*I divide reality television into two groups: game shows and drama.
The game shows involve individuals or groups competing to achieve some goal faster or better than others. Often this is dependent on some combination of skill (Jeopardy, Naked and Afraid) and luck (The Price is Right – a win on contestant row is to some degree contingent on how well your competition bids). The drama shows follow the basic formula of: throw a bunch of people together and see what happens (MTV’s The Real World pioneered this sub-genre). Apparently the state of human existence is such that with as low a number as six people there is bound to be factions and conflict between multiple individuals.
I generally don’t watch reality television but I respect the game show group; I alternate between being rubbed wrong and loathing the drama group. I feel it is exploitative (although many would and do gladly sign up for the financial benefits of this exploitation). And there is no reasonable justification for choosing Ms. Smith to be a part of the show versus Mr. Jones. At least with the skill based game shows there is a screening process – no one simply shows up on Chopped without some background in the culinary industry.
Having said all of that I believe I’ve discovered the best reality show in the history of television: RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Although my wife has watched just about every season of the show (so I’ve been in the room as she watched many episodes) I never looked at it closely. As a hetero man, I wasn’t enticed by the homosexual eye candy; as a non drag aficionado I didn’t appreciate their performance art, as an anti-fashionisto I overlooked the creative aspect of the show, and it always seemed as if the drama element of the show was being emphasized. Recently I actually paid more attention to the show than I had over the past decade and realized how wrong I was.
First I’ve always appreciated Project Runway because those contestants are there based specifically on a skill. This is also true of the people on Drag Race multiple times over. They all have to be creative enough to imagine an alter ego for themselves. It might be said that because they are all drag queens that they have to perform against their gender which makes this task even more difficult an skill to accomplish it more impressive. In the process of bringing their drag persona to life they must produce an outfit for this character (sewing), do their own makeup, and perform in character. The episode I saw recently (and there was nothing to indicate that this was an anomaly) the contestants had to create multiple looks for their drag character so essentially they had to do all of that stuff 3 times.
Each episode involves a runway show to showcase the characters and outfits, but this also means that the contestants have employ runway modelling as another skill. In addition most episodes have some sort of challenge in which the contestants have to act or model in character. The revelation that each of these folks is inherently creative and utilizing various skill sets at a high level inspired two reactions in me. First it was surprise and respect. More specifically it was respect for what they’re doing, and surprise that I respected it having dismissed the show for so long, and surprise that it took this long to realize how good the contestants had to be.
My second reaction was disappointment that it took me this long to realize how good the contestants had to be. I imagine I am not the only person who has had these types of reactions. This is primarily my responsibility for not challenging my prejudice about a drag queen show on the Logo Network. But as I examine that prejudice (this show couldn’t possibly be for me) I conclude that my bias against the show didn’t materialize from thin air. In fact was the result of growing up at a time when gay people were often the butt of jokes, transgender people were invisible, and drag queens were subject to violence. Luckily we have progressed to a point where all three of those groups are recognized as deserving citizenship privileges by the government. So the next show that features queer people won’t have such an uphill climb to achieve mass appeal.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has an outside layer of LGBTQ but at its core is a show about imagination, a show about skill, a show about performance, a show about the psychology of gender norms, a show about impersonation. And if none of that interests you, it also has some drama sprinkled in.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @historictrev