First off, a salutary reminder about taste in TV viewing, audience appreciation and the vapidity of online-generated controversy. It comes courtesy of Bill Brioux, the veteran, now freelance, critic who has seen it all.
In a recent blog post, Bill points to the viewing numbers for last Sunday in Canada. The MTV Video Music Awards, which aired here on MuchMusic, was enormously controversial, to judge from Twitter and other social media. Surely the most-watched event of the night? Not so. The VMAs drew just 434,000 viewers. In fact more people watched Broadchurch on Showcase (450,000), which is the lesson – for all the fuss, more people were gripped by an excellent British crime drama than by the shenanigans of alleged pop stars.
There's a lot of cheesy TV and it generates an inordinate amount of coverage. Reality shows, game shows, competition shows and stuff that's nothing more than one-note sensationalism.
At the same time, some reality shows have both emotional texture and broad appeal, transcending the limits of the genre. Duck Dynasty is one and might well be the biggest show of this summer just ending, breaking records for viewership on U.S. cable channels. It's easy to see the appeal – even if the style and the set-ups for scenes of drama and humour are familiar from other reality shows, Duck Dynasty is a hokey sitcom about a wacky family, the Robertsons of West Monroe, La. It's cute without being trite and genuinely sweet-natured. If you haven't watched it, transcend your own negativity about reality TV, try it (Wednesday, 10 p.m. on A&E) and you might find it as appealing as millions of others.
Of course, there are pretenders to the style and texture of Duck Dynasty. God, Guns & Automobiles (starting Thursday, History, 10 p.m.) is one of them, but one you can safely ignore. Set at Max Motors, "the wildest automobile dealership in America," it's about two brothers trying to run the business with clashing styles. The small-town setting in Butler, Mo., is meant to give it texture but becomes tediously overstated.
The two brothers are Mark and Erich. Mark stayed home and ran the dealership in his wacky, country-boy manner. Erich went to the city and had success in talk-radio. It's the city-slicker versus the country-boy and, boy, does it all get contrived. These guys may love being on TV but they are not the Robertsons of West Monroe, La.
Meanwhile, one of the best reality shows, What Not to Wear (Fridays, TLC, 10 p.m.), is in its final season. After 10 years, hosts Stacy London and Clinton Kelly are going to quit advising ordinary people on how to dress themselves.
I'll miss it because it's about helping people figure out their own body size and shape and coaxing them into finding and wearing clothes that actually fit. Many participants have come through a big challenge in their life – illness, divorce, death of a parent – and are genuinely in need of help, not just to shine, but to be comfortable in their own body. Nobody is told to lose weight or get plastic surgery. It's just about being at ease with yourself and the world.
Also, it's a communal thing. While there is a certain amount of cattiness when Stacy and Clinton first assess a participant, the person being assessed is only there because family, friends and colleagues have nominated them in hopes of helping them out. The reveal at the end of an episode, when the participant returns to those friends, family and colleagues, is genuine feel-good TV.
And there is an educational element. Stacy and Clinton explain how to chose clothes best suited for the nominee's age, body shape and profession. Everybody can learn from that. Nobody on this show is aiming to be a model or a TV star, so it's about healthy self-image, not excessive transformations.
In many ways it accomplishes the same aim as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which also debuted in 2003 but only lasted a few seasons. That show launched a group of stylish gay men into a hopeless straight man's life, and had them educate him in grooming, style, interior design and culture. What was truly striking was how grateful the straight guy was for the advice and help.
And the lesson, in the end, is that there are some reality shows we can be grateful for, and many others to avoid.