 24/7 formats, and dramatic reconstruction) has changed viewers' expectations, the definition of celebrity, and, most importantly, the representation of the "truth." Each chapter reads like a separate essay, but uniting such topics as the documentaries of Errol Morris, re-enactments like The Trench, and the televised death-defying stunts of illusionist David Blaine is the relationship between subjectivity and performance. Further, the emphasis on confession and exhibitionism indicates how pervasive "therapeutic discourse" and "the revelation of trauma" have become in popular culture (7).

The initial chapters describe various examples of the observational documentary in order to trace how reality TV programs, with their focus on "ordinary" (i.e. working and middle class citizens) have borrowed from this format. What has been lost, for better or worse, however, is the political, left-leaning agenda of the documentary. State-funded films of the '30s and '40s, for instance, examined the lives of the working class and advocated change, while docudramas (films that used fictional characters to treat real social issues), like Cathy Come Home by director Ken Loach, gave viewers access to tenements and caravans, satisfying voyeuristic curiosity but also exposing the failure of the welfare state to abolish the class barrier in Britain. Yet as film and TV began to focus more and more on narratives of personal trauma, the goal of political advocacy took a back seat to the focus on domestic drama and "narrative-fuelled entertainment" (84). Reality TV programming is both a product of and fuelled by what Biressi and Nunn call a "therapeutic culture," with its dominance of subjective experience and the eroding boundary between public and private.

One of the most disturbing examples of the media's and viewing public's fascination with the revelation of personal trauma was the British Everyman documentary series on Court TV, Our Father the Serial Killer. Biressi and Nunn make excellent use of this strange program in which a brother and sister, convinced that their now elderly and harmless-looking father committed a series of grisly murders, retrace the scenes of his alleged crimes. Though the program never proves or disproves the father's guilt, it becomes clear that the siblings were victims of abuse at his hands. That such a trauma-based narrative would attract a large viewing audience and serve as "entertainment" is a topic worthy of its own book.

Perhaps the weakest part of Reality TV: Realism and Revelation is its cursory attention to the larger historical context in which reality TV has grown up. The authors make passing reference to changes in technology that have led to audience-driven programs, as well as the breakdown of the economic and social order that allows working class participants in such shows as Big Brother to attain publicity and instant wealth. …

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