Does Reality TV Deserve Its Bad Rap?

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Does Reality TV Deserve Its Bad Rap?

Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1, 2021.

Do you watch any reality television shows? If so, what are your favorites? What do you like about them?

Do you think of reality television as a time-waster, or a guilty pleasure? Or do you think that TV snobs are the ones missing out?

In “11 Reality Shows to Watch With Your Older Kids,” Noel Murray recommends several entertaining, even substantive, reality shows for teenagers to watch with their families:

The reality TV genre often gets dismissed as irredeemably trashy and filled with fame-starved men and women who’ll stab each other in the back to get more time on camera. But that’s not always the case. Many reality series are more like a cross between a documentary and a game show, featuring a diverse assortment of ordinary people who demonstrate their wits, skills and simple human decency as they compete to win a lot money. And some, like the recent Netflix hit “Floor Is Lava,” are just good, goofy fun, ideal for all ages.

The 11 shows below are exciting, funny, moving and educational — and exactly the kind of television that parents should be watching with their kids.

The article continues with Mr. Murray’s recommendations:

‘The Great British Baking Show’
There’s a reason this internationally popular cook-off is considered the nicest show on television. In addition to making some eye-catching cakes, pies and breads, the amateur bakers are all friendly and supportive rather than ruthless. By casting people who represent a variety of ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds, “The Great British Baking Show” producers are presenting an encouragingly utopian vision of Britain in the 21st century, depicting an eclectic and inviting nation where people appreciate each other for both their differences and for what they have in common.

‘Nailed It!’
Maybe the funniest reality series, “Nailed It!” functions like a parody of “The Great British Baking Show,” replacing skilled home cooks with more ordinary, bumbling bakers. Tasked to replicate impossibly intricate and beautifully decorated confections — under ridiculously tight deadlines, with weird impediments to overcome — these lovable schmoes do their best to produce something that looks and tastes at least passable. Host Nicole Byer brings just the right note of cheery whimsy to a series that allows the audience to laugh at the contestants’ foibles while also encouraging us to admire their pluck.

‘Project Runway: Junior’
Most Little League versions of reality competitions are way too simplified and cutesy; but “Project Runway: Junior” contains nearly everything that made the original a hit, from the fiendish design challenges to the shrewd judging. The big difference is that these teenage designers treat their time together more like a fun and congenial summer camp than like a must-win struggle to become fashion’s next big thing. This is a “Project Runway” with a refreshing feel-good vibe, populated by some arty high school outsiders who boost each other’s self-esteem as they make amazing clothes.

‘Survivor’
It’s only right to end with the granddaddy of American reality TV competitions, which has been on the air for 40 seasons stretched across 20 years. It’s as fascinating in 2020 as it was in 2000 to watch a group of strangers test their physical limits on a remote beach while also forging alliances and secretly strategizing. As with so many other shows on this list, “Survivor” is packed with teachable moments, offering lessons about game theory, trust and the foundations of society itself.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Mr. Murray writes that “the reality TV genre often gets dismissed as irredeemably trashy.” Do you agree with this judgment? Why do you think that some television shows are labeled “highbrow” or intellectual, while others are considered “lowbrow” or trashy? Is this distinction valuable? How do you think art and culture are used to signal social status or class?

  • What worthwhile reality shows would you add to Mr. Murray’s list? Who are some of your favorite contestants, hosts or guest stars you’ve encountered on reality TV and why?

  • Mr. Murray describes two of the shows he mentions as “depicting an eclectic and inviting nation where people appreciate each other for both their differences and for what they have in common” and “offering lessons about game theory, trust and the foundations of society itself.” What messages have you gotten from reality television? What lessons have you learned from your favorite shows?

  • What would you change about reality television? Do you think the genre promotes dangerous stereotypes or underrepresents people of color? How do you think these issues should be addressed?

  • In 2015, we asked students which reality shows they would want to join as a guest star or contestant. Which shows would you want to enter? Why?


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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.