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Lithium The case for reality TV: coping with the new normal

Aug. 3, 2020
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Illustration by Chloe Leeson for Screen Queens

Before quarantine, I’d restrained myself from the inexplicable allure of reality TV shows; I’d seen enough Cody Ko reactions to Love Island to get the picture: reality dating shows are ridiculously fabricated, overly dramatic, and a waste of time. But after binging a variety of Netflix’s newest reality shows, including Too Hot to Handle, Love Is Blind, and The Circle, I’ve found that reality TV has taken on a greater meaning in the time of social distancing. It’s no longer about imagining an unrealistic world; instead, these shows teach us to see more clearly how this world, our world, is experiencing a supernormal time, and to embrace the prospects of a new normal.

As I spend day after day at home with my parents, it’s hard to believe that just over two months ago I was living in an NYC college dorm room, surrounded by the thrill of parties, the subway system, hook-up culture, and dating. Today, just the thought of standing in a crowded, sweaty room, let alone kissing someone in that crowded, sweaty room, is almost nauseating. We are living in a time when previously ordinary actions––hugs, kisses, and handshakes––are signs of hazard and ignorance. 

The sudden lack of accessibility to and desire for physical closeness is hard to reconcile––especially for college students, when the experimentation and exploration of our bodies (and minds) is a crucial part of the on-campus experience. As we lose this aspect of college life, we find ourselves adapting to new methods: Zoom talks, Netflix Parties, and even Haiku collages have required a reimagination of the ways we connect.

The premises of Netflix’s newest reality shows all seem to challenge an element of modern love––elements that we also find ourselves reconceptualizing in this unusual time. Love Is Blind puts contestants on literal blind dates, where they can’t see each other’s physicalities and instead must connect purely through dialogue. In The Circle, participants compete in a popularity contest of sorts, in which they interact solely through a social-media platform. Too Hot to Handle puts a group of “sexed-up” individuals together in a house and restricts physical displays of affection and self-gratification. These shows, however manufactured or sensationalized or lacking in artfulness, seem to challenge the normal premises of reality TV romance. By bringing social media, sex, and physical attraction into conversation with love, each show attempts to redefine classical conceptions of connection––and I can’t think of a better time to do so.

Of course, we can’t ignore the humor, cheese, and cringe within these shows that reality TV typically offers. I’m thinking of quotes like THTH’s Francesca asking “What’s the number for 911?” and moments like when Matt essentially proposed to Jessica in Love Is Blind and then took it back the next day. Scenes like these are feeding grounds for sensation and virality, and, as psychologists note, this is part of the reason why reality TV is so popular. 

But we’re also drawn to reality TV because, for better or for worse, we tend to look to the behavior of characters as inspiration and draw parallels between their circumstances and our own. For instance, although we don’t solely communicate through social media like those in The Circle, we do find ourselves communicating through the screen, perhaps more than ever before. As I watch Harry and Francesca struggle to restrain from their physical desires in THTH, I can’t help but think about how, in quarantine, we’ve also been challenged to give up old practices of physical contact. THTH didn’t teach me that sex, kissing, or masturbation are detrimental to relationships, and Love Is Blind hasn’t convinced me that physical attraction is pointless when it comes to love. Both shows, however, made me consider what happens when we surrender a once-thought necessary aspect of connection. When you take away the dramatized editing, cringeworthy dialogue, and unrealistic criteria, there’s an underlying resonance and timeliness in these shows. Reality TV romance reimagines and challenges us to connect in new and unforeseen ways, a hallmark of our collective quarantine experience.

The other day, a friend texted me, “when all this is over, we need to hang out!” As much as I miss my friends, these kinds of texts always baffle me; what does all this mean? When is over? As I look to the near future, it’s difficult to envision a time when college and life at large will simply go back to the social and physical closeness they once allotted. Some colleges have already announced that the fall semester will continue online; others are working to entirely change the structure of our learning environments to gradually facilitate in-person learning. In the near future, it doesn’t seem possible to simply go back to the way we once lived––the dining halls, the parties, the hugs, and the hook-ups are likely to undergo a structural upheaval. 

While the picture of the future is still developing, it’s pretty obvious that we’re going to have to embrace a new normal of sorts. The once quixotic world presented in reality TV might actually help us do exactly what’s needed: to alter our mindsets, to embrace the unknown, and to reimagine our definition of normal. Only then can the future begin to look a little more bearable.