Hands up: Who remembers Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? Some of you with your hands up are fibbing. The TV special aired in 1995 and connoisseurs of such schlock may well have lost a few brain cells since then. Or so the theory goes: Watching dumb, sensationalist reality TV rots your brain.
I bring up Alien Autopsy because the mad genius responsible for it recently left his position at Fox. That’s Mike Darnell who, after bringing Fox bumper ratings for the Alien Autopsy fandango, went on to deliver World’s Scariest Police Chases, Temptation Island and Joe Millionaire, among other attention-grabbing, almost universally condemned reality-TV gimmicks. Later, he helped mould American Idol and The X-Factor, two concepts borrowed from other countries. Rumours that Darnell is in Toronna, figuring out how to make the City Hall scandal into a gangbusters reality-TV concept – “World’s Scariest Mayor!” – are just that. Rumours.
Darnell’s exit comes as the wheel of reality TV is turning. And it’s not because we happen to live in a golden age of TV drama. It’s true that we do, but reality TV still accounts for a substantial amount of air time. The shows are cheap to make and, with the right amount of media attention, can be lucrative. It’s just that we’re seeing the end of reality TV as we’ve known it for a while.
American Idol remains a hit show but has lost its lustre. The X-Factor, which will return next season, has never had any lustre.
Meanwhile, shows that Darnell had nothing to do with, but helped inspire, such as ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, are facing declining ratings. Similarly, shows about top models and singles looking for love are in decline. The new season of The Bachelorette, which started recently, showed a ratings decline of 25 per cent from the previous season. For some reason, not that many people are gripped by 27-year-old Desiree Hartsock, a bridal stylist, going on dates with slimy guys.
With the exception of The Voice, a show with a gimmick that’s still fresh, performance shows are fading. And when is the last time anybody cared about America’s Next Top Model?
What’s trending now in the reality-TV genre is represented mainly by Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Duck Dynasty and Long Island Medium. Two of the three air on TLC and Duck Dynasty is on A&E. What sets these apart are their proximity, in style and tone, to a very traditional TV genre – the family sitcom. Especially in the case of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty, the “reality” aspect is emphatically and obviously manufactured. While these shows are offered as a sort of fly-on-the-wall chronicles of odd family units, they are clearly structured like sitcoms – somebody always learns a valuable life lesson, delivered with whimsical humour. Even Long Island Medium, about a woman who claims to be able to contact the dead, and is obviously faking it, is built around the way in which her immediate family handles her alleged powers.
Obviously there is still some appetite for those Real Housewives shows, but those, too, are getting less attention and fewer viewers. What’s replaced them is encapsulated in Preachers’ Daughters, the reality series on Lifetime that examines the teenage lives of young women raised by religious families. It too depends on intricate family dynamics that would not be out of place on any network comedy or drama about a fictional family.
Who knows what Mike Darnell thinks of this new trend? But one suspects he finds it all too tame and left Fox because his era is over. Besides, as events here in Toronna prove, sometimes authentic reality trumps anything that reality-TV’s genius can dream up.
In a coincidental move, CBC’s Julie Bristow, executive director, studio and unscripted programming, left the broadcaster last week. After, of course, inflicting Battle of the Blades on us for another season. And allowing Dragons’ Den to morph into a weekly venue for the ego-growth of its panelists. Bristow said on Twitter that she’s looking forward to “an exciting and new global venture.” Look out world – Canadian reality TV (sorry “studio and unscripted programming”) is coming at you! In all seriousness, the current age of reality TV, in the United States and Canada, is ending. Honey Boo Boo triumphed over everything. For now. True schlock never dies, though, and an updated Alien Autopsy would probably do very well right now, or at any time.
Mistresses (ABC, CTV, 10 p.m.) has a title that’s much more salacious than its content. Very loosely based on the British series of the same name, it is less about home-wreckers than it is about four female friends (played by Alyssa Milano, Jes Macallan, Yunjin Kim and Rochelle Aytes) suffering together through indiscretions and romances. The shock value is minimal, so don’t complain to me that isn’t as soft-porn as you expected. It’s more about hugs and kisses than bed-hopping.
All times ET. Check local listings.