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How Reality TV Went From Launchpad to Dumpster

Minor spoilers for the second episode of The Comeback's sophomore season. It's no mystery why The Comeback, which returned for its second season this past Sunday after a nine-year hiatus, never became a big hit for HBO. Other mockumentaries like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family have thrived,...
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Minor spoilers for the second episode of The Comeback's sophomore season.

It's no mystery why The Comeback, which returned for its second season this past Sunday after a nine-year hiatus, never became a big hit for HBO. Other mockumentaries like The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family have thrived, but Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King's Hollywood-based cringe comedy centers on a protagonist who's uniquely difficult to relate to: a middle-aged, out-of-work actress whose career depends on eating shit with a polite grin, and who doesn't mind making certain other people eat shit too when she's in the position to do so.

The Comeback's eight-episode sophomore season is powerful and amusing and sad, and Kudrow is astoundingly good as Valerie Cherish, the gratingly chirpy has-been sitcom star barely suppressing her enormous desperation and rage. Season 2 finds Valerie signing up for a co-starring role in an HBO drama that's written by and based on the experiences of her hateful ex Paulie G. (Lance Barber). Valerie plays Mallory, a misogynistic caricature of herself, while omnipresent cameras hired by the actress film her every move and humiliation, like being told by a network exec that she "still look[s] real," i.e., old. 

It's telling, though, that these eight new episodes take their aim not at reality TV (like the first season did) but at the testosterone-fueled, sexually exploitative, auteur-driven cable dramas that HBO's proudest offerings comprise. The season premiere does feature cameos from RuPaul, Top Chef's Carla Hall, and Beverly Hills Housewives cast member Lisa Vanderpump, as well as name-checks of other Housewives Bethenny Frankel and Teresa Giudice. But as anxious and reckless as Valerie is with her professional choices, even she's over reality TV: "I was there at the beginning [of the genre] with The Comeback [Valerie's reality show]. Back then, it was just me and people eating bugs on Survivor." Cameras still follow Valerie around everywhere, but it's no longer for a shot at Bravo's schedule; rather, they're creating behind-the-scenes footage for Valerie's new show, Seeing Red.

The Comeback's tectonic shift in its approach to reality TV reflects the free fall in perception the genre has taken in just a decade. In the early years of Survivor and American Idol, reality TV seemed like a fast-forwarded, hyper-pressured way of achieving the American Dream: win a million dollars or a bona fide chance at stardom. And while The Simple Life proved that Paris Hilton really was the undeserving dullard of the celebrity world, it gave us a charismatic personality in sidekick Nicole Richie. Two years later, reality TV found one of its unlikeliest heroines: Kathy Griffin, whose Emmy-winning My Life on the D-List humanized the niche comedian and explored the busy and vulnerable person behind her brassy persona.

By the time Bravo rolled out its critical darlings Project Runway and Top Chef, a schism within the reality world set in permanently between the competition shows, many of which reward talent and remain launchpads for a select few participants (but more reliably for its hosts or judges), and the non-competition shows, many of which devolved into little more than freak shows.

Non-competition programs occasionally produced aspirational figures thereafter, like Kim Kardashian and the blond clones on The Hills and Laguna Beach. None of these women (and for whatever reason, it's almost always women who end up anchoring these kinds of shows) were universally respected by any stretch of the imagination, but they were popular enough to launch fashion and perfume lines -- and in Kardashian's case, numerous spin-offs starring her sisters.

But Griffin, Richie, and Kardashian are the rare success stories to come out of reality TV. Numerous other spotlight-seekers like Whitney Houston, Anna Nicole Smith, Jessica Simpson, and Sarah Palin were chewed up and spit out by the process. Divorce and bankruptcy became the new off-camera narratives about the Real Housewives franchise, which has always trafficked in envying well-to-do women's mansions and bank accounts while scorning what they choose to buy with their money and do with their leisure time. Then The Swan and Extreme Makeover, with its emphasis on major plastic surgery, made aspiration itself grotesque. The genre was done with try-hards.

When Jersey Shore debuted in 2009, reality TV entered a new era: showcasing geographical pockets of poverty, authenticity, and otherness in ways that often disapproved of those deemed unusual or unconventional. Reality TV rarely punched up, but now shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and the just-canceled Here Comes Honey Boo Boo definitely punched down. TLC has led the pack with freak-show fare like Sister Wives, 19 Kids and Counting, and The Man With the 132-Pound Scrotum, though to be fair, the polygamous Browns and the hyper-fertile Duggars are also made relatable through the chronicling of their day-to-day struggles. Meanwhile, the former Learning Channel might be outdone in the WTF arena by the Discovery Channel's Eaten Alive, announced the same weekend The Comeback premiered, which will document a man being swallowed by an anaconda.

The genre's fast-waning popularity is evident in the fact that Bravo and E!, the two cable networks that pioneered, then flourished, through endless variations of the "crazy women throwing wine at each other" genre, both ordered their first scripted series this year.

Determined narcissists who might have jumped at the chance to join a reality show a decade ago now have a much better medium for self-absorption in YouTube: Online, they can be as honest and as overexposed as they wish, with the added luxury of presenting their identities (and disguising their flaws) exactly as they please, bypassing the traditional gatekeepers that keep television still so lacking in racial, gender, and sexual diversity. Authenticity may catch up to reality yet.

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